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The Multicultural Mysteries of Vin Diesel

This summer's breakout action movie star is being marketed as Hollywood's new superhero -- a self-made man unconfined by racial categories.
 
 
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Perhaps the first thing you notice about Vin Diesel is the bald head -- a great, shiny expanse that seems to go on forever. Like much else about the star of XXX, Diesel's head seems both larger than life and mysterious -- he keeps it shaved so cleanly that no one knows exactly how much hair he might have. No one knows what kind of hair he has, either -- kinky, straight as a stick, wispy fine? And minus that clue, it's hard to tell what ethnicity he might be -- which is just how Vin Diesel wants it.

It's only natural that this summer's breakout International Man of Mystery have a few secrets of his own. If Diesel had his druthers, the public wouldn't know anything about him, not even his real name (Mark Vincent). And they certainly wouldn't know his ethnic background, although speculation runs wild in magazines and on-line message boards, with most guesses tagging him as Italian and African-American.

Diesel has preferred to call himself "multicultural" for the most part or perhaps "Italian and a lot of other things," as in a Bet.com profile. "There's something cool about this kind of ambiguous, chameleon-like ethnicity," he told the website's reporter. That quality has allowed him to play a range of ethnicities -- from Italian American (Adrian Caparzo in Saving Private Ryan), to black (Richard Riddick in Pitch Black), to ethnically indeterminate (Chris Varick in Boiler Room and Xander Cage in XXX).

Along with The Rock -- a Samoan/African-American professional wrestler turned action movie star -- Diesel is being marketed as Hollywood's new superhero: a self-made man unconfined by racial categories. He seems to agree with the assessment.

"A man of color is being exposed to so many different opportunities," he told Bet.com, "Hopefully, it says something about my acting." But does Diesel's optimism about breaking through Hollywood's color barriers hold true for anyone but Diesel? And is his refusal to reveal his ethnic background tearing down outdated racial categories or merely putting him in the color closet?

Diesel isn't the first multicultural actor on the scene. Lou Diamond Phillips played a whole gamut of ethnicities: from Native American and Latino to Thai and Middle Eastern. Of Scottish, Irish, Cherokee, Filipino, Hawaiian, Chinese, and Spanish background, Phillips had the sort of versatile looks that got him plenty of work on the screen and stage.

Most biracial or multicultural actors don't have the luxury of playing so many different parts, however. Many play to one part of their background almost exclusively -- and the breakdown of roles and actors says much about how conceptions of race are configured in the United States.

In what seems to be Hollywood's version of the one-drop rule, the majority of multicultural actors who are part African-American play African-American characters, not biracial, white, or characters of different ethnicities. Halle Berry, Lisa Bonet and Shemar Moore, among many others, play African-American characters almost exclusively, although their heritage is multiracial. But the one-drop rule alone doesn't explain the casting -- these actors themselves often identify as black, not multiracial. In Berry's case, she has told numerous interviewers, her mother raised her to think of herself as black, because that is the way the world would see her.

Aside from a few exceptions like Kelly Hu and Lindsey Price, actors who are white and Asian, however, often wind up playing to their white background. Jennifer and Meg Tilly, Keanu Reeves and Kristin Kreuk, among others, play white characters -- and few seem to know about their non-white background. The same often applies for actors who are white and Latino, like Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Lynda Carter and Madeleine Stowe. Raquel Welch (Bolivian and white, according to mixedfolks.com) had passed for white for over 40 years in show business -- and she only recently came out as a Latina, not a biracial woman.

"I'm happy to acknowledge [being Latina] and it's long overdue and it's very welcome," she told the New York Times. "There's been kind of an empty place here in my heart and also in my work for a long, long time."

Multiracial actors seem to face difficult choices -- choices that almost never include the option to play multicultural characters. (One notable exception is Jennifer Beals' character in The Devil in the Blue Dress, in which Beals played a woman who was spurned because of her black and white heritage.) So is it better to identify with one's "colored" side and face pervasive Hollywood discrimination, be typecast in the roles of drug dealer, Vietnamese refugee, illegal immigrant? Or is it better to pass, and face the potential scorn of (and loss of dollars from) communities of color?

In light of these frustrating options, Vin Diesel's decision to label himself as ambiguously "multicultural" is less surprising, an attempt to turn what could be a detriment into a strength. Before he became an actor, Diesel directed and starred in a short film, entitled "Multi-Facial," about an actor who switches ethnicities at auditions -- trying to pass as Italian, Latino and African-American in an attempt to get work. After being turned down repeatedly, the discouraged actor plunks himself down in a diner, where a white woman orders a coffee that's "not too light, not too dark." Diesel used to see his mutable features as a disadvantage: "Being multicultural has gone from the Achilles' heel of my career to a strength," he told www.eonline.com.

What has aided this shift, he says, is that "the world has become this big melting pot, and I think people are ready for a hero who is more ambiguous." But Diesel has also benefited from other multiracial celebrities' attempts to raise awareness of being multicultural -- golfer Tiger Woods' is a prime example. When Woods told an Oprah audience that he had invented the term "Cablinasian" to describe his Native American, Thai, white and black backgrounds, he sent some African-American communities -- who viewed his action as an attempt to deny his blackness -- into an uproar. Diesel's refusal to comment on his ethnic background seems more potentially inflammatory than Woods' actions, yet the relative lack of controversy on his decision speaks volumes about the gradual acceptance of multiracial individuals.

As revolutionary as they may be for Hollywood, Diesel's notions about melting pot racial dynamics seem overly naive for the real world -- he's even gone so far as to name his production company One Race. Diesel has been able to remake himself in remarkable ways, professionally and ethnically. But the majority of actors don't enjoy this same ability, the freedom of po-mo perform-it-yourself ethnicity, nor do the majority of biracial individuals. Colorblindness, the ability to see only one race, is only an ideal so far, and not a reality. In this light, Diesel's refusal to reveal what his ethnic background is and claim a multiracial identity ultimately limits his ability to help break down color barriers for others. As long as his actions can be interpreted as attempts to pass, he is only a marketable Mr. Multicultural action figure, without the political clout to make greater change for others.

But this still is the real world we're talking about, one in which Mr. Multicultural is still better than Mr. Same Ol' White Dude Spy. Vin Diesel is the perfect guy to crash the action hero parade: XXX opens with Hollywood's ubiquitous Eurovampire bad guys offing a blond, tuxedoed spy in the whitest of arenas -- a Rammstein concert. Diesel's character, Xander Cage, who is taunted with the words "Do you speak English?" will eventually invade this lily-white party, and the Ivy League/British realm of the secret agent. The actor is doing the same in Hollywood -- and even if his "multicultural" success is only for himself at first, maybe other multiracial actors will eventually find their way alongside him.

Noy Thrupkaew is a fellow at the American Prospect.