Addressing Colorism

by Kierra Gray

As most of us might know, colorism- the prejudice against people based on skin tone- has historically been an issue in communities across the African diaspora. The renowned author Zora Neal Hurston once eloquently stated, "If it was so honorable and glorious to be black, why was it the yellow-skinned people among us had so much prestige?" Colorism works both ways though it typically privileges lighter skinned people.  

While some may not be familiar with the term colorism, many black people have experienced this form of discrimination in a variety of ways. Documentaries like Dark Girls and Light Girls highlighted the impact of colorism on black women. Some say that subtle and not-so-subtle examples of colorism are evident in the lighter-skinned news anchors we see on television, the lighter-skinned models in music videos, or the Tweets from men purporting to favor lighter-skinned women.

Colorism is yet another stressor – like racism and sexism and white supremacy – imperiling the psychological and, in some instances, economic well-being of black people.  

Chaley Rose, an actress on the show Nashvillespoke with me recently about how her experiences with colorism have impacted her career in the entertainment world. Rose, who is multiracial, believes that the media is making efforts to provide more representation for people of color. She said she doesn't believe there is any malicious intent behind the lack of representation in the media, although she does think there is a shortage of roles for people of color. This is where it gets tricky.

“When I go into a room to audition for a black character, I find that I’m the wildcard in the room a lot of the time…. where I’m the only mixed girl in the room,” she says. “It’s a great time to be a black woman in television, but I think what’s happening is when someone asks for black they want it to be clear that the person is black [darker skinned], and I’ve heard that referred to as reverse colorism. I’ve gotten more than once that my skin is not dark enough to play a black character. It’s just strange that we don’t understand now in 2015 that black people come in all different colors,” said Rose.          

Reverse colorism? As one of the few black actresses on the show, Rose has received backlash from whites and blacks. On one end she has been called derogatory names like “Buckwheat” and on the other, someone wondered why the show couldn’t hire a “real” black actress. On Instagram, Rose posted a photo of Viola Davis when she won an Emmy. The post states, “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”

“A friend of mine said, and I don’t think they understood what they were saying as they said it, ‘well I think the best actresses just book the roles.’ That’s not what’s happening here. That’s the problem. So many people don’t see that. It’s not like half the room is black and half the room is white going into these auditions for these characters, and the best actresses just happen to be white. There aren’t roles for diverse characters that are Emmy-worthy or Screen Actors Guild Award-worthy that are strong leading roles. I think it’s a good message to the Hollywood community from her [Viola Davis].”

The issue is just as divisive within the black community, where representations of “blackness” can come under heavy fire from the pigmentation police. Recently, Ebony Magazine's 70th anniversary cover for the Power 100 issue featured Harry Belafonte, Zendaya Coleman and Jesse Williams. While they are all black and biracial people who have been outspoken about issues plaguing the black community, the cover received intense criticism. Some were upset that darker-skinned individuals weren’t featured on the cover.

How can communities of color move past this age-old issue that white supremacy created? The issue of colorism has been talked about time and time again, but how much progress have we made? Colorism stems from anti-blackness, racial bias and self-hate. Activism is always a great start when addressing deep-rooted systemic issues. Though there are no concrete solutions to address colorism, we can start a discussion to move forward.

Posted on January 9, 2016 .