All it takes to spark racial controversy is a slip of the tongue. Just ask the celebrities caught saying the N-word. Racial scandals aren’t always verbal in nature, of course. There are also race-based political controversies, such as the birthers who claim President Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. due to his Kenyan heritage. For years, some famous people denied their racial heritage, passing for white in an age when choosing otherwise would’ve limited their career options. Today, many scandals involving race also concern sex. Learn more with this list of racial controversies related to African Americans and others.
Sally Hemings. Carrie Butler. Mildred Baena. What do these women of color have in common? They all mothered children with powerful white men who exerted authority over them. In the 1700s, Thomas Jefferson owned Sally Hemings, a substantially younger mixed-race slave in his home. Strom Thurmond's family employed Carrie Butler as a housekeeper in the 1920s, and Arnold Schwarzenegger retained Mildred Baena as a domestic for 20 years, beginning in the early 1990s. In short, from the 18th century to the 21st, famous politicans continue to engage in sex with subordinates of color, sparking controversy when these questionable relationships inevitably come to light. What do these sex scandals say about race and gender dynamics in the United States?
Is there a word in the English language as controversial as the N-word? No other slur seems to stir up as much emotion as this racial epithet used to denigrate African Americans for centuries. Accordingly, the celebrities who've used the slur have faced fierce backlash--from Laura Schlessinger to Mel Gibson to Dog the Bounty Hunter. Not every celebrity who's been embroiled in scandal for saying the N-word is white, however. African-American organizations sought to boycott Jennifer Lopez when she used the term in a rap song. Iconic black rappers Jay-Z and Nas sparked controversies over their use of the word also. Oprah Winfrey publicly criticized Jay-Z for using the term in his raps, and Naz was forbidden to name an album after the slur.
Today, celebrities tend to spark controversies because of their sex lives or drug habits. In the early 20th century, however, actors who passed for white lived in fear that scandal would result if the public found out they belonged to ethnic minority groups. That's why Merle Oberon denied being half-Indian throughout her career, even going so far as to have her dark-skinned mother's skin lightened in a portrait. Oberon was far from the only famous person to pass for white. For years Carol Channing kept her black heritage to herself, and Raquel Welch downplayed her Bolivian roots. Who else in the entertainment scene passed? Learn more with this list of actors who distanced themselves from their racial backgrounds to further their careers.
Even before his election to the presidency in November 2008, Barack Obama has been the focus of one scandal after another. Many of these controversies are contrived and have more to do with his racial origins than with reality. Take, for example, the birthers' claim that President Obama isn't fit to run the country because he was born outside of the U.S. There's no evidence to support this, as Obama has produced legal documents proving that his birthplace is Hawaii. Because Obama was born to a black Kenyan father and a white Kansan mother, his opponents have created a series of racially-tinged controversies related to his mixed heritage. If it's not that the president wasn't really born in the U.S., it's that he's secretly a Muslim.
Coming out as gay or lesbian shouldn't in and of itself be a controversial decision. Due to the pervasive homophobia that still exits in the United States, celebrities of all colors hesitate to be open about their sexual orientation. They fear alienating members of their fan base or being shut out of career opportunities. Famous gay minorities, such as CNN anchor Don Lemon, say the decision to come out is even more controversial for celebrities of color. In recent years, more and more people in the spotlight of African-American, Asian-American and Latino heritage are acknowledging their sexuality. As more minority celebrities come out, the less likely such admissions will set off scandals.