DISCLAIMER: This is a controversial topic. The term may cause insults to many, especially those who may fit into the “proxy” white category through no fault of their own (after all, you can’t change what you are). Realistically, the blame ultimately falls on white supremacy, and all the reasons why it’s a problem and why it should be challenged.
I remember reading a story about the end of Apartheid in South Africa, and how worried the Colored class was about potentially losing their privileges under white rule. I am also reminded of many of Gandhi’s anti-black letters to the white South African government, and how both are telling of the deep-rootedness of racial hierarchy as created by Whiteness/white supremacy.
White supremacy creates racial hierarchies, and too many humans feel good about having someone to look down on. In a white supremacist world, the closer you are to whites, aesthetically, the better you’ll be treated. This is true all around. Whites are narcissistic and prefer, in others, those features and traits that are similar to their own.
There are two types of proxy whites: 1) ethnic whites, and 2) mixed race peoples. An ethnic white is usually a white person (of European heritage) with dark features or accents. See: Anthony Quinn, Antonio Banderas, Taylor Lautner, Ricardo Montalban, Brenton Thwaites, etc. Make no mistake about ethnic whites–they are whites.
Ethnic whites often assume the roles of various “brown” peoples (Hispanics, MENA, First Nations people, etc.). Montalban’s most famous role was as Khan Noonien Singh in Star Trek. Khan, according to Star Trek cannon, is of Northern Indian/Middle Eastern extraction. Montalban was born in Mexico to Spanish parents. Antonio Banderas has played Arab, Cuban, Mexican and Argentinian. Taylor Lautner most infamously played Native American/First Nations werewolf Jacob Black in Twilight, despite identifying as German/French descent. Most recently, Nerds of Color noted that a plethora of Latinx (Hispanics) on television are in fact of Italian descent–not at all Latinx.
The second type of Proxy whites are mixed race/multiracial people (usually of partial white-European heritage). It has been a gripe for a long time that a large number of black actors are in fact biracial, and that white society prefers mixed race/light-featured blacks to their darker-hued counterparts. Increasingly, it is true of other groups. Many mixed race people are given roles meant for their non-mixed race counterpart. There have been accusations leveled against Keanu Reeves, Johnny Depp and Ben Kingsley for their “ethnic role grabbing” in recent years.
You may ask–why’s this a problem.
Depp, Reeves and Kingsley–regardless of their “non-white” heritage–are accepted as whites, which means they are not limited to acting roles based on race. It seems then, rather dubious, that Depp should prop up a fledgling Native American heritage to justify taking a role from a Native American actor. Ben Kingsley has repeatedly portrayed South Asians, most notably Gandhi, MENA, and other “brown” peoples throughout his career.
Proxy whites serve the purpose of playing into white narcissism; after all, their appeal to the white dominant society is that they’re part white–not too [insert race]. It won’t fathom to white people how only promoting half-black people, or blacks with light-skin and green eyes, can be anti-black. That it is a rejection of blackness as is just doesn’t dawn on them.
To a degree, proxy whites are seen as “safe” for whites to be around. Their white heritage is assurance that they aren’t too foreign. President Obama was deemed safe by whites, as long as he never reminded them of the burden of being black in America, or made them feel guilt about racism.
Disclaimer: Proxy whites did not make themselves so, and many may feel resentful about how they’re used in a white dominant society. Nonetheless, they should be aware of their privileges. Here’s Zendaya Coleman on how her biracial heritage played a role in the opportunities she’s been given.