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Passing for White in Hollywood

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Today, actors often play up their multicultural heritage. Looking racially ambiguous likely even adds to the appeal of stars such as Jessica Alba, Keanu Reeves or Wentworth Miller. But in old Hollywood, studios not only anglicized the names of actors but expected them to downplay their ethnic origins. This led movie stars who weren’t solely of European extraction to pass for white in film, their personal lives or both. Can you name the acting legends known for passing for white in Hollywood? You might be surprised to learn which actors estranged themselves from their roots to achieve fame and fortune in the movies.

 

1. Fredi Washington (1903-1994)

With her fair skin, green eyes and flowing hair, actress Fredi Washington possessed all the traits needed to pass for white. And she did—kind of. In 1934’s “Imitation of Life,” Washington plays a woman who denies her black mother to cross the color line. In reality, Washington refused to deny her heritage, advocating for blacks in entertainment. Married for a time to a black trombonist--Lawrence Brown--the only time Washington reportedly passed for white is to buy snacks from the establishments that refused to serve her husband and his band mates due to their skin color. Given that she wore dark makeup in some films to avoid being mistaken for a white woman, you could also say that Washington passed for black.  

 

2. Merle Oberon (1911-1979)

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Merle Oberon earned an Oscar nod for her acting in 1935’s “The Dark Angel” and more recognition for playing Cathy in 1939’s “Wuthering Heights.” But off screen, Oberon feared that her secrets would be exposed. She wasn’t solely white nor was she born in Tasmania like actor Errol Flynn, as she told people. Actually, she was born in India to an Indian mother and an Anglo father. Rather than disown her mother, though, Oberon passed her off as a servant. When the actress visited Tasmania later in life, the press hounded her for details about her upbringing, forcing her to admit that she wasn't born there. Still, Oberon did not confess to being Indian. The 2002 documentary, "The Trouble with Merle" examines Oberon's deceit about her origins.

3. Carol Channing (born 1921)

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When Broadway sensation Carol Channing was 16, her mother let her in on a secret. Channing’s paternal grandmother was black. With this knowledge in tow, Channing went on to win accolades for her performances in “Hello Dolly!” and “Gentleman Prefer Blondes.” Known for being a gay rights advocate, Channing didn’t reveal her African American ancestry to the world until 2002, when she released her memoir, Just Lucky I Guess, at the age of 81. Still living at age 89, Channing says that being part-black never made her feel ashamed. Instead, she believed her black ancestry made her a good performer, due to common stereotypes about blacks being naturals at singing and dancing. “I thought I had the greatest genes in showbiz,” Channing remembered.

4. John Gavin (born 1931)

John Gavin was born John Anthony Golenor Pablos in Los Angeles. He has Irish and Mexican ancestry and speaks Spanish fluently. But unlike Anthony Quinn, who was also half-Mexican, Gavin consistently played white characters during his years in Hollywood. The leading man is known for his roles in the 1960 films “Psycho” and “Spartacus,” as well as for 1959’s “Imitation of Life,” a remake of the 1934 version with Fredi Washington. While that film chronicles the plight of a young mixed-race woman, Gavin’s mixed-race background is never referenced in that film or in others. In 1981, however, Gavin’s heritage resulted in former actor and President Ronald Reagan appointing him the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. Gavin served as ambassador until 1986.

5. Raquel Welch (born 1940)

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Born Jo Raquel Tejada to a Bolivian father and an Anglo mother, Welch grew up in a house where her Latin ancestry was ignored. “This made me feel like there was something wrong with being from Bolivia,” states Welch in her 2010 memoir Beyond the Cleavage. When she arrived in Hollywood, film execs reportedly urged her to lighten her skin and hair. “She had to become white because that is what Hollywood knew how to sell,” explained Latino Images in Film author Charles Ramírez Berg. Welch later had an identity crisis. “I had no Latin friends,” she said. So, in 2005, she visited Bolivia to learn more about her heritage. In recent years, she’s also played Latino characters in various roles, including in Gregory Nava's series "American Family."
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