White-Passing Actors: How Two Classic Actors Faced Similar Dilemmas
It’s no secret that Hollywood is a white-dominated industry. In January of 2015, activist April Reign coined the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite to call out the Oscars’ lack of diversity. You’d think that after having this issue brought to light, the industry would work toward making diversity in front of the screen more closely emulate what we see in society, but alas, over half a decade later, this hashtag is still relevant.
I guess it makes sense–the higher-ups in Hollywood have historically been white men, who have traditionally hired other white people. So, when a multi-racial or ethnic person wants to make a career in Hollywood, they may feel the need to minimize or downplay their ethnic sides, especially if they are white-passing.
White-passing is when a person of color belonging to a marginalized community appears white, allowing them access to certain aspects of white privilege. For actors, the practice of hiding one’s ethnicity in order to appeal to a broader audience is not a new one. One female actor who has done this is Merle Oberon.
Merle Oberon: The beauty with a secret
Merle Oberon was a biracial actor who started her career in Britain in 1933, where she told everyone that she was born to British parents in Tasmania, Australia. In actuality, she was born in Mumbai to an Anglo father and an Indian mother. To have her mother by her side, Merle passed her off as a servant.
In 1935, Merle made her way to Los Angeles where she continued the facade. However, Merle lived in constant fear that people would discover her secret, which would destroy her career. She never ended up publicly revealing her background while she was alive, even though it was more of an open secret in certain circles. It wasn’t until years after her death, that the secret of her background was made public.
Fredi Washington: Proud African-American and Outspoken Advocate for Black Performers
Fredi Washington was another female actor from around the same period who passed for white. Fredi, who was of European and African-American descent, got her start in entertainment in New York City as a chorus girl in 1921. From there, she became a dancer, which brought her to stages all over the world. By 1929, she got her first movie role, which brought her to Hollywood..
Unlike Merle Oberon, Fredi did not hide her ethnicity. While Fredi was touring, she witnessed the stark difference between the treatment of black people in Europe compared to in America. As a result, she resolved to prove to everyone that black people are just as capable and talented as anyone else. Fredi was so firm in her convictions that when studio heads urged Fredi to identify as white so they could feature her in movies, she steadfastly refused. Fredi felt that to deny her blackness would be to concede that black people were inferior to white people.
Ironically, Fredi’s best known role is as Peola Johnson in Imitation of Life, which was released in 1934. In the movie, she plays a biracial young woman who forsakes her mother to pass for white. Due to Fredi’s racially ambiguous looks, many people assumed that she had lived her life the way Peola had, identifying as white and being anti-black.
However, this could not have been further from the truth. Fredi identified as a proud African-American, and was an outspoken civil rights activist for speaking out about discrimination against black people in America. She also worked closely with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to advocate for black people, and better black representation in the media. In 1937, she also helped co-found the Negro Actors Guild of America (NAG), whose mission included calling out stereotyping and advocating for more opportunities for black performers.
Although Fredi was a critically acclaimed actor, she had trouble getting many roles. At the time, black people’s roles in film and television were relegated to those of servants. Fredi was considered too light-skinned to play these characters. However, because there were production codes against the depiction of interracial relationships, Fredi also couldn’t play the romantic lead opposite any white male actors. Even still, Fredi refused to budge from her principles.
Do White-Passing Actors Have a Responsibility to Speak Up for Their Marginalized Community?
This is a tough question.
We’ve introduced two multi-racial actors to you who had overlapping careers in Hollywood that made wildly different choices regarding their identity. Merle Oberon was active in Hollywood from the 1930s to the 1970s, while Fredi Washington was active from the 1920s to the 1940s. Both actors faced the question of whether to identify as white. Merle ended up bringing her secret to her grave, while Fredi did not hide the fact that she was part African-American.
Fredi’s most well-known film, Imitation of Life, was released in 1934, while Merle arrived in Hollywood in 1935. Did Fredi’s difficulty in getting roles contribute to Merle’s decision to deny her Indian heritage? It’s possible. Fredi turned down multiple lead roles in movies that would have required her to identify as white. Many surmise that Fredi could have been a major movie star had she renounced her ethnic identity. In fact, Fredi even received letters from fans encouraging her to do just that for the opportunities.
Personally, I feel that many people would be understanding if Fredi had made the same decision as Merle. I am grateful and proud of Fredi for sticking up for her beliefs, as her work and efforts have built a strong foundation for latter generations of people of color, both inside and outside the entertainment industry. I can’t imagine that standing her ground on this issue would have been easy. Although I like to think she never wavered in her decision, would you fault her if she did?
With that being said, despite her decision, Merle made contributions to the entertainment industry for people of color. As of this writing, she is the only Asian actress who has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in “The Dark Angel” (1935). If her ethnicity had been known at the time, she may not even have had the chance to be in that movie.
In an ideal world, no person would have to give up their identity and family history for work opportunities or to appease other people. But, we do not live in a perfect world. Yet.