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Idris Elba and the Problem with Racial Labels

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What is the key to success? The answer will undoubtedly differ greatly depending on the goals and aspirations of each individual. Given the wide range of viewpoints on the subject, this age-old question continues to be a popular topic for many seminars, courses, and workshops in the modern world; with “experts” promising to reveal the various tips and strategies that lead to success.

A little over a decade ago, the British actor Idris Elba felt inspired to share with fans what he believed to be the secret to success. The Hollywood A-lister, dressed in a slick Black tuxedo, shared a snapshot of himself on social media alongside a succinct six-word caption: “Versatility is the key to success.”

Indeed, the world has witnessed the Hackney-born star immersing himself in a range of on-screen characters, demonstrating his adaptability, and solidifying his status as one of Britain’s best performers. Moreover, it seems that he has a fundamentally versatile nature that extends beyond the world of acting. The award-winning actor has also worked as a writer, producer, musician, DJ, and fashion designer, making him one of the few artists in the world with such a wide body of work in their creative portfolio.

The 2018 “sexiest man alive” winner is also well known for having an unabashed passion for his cultural background and history. He was granted citizenship and named a national brand ambassador during his first visit to Sierra Leone, the nation of his father’s birth. He referred to this as “the biggest honour I could get from my country.” During a more recent trip to Ghana, the country of his mother’s birth, he discussed plans with President Nana Akufo-Addo to construct a multi-million-dollar film studio in the hopes of luring filmmakers to the continent. According to photos posted on social media by the professional model and his wife, Sabrina, “The African King” took advantage of the opportunity to attend a revered Ghanaian festival, and he made sure to dress in the traditional clothing of hand-woven Kente.

So, there should be no doubt that the 50-year-old icon is proud of his identity as a Black man. Still, it’s difficult to forget comments made by Miranda Wayland that his character on the hit crime drama series, Luther, wasn’t “Black enough” – an odd observation given that he was cast to play the part of a dedicated, intelligent, and frequently self-destructive detective and not merely a Black man. Once more, this calls into question what constitutes the most accurate representation of a Black individual and, more broadly, Black culture. The BBC head of diversity felt the lack of authenticity stemmed from the fact that the titular detective chief did not eat Caribbean food or have Black friends.

While I do enjoy a hearty plate of jerk chicken and rice with a refreshing glass of fruity rum punch, this surely cannot be the barometer by which my authenticity as a Black woman is measured. Numerous apostles for racial social justice frequently encourage their audiences to proudly declare and embrace their racial identity (unless that identity is “White,” of course). Terms like “unapologetically Black” or “Black and proud” are well-received and encouraged. Yet it is ironic that the same labels that are supposed to symbolise liberation and dignity are often used by these same activists to confine a person and trivialise the complexities that make them who they are. Such inclusionists frequently accuse others of making sloppy assumptions and stereotyping members of their group or other “marginalised populations”, but they readily indulge in these very same stereotypes when attempting to critique the lack of diversity in certain spaces.

Perhaps the diversity chief’s comments from over 18 months ago have stayed with the Luther star, though the fact that he has at least three films coming out in the next two years in addition to other projects makes that highly unlikely. In any case, he recently stated that he no longer refers to himself as “a Black actor” because it has become a constrictive label on his career. He recently told Esquire UK that “as humans, we are obsessed with race, and that obsession can really hinder people’s aspirations, hinder people’s growth.” 

He follows in the footsteps of celebrities like Morgan Freeman, whose 60 Minutes interview with Mike Wallace is a perennial favourite and frequently recirculates on social media during Black History Month in the US. The Shawshank Redemption actor stressed the significance of avoiding racial labels in our interactions with one another. While Elba only objected to the term “Black actor,” Freeman went so far as to request that he not be referred to as a “Black man.”

These two prominent actors are not trying to appease “Whiteness” or denounce “Blackness” by making such statements, and neither of them is ashamed of who they are or their cultural history. They simply want to embody the ideals of the early civil rights activists, who believed that people should be judged on their character, talents, and potential rather than their skin tone. It’s unfortunate that many people intentionally misrepresent calls for “colour blindness” and mischaracterise the proponents of such calls in order to satisfy and advance their own personal narratives. However, if we truly want to free ourselves and society from the pervasiveness of racism, the reality is that we must collectively decide to stop fixating on race and racialising every aspect of our lives.


Image credit: GabboT

Ada Akpala is the founder of Different Voice Initiative. It is a space for learning to help people navigate in this world of uncertainty and disorder.


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