A Crew Cut Can’t Fix Hollywood’s White-Hero Problem
I’m an actor, but cutting my hair trying to look like a White hero isn’t for me
My grandma used to say, “Tu eres el mejor actor en todo el mundo.”
I’m an actor. I’m also Dominican, which means I guess I’ve been lucky to play bag boys, drug dealers, immigrants, line cooks, criminals, and migrants. “The best in the world” is a big statement, but sure: Watch out, Denzel. My grandma didn’t know the rules and walls I would face, and I didn’t either; I simply took in her sweet encouragement and followed my dreams.
But even before I landed in Hollywood from my New York City upbringing, I knew the unwritten rule: First and foremost, I was supposed to blend in. I couldn’t be too edgy or too soft. I needed to have thick skin but not too thick. I could only be me if I could embody the identity Hollywood execs would picture when they met me. It’s tough. I had to be the best and stand out while blending in. Every silent message I received made me feel like this was for my own good.
I got tired of my agents telling me to calm my curls, and after much consideration and debate with my management (and in my mind), I decided to chop it all off.
When I graduated acting school at the prestigious (and mostly White) California Institute of the Arts in 2011, I had a long thick ‘fro I pulled into a Samurai man-bun. But I got tired of my agents telling me to calm my curls, and after much consideration and debate with my management (and in my mind), I decided to chop it all off in favor of a crew cut — something classic and racially unidentifiable.
I know that this crew cut, this life of blending, was an empty step toward the hero roles on TV played by the White boys who don’t look like me. Their hair doesn’t curl the same way. I dream of telling the stories they’re free to tell, to have the opportunity to share them. I haven’t earned the right to be this ethnic yet, I thought to myself. It was the first time I felt that my job as a man of color wasn’t to stand out but to fit in.
I wish I could tell you that the people in my circle fought back, fought for my curls, but they did not. They understood the choice I made as if it were obvious I should have made it sooner.
Sitting in that barber’s chair in 2011, I thought I had to fill the slots Hollywood needed me to fill, the roles they wanted me to play. That is what people of color have been forced to do for centuries, right? We change and manipulate ourselves — our faces, our skin, our tongues — to appear more Eurocentric. When I cut my hair, I just did what many Brown people have done before me: fell into line.
“I can fit into your boxes,” my new crew cut said.
Years later, though, I finally built up enough courage to ask myself if I want to kick it on fake stoops in fake cities on artificial landscapes with a bunch of Brown people with crew cuts. Will I get everything I ever wanted only to realize it’s a nightmare to be seen by eyes that don’t really see me?
We’re bred to find our group, to fit in, to survive. In jungles, you find your pack. In prison, you find the ones who will protect you. In Hollywood, if you look as ethnically ambiguous as me and you want to play the game, you have to know the rules and play the part. That means code-switching, staying out of the sun, and keeping your thick curls at bay. What we say, when we say it, how we say it, how we look — it’s all part of survival. I’ve been doing it since I was a kid. My father did it; my mother did it. We speak in different tongues to be accepted by different people. I remember coming back from a vacation in Mexico when I was a child, dark as I’d ever been, full melanin shining. And when I got to school, everyone let me know it. Everyone! I remember praying for the tan to go away so I could be “normal” again.
Survival. It’s bleak sometimes.
What sucks is that I don’t know what’s next for my career. Maybe acknowledging that is the first step. I don’t have the answers, but I’m ready to have conversations about how deep the roots of colorism and beauty standards and self-hate go hand in hand, how we live in a society that devalues magical beautiful melanin. How Hollywood doesn’t need to invite me to their table but rather destroy that table and have the courage to build a new one altogether.
For every reader who understands me, I know others wish I would just shut up about race. Some are fine with the smoke screen of Hollywood never lifting. For people like me, though — and there are a lot of us — watered-down Hollywood versions of people of color do far more than undermine our self-esteem; they engender self-hate. We can’t identify with the roles we’re offered to play, and so our hearts don’t ache along with the characters because who cares? Simultaneously, our hearts break, over and over again.
I want to care. I want to not just survive but to thrive.