The creativity of author, designer, broadcaster Ben Arogundade

Celebrity Ancestry: Vanessa L Williams’ Heritage: Is She Black, White, Biracial? 50,000 Google Her Ethnicity, Nationality, Parents Race & Family Background

IS SHE BLACK, WHITE, MIXED, OTHER? Actress and singer Vanessa L Williams’s ethnicity and heritage seem hard to place for many, who turn to Google for details about her ancestry and parents racial background. To them she may not look black, but today's definition is no longer defined just by looks. By Ben Arogundade. Mar.04.2021.

Actress Vanessa L Williams

ETHNICITY BLURRED: Film and music celebrity Vanessa L. Williams, star of 'Ugly Betty' and 'Desperate Housewives', self-identifies as African American, in line with the country's old ruling governing citizens of African ancestry. Many of the star's fans are curious about her ethnicity and nationality. Thousands Google queries about her blue eyes, and whether or not she is black, white or biracial.

SHE WAS BORN WITH LIGHT skin, straight hair and blue eyes, leading many to wonder how film and music celebrity Vanessa Lynn Williams could be referred to as “black”. The answer says much about the complexities of race in modern America. The star of TV shows Ugly Betty and Desperate Housewives was born in Millwood, New York, on March 18, 1963. Her parents are ex-high school music teachers Helen and Milton Williams, who are both of African and European heritage.


Despite the film and music star's diverse heritage and ethnicity, Williams (like fellow celebrity Mariah Carey, whose father is black) self-identifies as African American. Many fans of the star who are unfamiliar with American racial politics, wonder how this can be, when she appears to look white. The answer lies within America’s slave past, and more recently, its so-called “one-drop rule” — a series of laws dating back to the early twentieth century, that classified as legally “black”, any individual with as little as “one drop” of “black blood” — regardless of any white ancestry. The legislation was designed as a means of constraining all children of biracial unions to a lower socio-economic status within post-slavery society.

Although the last of these laws were repealed in the late 1960s, their original classifications remain in play. People of mixed or biracial heritage are often still considered “black”, or more accurately, “African American”, both in terms of the way they are perceived (and often discriminated against) within society generally, and also in terms of being identified as such by other people of colour.


Vanessa Williams’s ethnicity and race heritage became an issue on September 17, 1983 when, as a 20-year-old college student, she made history in becoming the first African American to win the prestigious Miss America pageant. But her reign was cut short after a set of nude pictures of her were published in Penthouse magazine, forcing her to resign. But this was not the only controversy that surrounded the young student. Her light skin and blue eyes incurred the disdain of sections of the African American community, who argued that, aesthetically, she was not “black” enough. “Until you get a Miss America with Negro features, I don’t think you can say colour was irrelevant to her selection,” said Dr Alvin Poussaint, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, shortly after Williams’s historic victory.

“A lot of people thought I wasn’t representative of a true African American since I didn’t have dark eyes and dark hair, and wasn’t brown-skinned,” Williams recalled. “So there was a division. It was hurtful to me initially, because this is the way I was born. These are the eyes I was given and this is the hair colour I was given. I don’t enhance it.”


But at the same time, especially in her earlier life, and despite her blue eyes and light skin, there were times when Williams experienced the same racism endured by many darker-skinned, brown-eyed African American women. During an interview with CNN the actress and singer recalled being called a “nigger” as a child growing up in Westchester, New York. Paradoxically, while sections of the African American community questioned her blackness, wider society it seemed, was in no doubt.


Today, questions about Vanessa Williams's ethnicity are still prevalent amongst her new generation of fans. Internet search statistics now provide useful insights into the questions people ask about the nationality, heritage and ethnicity of today's superstars. In Williams's case, approximately 1,000 curious Internet users from around the world type the phrase “Vanessa Williams ethnicity” into their browsers every month. Another 300 per month ask, “Is Vanessa Williams black?” Queries about Williams’s ethnic background and heritage add up to approximately 50,000 annual searches. They reveal the complexity and ambiguity that still resonates within the aesthetics of race in America.


But today there is a new autonomy, as people of African heritage across Europe and America are self-determining, as opposed to conforming to society's ethnic and racial labels. This is partly being driven by ancestry DNA testing, which is challenging traditional notions about identity. Young people are increasingly visualising a world in which a person of African heritage, with European features, can call themselves black, white, mixed race, or indeed not have a label at all, and that they will not be ostracised for their bespoke choices.

Ben Arogundade bio photo


Hi there. I am a London-based author, journalist and broadcaster. Vanessa Williams features in my illustrated book, ‘Black Beauty’, released in 2000 (now sold out). Discover more about me and my work at Ben Arogundade bio.

Vanessa Williams and her parents of mixed heritage
Vanessa Williams on cover of People magazine as Miss America

FAMILY PORTRAIT: Actress and recording artist Vanessa Williams’s family possess a diverse ancestry - a combination of African and European heritage that straddles nine different nationalities. Young Vanessa is pictured with her brother Chris, centre, and parents Milton and Helen. BLACK BEAUTY QUEEN: Blue-eyed African American Vanessa Williams appears on the cover of the August 6, 1984 edition of 'People', after becoming the first black Miss America. She was subsequently stripped of her title.



The number of people worldwide who Google the phrase, “Vanessa Williams race”, each month.


The number of people worldwide who Google the terms, “Vanessa Williams’s ethnicity, nationality, parents race background & heritage”, each month.

*All figures for “Vanessa L Williams’s Ethnicity, Nationality, Parents Race - According to Google Search”, supplied by Google. Stats include global totals for laptop and desktop computers and mobile devices.


More About Celebrities & Ancestry


Who is the actress whose eye colour is Googled more times than any other living celebrity?

What do 30,000 fans want to know about Beyoncé’s eyes?









Press Office

Retail Orders

© Arogundade, London Town 2023: Registered Office: 85 Great Portland Street, First Floor, London W1W 7LT

This website uses cookies to show you personalised content and advertisements, and to improve your experience of our website.

Please see our privacy policy for details.


Accept & close