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TV Tonight: Black (or Not) Like She

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Yesterday I used the Bobby-Jindal-is-Kenneth-the-page meme to go on a tangent about actors playing outside their ethnicity, in particular on shows like Saturday Night Live. “It’s not generally white European Americans who get substituted for,” I wrote, “though there had to have been good black George W. Bushes out there.” 


Tonight, HBO airs The Black List, vol. 2, the followup to its documentary of interviews with prominent African Americans, and in it, Maya Rudolph talks about being the exception to that rule, being a mixed-race actress who played black and white characters (and Asian and Latina besides).

But is she the exception? Is she black? “I don’t feel black. I don’t feel white,” she says. “They give you one circle to fill in. Are you black, are you white, are you Asian or are you other. For a while I used to circle ‘Other’ begrudgingly.” For someone of her background, Rudolph says, playing the various roles she has on SNL inevitably brings up the baggage of passing. But, she says, from her perspective, “I’m black and I’m Jewish. I’m all of those things. None of them are dominant.”

Some people would agree that Rudolph is all those things. Some would counter that, in America, she is black if she is even partly black. That only underscores her point—that race is as much as anything a construct of what “some people” say; it is the checklist that others insist that you complete. “Looking back on all the things I’ve played on Saturday Night Live,” she says, “I believe I can be anyone.” The eternal question of race is whether that belief even matters—whether it is a matter the individual can decide for herself, or one that will be decided for her. 

I’m not even partly black, at least as far as I can trace my family tree. But I suspect most people have, at some point in their lives, encountered in some way—directly or secondhand—the arbitrariness of ethnic distinctions. My mother is Jewish and my father was Polish American; when I tell people that, they’ll sometimes say, “Oh, you’re Jewish, then.” Because that’s the rule; it’s matrilineal. But even though I identify as Jewish—secular, but Jewish regardless—I always resent this. I’d consider myself Jewish, I believe, regardless which of my parents was in the tribe. Why should it be someone else’s judgment to make? 

Anyway, enough about me. (OK, too much about me.) My point is not that being half-Jewish is equivalent to being half-black. It’s that Rudolph’s interview, and the rest of The Black List, are valuable because they portray “the black experience” by showing that there isn’t any the black experience, any more than there’s a singular Jewish or South Asian or English experience. The film, from Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and Elvis Mitchell, talks to a span of notables from minister T.D. Jakes to Episcopal bishop Barbara Harris to rapper RZA, who talks about starting the Wu Tang Clan inspired by his feeling of solidarity with the story of oppression in the kung fu movie 36th Chamber

As a bonus, Rudolph tells us that her father and her mother (singer Minnie Riperton) wrote Lovin’ You to soothe her when she was a boisterous baby. I’m assuming the lullaby version omits the famous breaking-glass falsetto vocal.