Donald Sterling And Our Problem Of Acceptable Blackness


There’s still a lot to unpack in the Donald Sterling audio; it’s an amazing accomplishment of racism, sexism, and emotional manipulation. Regardless of how or why someone recorded this conversation or why they leaked it, one must note Sterling’s insistence that his personal assistant V. Stiviano keep her associations with African Americans out of the public eye.

That this comes from Sterling, who owns an NBA team with a predominately African American roster and who employs an African American coach, is ironic in its own way. But the idea that only a certain amount of blackness should be public is not a new concept and is often played out in sports, film, television, and music industries.

In 2005, the NBA adopted a stricter dress code for players, in an effort to make teams more professional in their public presentations. For example, players could no
longer wear chains or medallions over their clothes, a style considered popularized
by hip-hop and aspects of Black American culture. It’s okay that most of the
players are African American, but their displays of culture, such as through certain
styles of dress, are not allowed.

Each team is a professional organization, and just as typical office workers are expected to dress in business casual attire, perhaps it does make sense that professional athletes must adhere to a dress code as well. However, Sterling’s admonitions against public associations with black people bring to mind sports analyst Bryant Gumbel’s controversial thoughts about then-NBA Commissioner David Stern and his approach to the dress code. Basketball players began to show too much personality, too much culture, too much blackness and had to be given the threat of penalties in order to reel their freedom of expression back.

Hollywood has a long history of whitewashing many characters of color in an effort to make certain movies more marketable, from Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra and Natalie Wood in West Side Story to Ben Affleck in Argo and Benedict Cumberbatch in Star Trek: Into Darkness. And sometimes brown or dark-skinned comic and cartoon characters like Storm from X-Men or Shana from the ’80s cartoon show Jem and the Holograms are brought to life on screen via fair-skinned actresses like Halle Berry and Aurora Perrineau respectively.

Colorism, or discrimination based on skin tone within a community of color, is a tricky subject because it can quickly derail into a discussion about who is “enough” or how people should identify their racial and ethnic background. However, when black characters who are dark-skinned are replaced with fair-skinned characters, it dismisses the importance of seeing dark skin represented in mainstream media and plays into the idea that audiences don’t want to see someone who might be “too black.” Even the history of still and video photography teaches that dark skin is unworthy of being seen. Substituting fair skin for dark reinforces that antiquated notion that only the fair are beautiful, worthy, or acceptable.

When Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o won People Magazine’s 2014 Most Beautiful Award, there was pushback because people didn’t understand how a dark-skinned African woman could be considered most beautiful. Since the magazine began publishing its yearly list of the most beautiful in 1990, only 3 other women of color have received the title: Halle Berry (2003); Jennifer Lopez (2011); and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter (2012), all fair-skinned.

Nyong’o being listed as most beautiful is significant because her physical characteristics fly in the face of traditional mainstream beauty. She is African, dark, with close-cropped kinky hair. Nyong’o said that she “was happy for all the girls who would see me on [the cover of People] and feel a little more seen.” With this sentence, she graciously reminds her audience that there are still underrepresented groups of people who deserve to see someone who looks like them lifted in praised. When Hollywood whitewashes characters or replaces darker-skinned characters with fair-skinned actors, it does a disservice to those who need to be seen.

White musicians and singers have been idolizing and copying various styles of black music and performance since the days of minstrelsy and blackface. During the 1920s, jazz, typically credited to African American musicians, exploded across America after white performers became the acceptable faces for the music. The tradition continues into current pop music and hip hop, including the culture of dress and dance styles. Singers like Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke make no secret about the fact that their primary musical influences are black artists. Under the guise of “blue-eyed soul,” they make black music palatable to the white middle class—the style of music and dance is fine to enjoy as long as the originating black artists aren’t seen or play background roles like producer.

Miley Cyrus’ attempts at twerking are finally a fading memory, but she took a term and its form of dance that had been around for at least 20 years in black Southern communities and sterilized (that is, removed the blackness from it) it for middle America. Something similar happened with the dance called The Nae Nae, a routine that had been around for several months before Mercer University guard Kevin Canevari performed it in celebration in the NCAA tournament. When dances are removed from the context of their originating black environments, by white performers, it gives the dances a mainstream acceptance previously unavailable.

In the recording heard ’round the world, Donald Sterling whines that V.
Stiviano is supposed to be a “delicate white or a delicate Latina girl.” Stiviano
identifies as black and Mexican. Sterling is focused on the outer appearance of
his assistant — who is not his girlfriend, her attorney says — and becomes concerned when she posts pictures of herself with black men on her Instagram account and that she brings black men to the Los Angeles Clippers. Sterling even goes so far as to suggest Stiviano can have sex with Earvin “Magic” Johnson in private but he draws the line at her bringing Johnson to the games. Here is a man who doesn’t mind Stiviano having sex with an HIV-positive man, as long as she never associates with him publicly. Sterling wants Stiviano to remove any outward appearances of blackness, from her genetic heritage to her personal associations.

Yes, Donald Sterling has troubling racist views, whether he wants to use the term
“racist” to describe them or not. Unfortunately, he isn’t alone in many of his
views, as seen in sports, film, and music. Too much blackness is unacceptable. Its
appearance must be softened with dress codes, fair skin, or from the mouths and
bodies of non-black performers. It’s important to note this kind of cultural
appropriation and recognize that it is a form of racism. When one prefers to
see white girls at Coachella wearing Native American headdresses but prevents a Native American student from wearing a feather at his high school graduation, that is a form of racism and should not be tolerated.

Donald Sterling may not have lynched anyone, but he had a reportedly very close relationship a black and Mexican woman then forbade her from being seen in public with African Americans. He purposefully prevented African Americans and Latinos from receiving housing opportunities. His racist hypocrisy is equally intolerable.

Nichole Perkins is a freelance writer, based in her hometown of Nashville, Tennessee.