Mariah Carey has been one of the best-selling singers in America ever since her very first song, “Visions of Love”, in 1990. But through it all she has been dogged by questions about her race. In 2006 Sandra Bernhard said that Carey is only black when it helps her to sell music.
Here is what Carey told JET magazine in 1999:
Ethnically, I’m a person of mixed race. My father’s mother was African-American. His father was from Venezuela. My mother is Irish. I see myself as a person of color who happens to be mixed with a lot of things… No matter what you say, when someone asks you the question ‘What are you?’ and you say ‘Black’ and you look mixed, they’re going to ask what you’re mixed with. That’s what always happens.
She sees this sort of questioning as racist:
What I find racist and unfair is that if someone’s half Chinese and half Italian, that’s two different races, why are they not forced to constantly define what they are? When it comes to a Black and a White thing, people are up in arms.
She would have been Mariah Nuñez if her father’s father had not changed his name.
So far as I know she has never hid her background from the press. Soon after her second song hit number one in late 1990, she told the press, “My father is black and Venezuelan. My mother Irish and an opera singer. I am me.”
Her recording company, Columbia Records, however, was not so forthright. In person she clearly looks part black. Lisa Jones of the Village Voice said she comes across “quite clearly, as a rainbow baby of African descent, skin toasted almond and hair light brown.” But she is close enough to white that with the right lighting she can be made to look white.
And when she came out she did seem white. Nelson George called her “a white girl who can sing”. I remember thinking the same thing. Others said she was a white Whitney Houston. Given all the money Columbia had put into pushing Carey it was probably no accident.
If Mariah Carey had first been seen as black then there was a good chance that “Visions of Love”, an R&B song, would have only been played on black radio stations. Few whites would have bought it and Columbia would have made far less money.
It was not just the way she looked, it was her music too. The music she wanted to do – and later did do – was more R&B and hip hop. But in the early years producers made sure her music was whiter.
But strangely, while her music has become blacker and she is now widely regarded as black, her looks have become whiter. Her hair is lighter and straighter and her nose is much more pointed and narrow than before.
She has called herself a person of mixed race, a person of colour, but as far as I know she did not straight-out say she was black till 2009 in an interview with The Guardian: “I’m a black woman who is very light skinned.”