The pyramid of marginalization pits one disadvantaged group against another and, in this case at least, the white people at Change.org ultimately decide who is deserving of representation whatever the historical facts or whether it’s actually cultural appropriation.
Netflix’ upcoming Queen Cleopatra docuseries has been accompanied by a controversy that is perfectly illustrative of our race obsessed age, a microcosm of the larger problems that plague a country more focused on racial differences than anytime in the last fifty years. This particular controversy begins with Netflix’ choice of a black actress to play the titular character. The series is produced by Jada Pinkett Smith, and purports to tell the story of “Queen Cleopatra, the world’s most famous, powerful, and misunderstood woman — a daring queen whose beauty and romances came to overshadow her real asset: her intellect.” The studio claims, “Cleopatra’s heritage has been the subject of much academic debate, which has often been ignored by Hollywood. Now our series re-assesses this fascinating part of her story,” presumably by making her black. Ms. Pinkett Smith herself noted in a statement, “We don’t often get to see or hear stories about Black queens, and that was really important for me, as well as for my daughter, and just for my community to be able to know those stories because there are tons of them!” By “her community,” we can assume she means Hollywood stars with a net worth of $350 million. “Cleopatra is a queen who many know about, but not in her truth,” she continued, defining “truth” as whatever she would like, the same way Netflix defines “academic debate.” “She’s been displayed as overtly sexual, excessive, and corrupt, yet she was a strategist, an intellect, a commanding force of nature, who fought to protect her kingdom…and her heritage is highly debated. This season will dive deeper into her history and re-assesses this fascinating part of her story.” The only problem with this reassessment: None of it is true. Cleopatra was not black and no serious scholar believes she was.
This should not imply that she was white either. In reality, almost all reputable scholars agree that Cleopatra was a Macedonian Greek descended from Ptolemy I. The ethnicity of her mother remains the subject of some speculation, but there is no doubt in historical circles that was of Greek and Iranian descent. We can find some evidence of this in coins that were minted while she was alive, three of which have been authenticated by scholars as dating from the proper period. The bust on the coins show a woman clearly in the classical Greek style, though one of them may be of Cleopatra’s daughter, and contemporaneous Roman sculptures depict her the same way. None of this is in real dispute, but somehow the idea that Cleopatra was black has been around for over one hundred years, and, perhaps needless to say, has seen something of a revival over the past few decades. Shelley P. Haley set the stage in 1993 in the paper “Black Feminist Thought and Classics: Re-Membering, Re-Claiming, and Re-Powering,” discussing Cleopatra from a black feminist perspective and claiming that “Cleopatra reacted to the phenomena of oppression and exploitation as a Black woman would,” whatever that means. Mary Lefkowitz, an expert on Cleopatra and Professor Emerita of Classical Studies at Wellesley College attempted to cite actual history at the time, only to be informed that Cleopatra symbolized the treatment African American women have “have received at the hands of Eurocentric patriarchy.” Despite the clear historical evidence of her ancestry, Ms. Haley simply claimed “that this is a very complex question when one can ask it about Cleopatra or any ancient—or modern—historical figure,” again, whatever that means. Teddy Roosevelt might be black too? These false ideas have been recycled by “Afrocentrists” many times since including “Was Cleopatra Black?” in Ebony Magazine 2002.
Meanwhile, Egyptians are also people of color to use the modern parlance, and many have disputed the notion that Cleopatra was black in an attempt to reclaim her for Egyptian feminism. Following the 2020 announcement that Gal Gadot, an Israeli actress, would portray Cleopatra in an upcoming film, the Egyptian-Australian writer and journalist Daniel Nour insisted the Egyptians should dictate who portrays the queen because she was a “queen of Egyptian history,” claiming that giving Egyptian women “the choice to cast an Egyptian woman in a role like Cleopatra can be incredibly empowering.” Also, given Cleopatra is an Egyptian queen of Greek ancestry, she represents the genetic diversity of modern Egypt and, following feminist Nawal El Saadawi, Mr. Nour asserted that she is one of the “historical demonstrations of the matriarchal power structures held by North-African women.” Ms. Gadot’s casting was accompanied by accusations of whitewashing, though Ms. Gadot herself is of Middle Eastern descent. The Guardian’s Hanna Flint claimed it was “a backwards step for Hollywood representation.” “The actor [Ms. Gadot] does tick the box for Middle Eastern and north African (MENA) representation, so she’s not as western a choice as either Angelina Jolie or Lady Gaga would have been – who had both previously been linked to the role. But it still perpetuates a white standard of foreignness.” Ms. Flint dismissed how that was possible given Ms. Gadot is not white, then proceeded to ask “what are the chances it won’t fall into the trap of white saviourism where, if cast, Egyptian and north African actors are simply present to prop up her narrative?” Ultimately, she concluded, “Gal Gadot has proved herself that a ‘nobody’ can become an A-lister when given the chance to play a massive role. So given what we now understand about the Queen of Egypt’s heritage, and while the battle for better representation for ethnic minorities continues, it seems like a missed opportunity that Cleopatra’s next appearance will be more representative of Hollywood’s past than north Africa’s present.” Of course, some like director Levi Alexander simply insisted she should be black, whatever the facts.
Enter Netflix’ new docuseries, which has reignited the debate, big time. In response to casting Clepatra as a black queen, two individuals of Egyptian heritage, Meha Shehata and Aikk Yasser, started a petition on Change.org urging Netflix to cancel the show in its entirety for “falsifying history.” “Afrocentrism is a pseudoscience that is pushing a group’s agenda to claim Egypt’s history and rob the actual Egyptians from it,” the two explained. “By using false articles and zero evidence, they are still attempting to falsify history. Cleopatra was born in Alexandria, Egypt in the ptolemaic dynasty to Greek descent. She was NOT black. This is no way against black people, and is simply a wake up call to preserve the history and integrity of the Egyptians and the Greeks.” The petition continued to accuse Afrocentrists of cultural appropriation, “The show is clearly done to complement the Afrocentric movement, which claims to be the owner of the ancient Egyptian civilization, and to consolidate what the movement promotes. Egypt was never BLACK and it was never WHITE, Egypt is just Egypt. There are many great African/black civilizations, but Egypt was/is NOT one of them. Sign the petition to stop the falsification of history!” The petition seems reasonable enough to this white dude (not that white dudes are allowed to comment on such things), especially when the two even added a disclaimer, saying “Please do not use this in any way, shape or form to be racist or prejudice against black people or anyone else. This is no fuel for nationalism either. Only a call for the truth.”
Tell me if you know the rest: Change.org itself disagreed, blocking the petition two days later (after it had amassed 100,000 signatures) for unspecified violations of their “Community Guidelines.” Meha Shehata and Aikk Yasser were not pleased, posting the notification of the suspension along with a note on Instagram, further clarifying their concerns. The “outrage is NOT because they got a black actress, the outrage is because we know they’re trying to push the agenda of ‘modern day egyptions [sic] are colonizers.” On one hand, it’s easy and entertaining enough to see this exchange as a food fight between marginalized groups insisting that their various levels of marginalization entitle them to ownership of the global cultural icon that is Cleopatra, whose name is as famous in Europe as it is everywhere else. Should we “privilege” a person of general Middle Eastern descent such as Ms. Gadot? Should we cast an authentic Egyptian, even knowing races thousands of years ago were different than they were today and Cleopatra was not directly of Egyptian stock anyway? Or should we just cast a black person, even if it’s inaccurate because representation alone demands it? Personally, I would tend to side with the pro-Egyptian crowd, except it was them who largely dumped on Ms. Gadot (who, to her credit, pushed back) rather than being thankful an authentic Middle Easterner was cast in the first place, and now it seems a more disadvantaged group has further stolen Cleopatra’s valor from them. They’re learning the hard lesson that in a world where some are more equal than others, some are , in fact, more equal than others, and those now in a position of power, in this case Change.org, care more about the perceived hierarchy of marginalization than either free debate or the truth. Claims of cultural appropriation, it seems, only run one way. There are those, in this case Change.org, more than willing to appropriate unearned valor to a group based on its relative marginalization in their opinion.
On the other hand, it’s difficult and troubling to believe this thinking ends well for anyone. The casting of Queen Cleopatra is not an issue of international importance, but it still reveals many of the disturbing trends underlying our cultural insanity. First, there is an increasing segment of the population that no longer believes the truth matters. In their view, history itself must be written to right historical wrongs, rather than the traditional notion that we learn from the sins of the past to build a better future. In my opinion at least, this approach will lead to more sin, not less. Second, this same segment no longer believes in the right to debate these topics in public to allow individuals to make up their own minds and develop a workable consensus. Instead, they believe their judgment is supreme on all matters. In this case, it is overwhelmingly likely that Change.org’s leadership is predominantly white, and yet they took it upon themselves to shut down concerns voiced by people of color about other people of color. Third, they also believe in some amorphous, at times arbitrary, and ever changing pyramid of marginalization and all issues affecting multiple races or ethnicities must be decided solely on where you stand in their perceived pecking order of victimhood. There is no doubt that blacks are performing a brazen act of cultural appropriation, just imagine if Harriet Tubman was played by an actor of Hispanic descent, and yet the concerns about the practice simply do not apply because the greater good is only served by elevating black voices, at least for now. The combination of the three is the definition of tyranny. In this case, it may be cultural tyranny rather than political tyranny, but one most certainly leads to the other.