Do you remember where you were or what you were doing when you first learned that milk was racist? What about when you read that the air, maths, and even the 2017 solar eclipse were somehow problematic for members of “marginalised communities”?
Surely, reading these things caused you to roll your eyes, scoff, or even laugh out loud. The ever-expanding list of “things considered racist” has resulted in the cheapening of a word that once had and still has some serious implications, to the point where it appears that anyone and everyone is a racist simply by virtue of being alive (including babies). Racism, which used to be about prejudice based on racial classification, now appears to be slathered on everything like ketchup (which couldn’t even escape being involved in a racism row).
But what happens when we call everything racist? For starters, no one believes it when it occurs, or it is simply dismissed or ignored. But the opposite is also common. Anxiety is generated when a person becomes hyperaware of racism or assumes that it is present in every interaction, which frequently leads to them incorrectly labelling situations or other people as racist. The paranoia that results from this way of thinking is preventing an increasing number of people from enjoying their relationships, surroundings, and the things they enjoy.
Perhaps it’s time to be careful that this doesn’t happen with the word woke (if it hasn’t already). Many people mock and criticise “the left” for labelling everything racist, but perhaps many “contrarians” have gone too far the other way. Branding as “woke” anything new or different, or anything that they disagree with or simply don’t like.
One of my friends told me about a conversation she had with close coworkers about movies. She said that when the conversation turned to black actors playing “White roles,” things got awkward. We’ve recently seen a heavy backlash against the latest Netflix docuseries, Queen Cleopatra, which examines the life of the legendary Egyptian leader. The decision to portray Cleopatra as Black has been criticised as “historical revisionism” and “blackwashing“ by some, others have expressed their displeasure in response to the recently released trailer. Critics have questioned why a historical figure was misrepresented in a documentary that was intended to be educational.
Historians have speculated that it may be impossible to determine the Queen’s likeness with certainty due to the “lack of conformity in the ancient portraiture“ and the largely anachronistic nature of the surviving depictions of her. This may explain why Hollywood typically casts a conventionally beautiful actress to portray Cleopatra, despite evidence that she was not necessarily aesthetically attractive (by either ancient or modern standards). The source of Cleopatra’s beauty was said to be her “intellectual capacities, strategic talent, and formidable wealth.”
Regarding the controversies surrounding her ethnicity, some researchers have suggested that Cleopatra’s grandmother may not have been from the traditional Macedonian Greek stem and that it is difficult to determine exactly what she was. The fact that the mother of Cleopatra has never had her ethnic background fully established complicates the conversation even further.
The question of Queen Cleopatra’s ethnicity is certainly not as contentious as the shade of her skin. Sadly, it is often forgotten that your ethnicity and skin tone are not always related; this was true in the past and is still true today. Although she was of Macedonian descent, some have pointed out that, like the rest of the Hellenic world, the region was not exclusively “White”, suggesting that “her European descent did not preclude blackness“.
However, it is highly improbable that the last Ptolemaic dynasty ruler had skin as dark as depicted in the Jada Pinkett Smith-directed documentary series, and it is also uncertain whether she had skin as light as is typically shown in historical texts and reenactments.
I think it is a tiresome debate, and I’m less concerned with settling the question of whether the Egyptian queen was “White” or “Black” than I am with adding nuance to the conversation. It is simply fascinating that the focus on this significant historical figure with greater accomplishments than her skin pigmentation remains misdirected.
Furthermore, historical figures have frequently been misrepresented in TV and film over the years. For example, the 1956 film The Conqueror starred John Wayne, a white American, as Genghis Khan, who was Mongolian. It was arguably a fictionalised account of the emperor’s life and conquests as opposed to a non-fictional production intended to document historical reality, but it was still based on a real character.
The debate over Cleopatra’s race doesn’t seem like it will end anytime soon. But, while people argue about whether the legendary monarch was white because she was a Macedonian descended from Ptolemy I, or an “African Queen,” I’m inclined to agree with best-selling author Avanti Centrae, who stated, “Focusing on her looks or race is a smokescreen. Cleopatra was a powerful woman… who was a strong, intelligent woman and respected ruler.”
We often overlook the fact that the concepts and connotations we associate with race are relatively new, and attempting to apply modern binary definitions of “Whiteness” and “Blackness” to such historical eras is really counterproductive and, at times, inappropriate.
Aside from this, we’ve also seen strong opposition to some other film productions in which the main characters are played by people of the “wrong race.” Motion pictures like The Little Mermaid, Peter Pan, and the 2021 TV miniseries Anne Boleyn have been accused of alienating their audiences through woke pandering. However, “race bending” is not a new phenomenon, and many of the iconic films we know and love today were played by actors and actresses who did not exactly match the racial description of the character they were portraying.
The hyper-political climate, combined with raging culture wars and identity politics, has made some of us uneasy to the point where we watch every new show with scepticism, wondering what “they are trying to push on us now.”
However, not all movie adaptations that feature characters portrayed by people of a different ethnicity or gender should be dismissed as “woke nonsense.” This is even more true if the racial background of the character does not affect (or should not affect) the overall outcome of the production. When the African actress Noma Dumezweni was criticised for playing Hermoine Granger in the stage play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, J.K. Rowling clarified that Hermoine’s white skin was never a requirement for the character but rather her intelligence and wit. So, unless Dumezweni was unable to convincingly play a bright character, there should be no reason to object to her inclusion in the theatrical works.
Just like progressives have abused the word “racism,” applied it to almost everything they don’t seem to like, and now produce circular definitions when asked to define it, it seems like some conservatives are falling into the same trap, overusing the word “woke” to the point where they also stumble when asked to define it.
Nowadays, it appears that most people are simply reacting to an overarching ideology rather than a specific situation or idea. For example, those who objected to the British actress Lashana Lynch playing a secret agent in the James Bond series might have been less outraged if they had realised that she was neither the first black female to appear in the franchise nor was she intended to be a direct stand-in for Bond.
Many of us rightly make the claim that we all belong to “one human race”, usually in response to people who engage in race politics or who use divisive language to spread harmful rhetoric. If it is always the case that people should be judged on their content rather than the colour of their skin, as most of us with good reason believe, then perhaps it should not be such a big deal if a person with more melanin in her skin is cast to play the role of an Egyptian Queen or even an imaginary fairy.
We are not obligated to consume any material we don’t agree with, and if there are parents concerned that such things are “being pushed on their kids”, then they can simply introduce their children to other content that they feel more comfortable with.
In any case, if we don’t enjoy a movie, let it be for other reasons, such as lousy acting, poor cinematography, a weak plot, or anything else; let it not be because we have a problem with the racial identity of the person who was chosen for a certain role.
The constant labelling of things as “woke” is becoming as tedious as the constant labelling of things as “racist”.
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.