Monday, January 26, 2015

On Rashida Jones

I enjoy Rashida Jones. She tends towards projects I like, and she can go deadpan stare-to-deadpan stare with the best of the Office alums. I also consider her to be a good Hollywood legacy. As the daughter of Peggy Lipton and Quincy Jones, she probably could have stumbled into a job anywhere in Hollywood and “succeeded.” While I’m sure her famous parents helped her get established, but the niche she’s found in quirky comedies is her own.

Compare her to Kelly Osbourne, who has gained a reputation as someone who wears daring fashion and who comments on and/or condemns the daring fashion choices of others. Again, that’s her thing, and while her famous name helped her get there, you can’t really accuse her of getting to that spot solely as a result of her famous dad. However, there’s also that cover of “Papa Don’t Preach” Kelly Osbourne released in 2002. It didn’t kickstart her music career. Pop singer probably wasn’t the best fit for her, and she probably did end up in the recording studio solely as a result of her parents’ influence. To me, that’s an important distinction to make with Hollywood babies: Rashida Jones never had a “Papa Don’t Preach.”

Anyway, I’m happy Rashida Jones is doing what she’s doing, but as a result of her continued success, she creates additional opportunities for dumb people to say, “Oh, I had no idea she was half black!” I have encountered this reaction a number of times in causal conversation, and just today I read a very awkward post about a red carpet reporter complimenting her “tropical” tan. Eep.

So to this reporter and everyone else who is surprised to learn that Rashida Jones is half black, I pose a few questions.

Really? Her name is Rashida Jones. Rashida Jones. If this were a universe where there was not a famous person named Rashida Jones and I said, “I’m getting lunch with my friend, Rashida Jones,” what rational person wouldn’t picture my hypothetical lunchmate being a black woman? Like, in what part of the world would it seem logical that a woman named Rashida Jones wouldn’t be black? It’s like the reverse of that joke on 30 Rock where Michael Sheen, a white Englishman, played a character named Wesley Snipes. (“You know what's insane? That the actor is named Wesley Snipes! If you were shown a picture of him and a picture of me, and were asked who should be named Wesley Snipes, you’d pick the pale Englishman every time! Every time, Liz!”)

Now, I understand that some might respond to that initial line of questioning with something like, “Oh, I wouldn’t assume that someone who has a name that sounds black is necessarily black.” That’s valid. Besides, many of the characters Jones has played have not been black. Two of her more notable roles have been as Italian-American women named Karen — Karen Scarfolli on Freaks and Geeks and Karen Filippelli on The Office. And on Boston Public, she actually had her hair dyed blond, the whitewashing implications of which are pretty awkward. But there’s a second level to this disbelief that a woman named Rashida Jones that usually goes unspoken, and I think it’s this: She was on Parks and Recreation and in hipster comedies like My Idiot Brother and Celeste and Jesse Forever and I Love You, Man, and “Those aren’t black things.” That’s not exactly true, genre-wise — hell, even New Girl has two black main cast members now — but I think it’s worth it for the “Rashida Jones is black?!” crowd to examine why they think it would be so surprising for a black woman to have the career that Rashida Jones has.

Mostly unrelated, race-wise, but I’m bringing it up now anyway: Rashida Jones being the daughter of Peggy “Norma Jennings” Lipton and Zooey Deschanel being the daughter of Mary Jo “Eileen Hayward” Deschanel, wouldn’t it be cool if these two Twin Peaks babies were given something to do in the upcoming series revival?


  1. Sorry that I don't comment more often when one of your posts is terrific, because many of them are, but I have to call bullshit on this.

    You start out by saying how only "dumb" people are surprised at her ethnic background, but then provide one argument that you immediately acknowledge being moot, and then follow by a single argument that I think comes from a lot of self-projection (actually, just as much as your first argument does). Sorry, but it's you who seems to have some ingrained racial prejudices there. Not overly harmful ones, though, it seems. I think the topic of Hollywood whitewashing Rashida Jones in her roles, which you touch upon, would make for a much more interesting topic.

  2. Keith Watson - a cisgendered straight white guy (sorry)8:48 AM

    Insisting that certain names require you to be a certain race is counter productive. Let's not count on our cultural undertone of racism for things. I think everyone will end up happier in the long run.

  3. I actually think the “Oh, I wouldn’t assume that someone who has a name that sounds black is necessarily black” argument isn't a good one. (I guess my "That's valid" reads as less dismissive than I intended it to.) I think it's weird that someone living in America with access to the various media would hear the name and conclude anything other than "That sounds like a black person's name. Rashida Jones is probably black."

    I've talked more than one person through this, and they usually end up being surprised. So then I say, "Wait, why is it surprising that a woman named Rashida Jones is black?" And the responses I've gotten are somewhere in the neighborhood of "She just doesn't seem black," and that's a weird statement to me -- because of her name, yeah, but also because she has more recently played a lot of characters who don't seem white, either. Post-blond dye job, she has a lot of recent characters who are simply ethnically vague to the point that I'd think people would decide "Oh, this actress could maybe be lots of things. Also her name is Rashida Jones."

    As a gay man, I tend to bristle at "He doesn't seem gay" just because it makes me think that the person speaking that sentence has a too-narrow perception of what gay behavior can be like. And I just feel like it's a similar case here, with people consciously or unconsciously deciding that Rashida Jones' body of work reads as too white for her to actually be black. But then again, I don't actually know how people arrive at that conclusion. My best guess could be wrong.

    The whitewashing is interesting, but I feel it has largely stopped. Most of her characters are simply ethnically vague, and it's either left to the audience to decide, "Oh, she could be lots of things" or it's directly commented upon, like in that Parks & Rec gif.