Why We Need to Undo the Whitewashing of Cleopatra — in Hollywood and Beyond
When I was recently spending time with my 5-year-old nephew, he asked me, "When you were a kid, did you have your own phone?"
Startled by the question, initially I wasn't sure how to answer him. As a Gen Xer who grew up in the 1980s and '90s, my concept of a phone when I was his age was completely different from his today. "Nobody had their own phone," I replied. "Cell phones did not exist when I was your age."
As he opened his mouth wide in disbelief, I was reminded of reignited debates around Cleopatra's race that have emerged with Netflix's depiction of Egypt's last pharaoh in "Queen Cleopatra." This docuseries is part of the African Queens collection, with Jada Pinkett-Smith as executive producer. "Queen Cleopatra" stars Adele James — a light brown-skinned British actress who has a white mother and a Black father — as the famous monarch.
"Why have we long depicted Cleopatra as white?"
The debate hinges on one main question: was Cleopatra Black or was she white? The answer is very similar to the response that I gave my nephew. If we think about modern race as a type of technology, as several scholars assert, race "was not a thing." Much like our current handheld personal devices, when Cleopatra was alive, nobody was Black or white — because Blackness and whiteness did not exist. But there's a larger question that is more important: why have we long depicted Cleopatra as white, and why are so many people uncomfortable with this latest depiction, in which James has brown skin and looks like someone of African descent?
Within the first three minutes of the show, Shelley Haley, a historian and president of the Society for Classical Studies, recalls a statement from her grandmother when she was a child: "Shelley, I don't care what they tell you in school. Cleopatra was Black."
For Egyptians, those are fighting words. Egyptians have argued that Cleopatra had light skin because she was the last of the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt, or pharaohs of Macedonian Greek origin. The Ptolemaics largely intra-married, often with their own siblings.
However, Cleopatra's father and grandfather were unlike their predecessors, according to Islam Issa, a professor of literature and history and the only Egyptian who appears in the show. Cleopatra's grandfather and father had wives and mistresses who were native Egyptians, Issa explains, and Alexandrians referred to Cleopatra's father as "Nothos," or "the Bastard," because of his partial non-Macedonian ancestry. Also, unlike prior rulers, Cleopatra spoke Egyptian, so it is possible that she learned the language through an Egyptian mother, but no one can be certain. Cleopatra ruled long before the Arab conquest of Egypt — yet after waves of Persians conquest — so Egyptians ranged in skin color and physical characteristics but probably looked darker and had more "African" features than they do today. It is impossible to know for certain what Cleopatra looked like, but it is likely that Cleopatra was of at least partial African origin — not only Grecian.
Modern race was created by Spaniards in the 1500s, long after Cleopatra died in 30 BC. As people of the Mediterranean, they had centuries-long contact with a variety of types of people who ranged in color from the deepest brown to the lightest shades. In this period, Spanish and Portuguese leaders shifted the meaning of their enslavement of Africans from acting as "good Christians" who introduced heathens to Christianity to — along with other Europeans — creating modern race, in which types of people could be ranked from those least able to rule over themselves (Black Africans) to those most able to do so (white Europeans).
Before the invention of modern race, Greeks called people with darker skin "Ethiopian," regardless of their areas of origin on the continent. Aristotle, Plutarch, and other scholars referenced Ethiopians and their descendants in ancient Greece. "Those with dark skins" (τὸ τὴν χρόαν μελάνων), as they were also called, became integrated into Greek society. They were not seen as one people with an inherent, collective quality that could to be ranked higher or lower than native Greeks — only as people far from their homeland. As a result, their children and grandchildren were Greek. Being Greek was tied to citizenship or ethnicity, not contemporary notions of Blackness. As a result, darker-skinned Greeks existed both in Greece as well as in Africa, including Alexandria. Being in the Ptolemaic line of rule is no guarantee of Cleopatra's skin color or modern racial classification. In addition, the paint found on many sculptures from antiquity wore away with time, making it inaccurate to refer to today's white marble as a claim to Cleopatra having light skin.
However, the real question is: why would a Black Cleopatra be offensive to Egyptians today?
Since antiquity, beauty, status, and power have been linked to lighter skin. Ancient Egyptians and Greeks used white lead to lighten their skin, and even Cleopatra was known to bathe in sour donkey milk, a natural chemical peel. Today, many Egyptians, like many populations around the world, still idealize women with whiter skin. This colorism helps fuel the billion dollar Egyptian beauty industry, including its profits from skin-lightening procedures. One study found that almost half of all Egyptian women and 12 percent of Egyptian men use skin lighteners, with chlorine baths as a growing trend. In a colorist society, portraying Cleopatra — one of the most famous, powerful women of all time — with brown skin challenges assumptions about high-status women.
The backlash against a darker-skinned Cleopatra also plays into debates about Egypt as an African nation versus being part of the Middle East, where a small part of the territory exists. According to long-held racist notions, Africa is supposed to be backwards, not the home of one of the most famous rulers to ever exist. From a position of Afrophobia and white supremacy, depicting Cleopatra with darker skin is highly controversial.
"We have grown accustomed to Cleopatra's whitewashing."
But perhaps more so, most of us have only seen Cleopatra depicted by white women. When we think of depictions of Cleopatra, Elizabeth Taylor, who was born in England to American parents of European heritage, often comes to mind. Vivien Leigh, another famous Brit, also famously portrayed Cleopatra. Along with Claudette Colbert — born in France to English parents — none of these actors had origins in the Mediterranean. Both Sophia Loren and Monica Bellucci are Italian women who also portrayed Cleopatra. Still, it is the palest versions of Cleopatra with origins far from the Mediterranean who are more remembered for their depictions of the queen. This has likely colored how we interpret Cleopatra, literally: we have grown accustomed to Cleopatra's whitewashing.
Part of the irony of the backlash against the Netflix drama is that James does in fact look like many Egyptians today. James is of racially mixed ancestry and is also British. Rather than applauding a Cleopatra closer in resemblance to actual Egyptian women, there has been a backlash to the reproduction of white supremacy in her image.
As James explained in a May 10 episode of "The Wayne Ayers Podcast": "Blackwashing isn't a thing, is it?" She continued: "I find it sad that people are either so self-loathing or so threatened by Blackness that they feel the need to do that, to separate Egypt from the rest of the continent." Two days later, on Netflix's Tudum site, series producers wrote: "We did intentionally decide to depict her of mixed ethnicity to reflect theories about Cleopatra's possible Egyptian ancestry and the multicultural nature of Ancient Egypt."
What is certain is that "Queen Cleopatra" is one of the first non-white depictions of Cleopatra. This is a step forward for accurate, non-whitewashed representation. Thinking about Africa as the home of humanity and what some term "civilization," it makes perfect sense that Cleopatra would have brown skin. With her homeland located squarely on the continent and likely having an Egyptian mother, Cleopatra was, after all, an African queen.
Chinyere Osuji, PhD, is a scholar, speaker, and social scientist who writes about how Blacks interact with ethnic and racial "others." She is the author of "Boundaries of Love: Interracial Marriage and the Meaning of Race."