Living a White Life -- for a While (Part One)
By Ellen Holly
New York Times
August 10, 1969
In September of last year I was approached to try out for a part on a brand new ABC soap opera called ONE LIFE TO LIVE; the part was a black girl who passes for white. I didn't give it much thought. If you're black you don't get white parts either. But what most people don't realize is that even when there's a part for a "black who looks white," it never goes to a black person but to a white one. Follow? I know . . . I know . . . it's hard for me, too.
Some years ago I was interviewed for the film I Passed For White and the part went to the white Sandra Wilde. Some years later I was seen about the remake of Imitation of Life. Ross Hunter cooed over me, told me I looked like Loretta Young, and gave the part to the white Susan Kohner. I had dim memories of Jeanne Crain in Pinky, Ben Aliza in The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, Mel Ferrer & Co. as the family in Lost Boundaries and numerous other whites masquerading as blacks masquerading as whites which, as far as I am concerned, cancels out the whole point much in the manner of a double negative. So I thought I knew pretty much what to expect from ONE LIFE TO LIVE.
At the interview with the producer, Doris Quinlan, I smiled and did my best to look amiable, talented and 20 (which was what the part called for and which Ihad seen for a goodly while), but in the back of my head I was already bracing for the inevitable turndown. She smiled a lovely smile back and said that they were being polite about things and look at all the white girls the agents were sending them but that she didn't really see the slightest point to the whole thing if the girl wasn't the genuine article. It sounded revolutionary enough to report her to the H.U.A.C. They tested me. A couple of days later I had the part. I couldn't believe it.
Then I began to worry. I have such a personal distaste for blacks who pass for white that I wondered how the story line was going to be handled. If an actor's at all squeamish or apprehensive about the part he's playing, a soap poses a rather special problem for him. In a play or a film you know the whole story before you contract to do it, but in a soap the story is open-ended. New writing is a constant and you don't know from one moment to the next what words are going to be put into your mouth. If you're dealing with dense writers you can end playing a ventriloquist's dummy Uncle Tom or quitting the job to avoid it.
On the other hand, in terms of the particular story line, I felt that the unique format of a soap would enable people to examine their prejudices in a way no other format possibly could. In a play or film the audience would relate to the character as white only briefly and then discover she was black perhaps an hour later, but the soap audience would relate to her as white for months ... months in which she would become part of their daily lives ... for some, virtually a member of their family. The emotional investment they made in her as a human being would be infinitely greater, and when the switch came, their involvement would be real rather than superficial. A lot of whites who think they aren't prejudiced - are. It seemed like a marvelous opportunity to help them confront their own prejudices. When the switch came, those who would radically alter their response to the character would surely demonstrate to themselves that they don't dislike black people because they are dirty or lazy or stupid, but just because they are black - i.e., they would have a chance to isolate not only the existence of their own prejudice but, also, its lack of logical base.
My character, Carla Benari, was introduced last October. For four months, thereafter I was presented as a white girl, a struggling actress engaged to a white doctor but gravitating - against her will - toward a gorgeous black one. Ironically, for the first time in my life, I had to "cool" being black, lest I tip the plot. I had to forgot an appearance on another ABC show called LIKE IT IS that deals with the black scene, and patiently wait for an issue of Look in which I appeared properly labeled as a black actress to disappear from the stands. Even though the situation was temporary, I found it much more destructive to my psyche than I had dreamed and I prayed for the switch to come soon so that I could quite the unpleasant charade and get back to being myself.
A month went by, and we got to an important turn in the plot. I kissed Peter De Anda, who plays the gorgeous doctor, and confessed my love for him. Immediately the switchboard was flooded with calls from irate white men defending my supposedly Caucasian virtue (later, after the switch, I'm' sure they felt like a bunch of idiots) and the show was dropped like a hot potato by a station in Texas. Most producers would have blanched and dropped the story line; Doris Quinlan had been prepared to lose more. The reaction from white women was different. They wrote in (people who are angry seem to call at once to relieve their feeling; people who are pleased seem to write at their leisure) and said, "Well, it's about time."
A few people thought they smelled a rat. A black man voiced the opinion that I was probably going to turn out to be black, because he noticed that once I had kissed Peter "they" started making me up darker and taking the sheen out of my hair. This was absolute nonsense, because I did my own hair and make-up and always did it the same way. A white student wrote in to say that she was afraid I was going to turn out to be black as a "cop-out" on the part of the producers unwilling to actually take the risk of an interracial story line. I wrote back and told her that even though whites always view the race problem in terms of their most obsessive fear - i.e., "Would you want your daughter to marry one?" - blacks couldn't care less about such things and had other problems on their minds, such as problems of self-identity, which was what the soap was going to deal with. (One of the distortions of the communications media, because they are white-controlled, is that they always deal with the race problem in terms of their obsession with miscegenation and let the other thousand facets of the problem go hang.) I told her that yes, indeed, I was going to turn out to be black, but not as a "cop-out"; that we just happened to be telling a different tale from the one she had been conditioned by white media to anticipate.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Come back on Friday for the conclusion of this fascinating article and find out Ellen Holly's thoughts on the reveal that Carla was white. And check back throughout the month for our continuing coverage of Black History Month.