The Simpsons has announced that non-white characters will no longer be voiced by other than non-white actors. This is perverse for a number of reasons but the most important of them is that it reintroduces the very one drop discrimination that was at the heart of slavery itself in the American incarnation.
Recall how slavery worked in the US – other manifestations of chattel slavery often enough worked differently – which was the division into those who could be enslaved and those who could not. Someone defined as “white” could not legally be a slave. Someone defined as “black” could be enslaved although there’s an emphasis on that “could” there for there were free blacks and also blacks who themselves owned black slaves.
This of course then opens up that problem of the definition of “black”. What is the definition of that to be used in determining whether someone could be a slave or not? The answer was “one drop”. If there was black ancestry in that bloodline then slavery was possible. Again, not certain, but possible.
So, as happened, female house slaves might have children by – we could say were raped by and that would certainly happen, we might say a little more voluntarily as also happened (say, Sally Hemmings), but there’s also a case that the power relation there makes that rape too – the white master or some other male member of the owning family and those children would also be slaves. Repeat in the next generation and the next – as also is known to have happened – and we end up with quadroons and octoroons. Who by that point were one eighth black in the sense of West African descent but were, all agreed, sufficiently black to be still enslaved.
We don’t have to agree with what people thought and agreed upon back then but it is worth noting what they did.
At which point we get this:
The Simpsons is ending the use of white actors to voice characters of colour, the show’s producers have said.
“Moving forward, ‘The Simpsons’ will no longer have white actors voice non-white characters,” they said in a statement on Friday.
The statement did not elaborate, but the move follows years of public pressure about the Fox television show’s Indian convenience store character Apu, who has been voiced by Hank Azaria.
Azaria said earlier this year that he would no longer play the character, which has been criticised as a negative portrayal of Indian-Americans.
Azaria has also voiced the Simpsons characters of Black police officer Lou and the Mexican-American Bumblebee Man. The white actor Harry Shearer has played Dr Hibbert, who is Black.
We are back to our problem of having to define who is black and who is white. And, presumably, who is sub-continental Indian (which is going to lead to ever smaller ratholes to squeeze down. Hindu, Moslem? Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi or Indian? Is Gujerati the same as Tamil? It’s most certainly not in India itself. Etc, etc) or Mexican and so on.
Take someone who is not a voice actor, India Knight. She is, as her column last week said, half Pakistani, half Belgian. Except for the bit about not being a voice actor, and, err, female, is she sufficiently sub-continental to play Apu? Or not? And why? What about her children who, I think, are a quarter each of those and half British (whatever the heck that genetic melange might be).
Keanu Reeves is enough, or isn’t enough, of whatever to play English, Irish, Filippino, Chinese, Native Hawaiian and Portuguese? As well as, perhaps American and Canadian? Chris Rock might play an Udeme character only or all and anyone with an enhanced melanin joyousness?
What are the answers settled upon here aren’t the point. For just as back then with chattels it’s entirely possible to design a definition that people will work to. What is the point is that by insisting upon the definition we’ve got to actually have a definition. Who is black, who is white, why, for we’re insisting that only blacks may do some things and whites may not. Thus we must be able to define who is black and who is white. The current fashion for anyone who self-identifies as doesn’t really work as Rachael Dolzeal tells us.
By forcing the distinction we are, of course, forcing a distinction by race, which, when we think about it, is actually right there in the dictionary as the definition of racism. Which doesn’t sound like quite the way to build a modern society.