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We Need To Educate Ourselves On Race vs. Ethnicity (And Other Things I Learned From The Ongoing Zoe Saldana/Nina Simone Conversation)

Shadow and Act By Emmanuel Akitobi | Shadow and Act August 16, 2012 at 10:17PM

The widespread public reaction to this week's news that actress Zoe Saldana has replaced singer Mary J. Blige in the planned Nina Simone biopic has been very interesting-- if not troubling.

The widespread public reaction to this week's news that actress Zoe Saldana has replaced singer Mary J. Blige in the planned Nina Simone biopic has been very interesting-- if not troubling.

The reaction was swift, blunt, and, seemingly, most critical among black readers who left passionate comments all over the blogosphere.  Simone's own daughter should be commended for her measured approach in responding to the controversy.

This week I learned a lot about some of the readers of S&A, and other blogs with content geared to readers throughout the African diaspora.  And some of what I learned, I didn't like too much.

What started off as a fair display of disapproval for a film's casting, quickly dissolved into a barrage of hateful and hurtful comments, directed at the subject of the film and the star, at the time only rumored to be attached.

There was talk about who should have been cast instead of Saldana; there was debate about whether Saldana was too pretty to play Simone, who some foolhardily labeled as unattractive.

Inevitably, and perhaps with good reason, there was concern that the role of music legend Simone was to be played by an actress of a hue different than her own.  At this point in the conversation, They still had me.  I was still listening, and still learning how people were feeling about the issue.

"She's too light-skinned to be taken seriously as Nina Simone," declared many who objected to the casting. 

"And besides-- she's a Latina.  She's stealing jobs from real black actresses."

And that's where they lost me.

I can maybe understand some of the concern expressed; most especially from those who have only identified Saldana as Latina and believe that to be the sole way she self-identifies.  But for those who have viewed or read interviews wherein Saldana has self-identified as both black and Latina, I'm having difficulty understanding the lingering confusion and suspicion.

I think we've had this conversation on S&A several times before (the earliest instance I could recall was back in 2009 with Ms. WOO), so I won't take you on a long trip down memory lane this time.

Race and ethnicity-- it's understandable that some may mistake one for the other.  But we all need to have a better understanding of the difference between race and ethnicity, and how it's absolutley possible (and normal) for Saldana to be both a black woman and a Latina.  Also, we need to understand why her ethnicity should not be the determining factor in arguing against Saldana being cast in the planned Nina Simone biopic. 

First things first, let's get some definitions . . .


The word "ethnic" refers to a member of a minority group who retains the customs, language, or social views of the group.  In Saldana's case, she has self-identified culturally as a Spanish-speaking Latina, from the region of the Americas known as Latin America.  (Not everyone in Latin America speaks Spanish, by the way.)  Her ethnicity is Latina.


The word "race"is defined as a category of humankind that shares certain distinctive physical traits.  In most regions of the world, this would apply to skin color, hair texture, and facial features.  Saldana's race is black.  If you think hard enough about it, I'm sure you would be able to name a few people, who you consider black, who look just like her.

And I say all of that, to say this:  It's perfectly understandable for there to be some opposition to the casting of Zoe Saldana in the role of Nina Simone, but not because she's Latina.  I think the belief that Saldana is stealing jobs from "real" black actresses is an ignorant one; but one that can be easily remedied with a little bit of education.

So there you have it.  Zoe Saldana-- a self-identifying black Latina actress.  And she's not the only one, either.

Let's revisit the below short clip from which discusses the realities of being black and Latino, from the perspective of various actors, musicians, and artists in this country who have also struggled with the perception that one must be one or the other.

This article is related to: Zoe Saldana

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