British actress Thandie Newton – full name Thandiwe Ajdewa Newton – recently spoke out about the difficulties she has had professionally being a woman of colour.
“When I first started acting the word from studio heads was: ‘Be black, but don’t be too black,’ which is a dreadful thing to say, but it’s the message I received,” said the actress, whose father is British and whose mother is from the Shona tribe of Zimbabwe, in a recent interview.
Speaking about this expectancy that actresses of colour will not ‘be too black,’ Newton added, “I’ve only stopped straightening my hair in the past five years. I could have busted my own look earlier, but I’ve had conversations with other actresses of colour who agree if you appear on the red carpet with natural hair, it’s a big statement.”
In the past the 41-year-old actress has spoken of the challenges she experienced growing up as a mixed-race child in Cornwall at that time. “The idea of us as a family was challenging to most people,” said Newton.
At school in particular Newton suffered racial isolation and prejudice. She has stated that, “From about the age of five I was aware that I didn’t fit […] I was the black, atheist kid in the all-white Catholic school run by nuns. I was an anomaly … my skin colour wasn’t right, my hair wasn’t right, my history wasn’t right. My self became defined by Otherness.”
Newton also recalled an incident where, “My mum once braided my hair in cornrows to make sure I looked neat, but the nuns at my Catholic school wouldn’t let me have them in for the school photo.”
Newton’s racial isolation was not limited to her time spent in the UK. On trips back to her mother’s native Zimbabwe she reports that she was equally stigmatised because of her apparent otherness leaving her thinking, “'Where am I supposed to be?' I'm too black for England; I'm too white here.” The actress recalled, “On one trip, when I was seven, this Zimbabwean boy said to me, 'Go back to England where you belong. You're white.' I remember having this complete identity crisis.”
Earlier this year Newton confronted another way in which her racial identity continues to create problems for her living in Britain.
In June the actress accused retailer Boots of creating racial segregation within its make-up range, failing to adequately cater to women with darker skin shades. Newton criticised the high street store for only stocking darker shades of foundation for short periods of time but then prematurely taking them of the shelves, leaving women of colour like herself forced to seek out their make-up products elsewhere, in specialist shops.
“There’s this ghettoisation of make-up right now. The right shade is there for everybody but you can only get it at specialised shop,”’ she said. Newton continued, “So you don’t go to Boots. So as a result we are all being physically separated when we go and buy make-up […] We’re starting to think they don’t want us there. And it’s not that, it’s just that six-month time lapse where the shops are waiting to be able to say it’s not selling so let’s stop stocking it. We’ve got to encourage them.”
Newton also criticised the general lack of racial diversity within the stores’ beauty departments. “I’ll go into Boots at Heathrow Airport if I’ve forgotten my make-up bag or something and there isn’t even a picture of a black woman. I hate that,” she said.