Is Black America Colorism’s Biggest Accomplice?

(Left to Right; Black-ish creator, Kenya Barris, Actress Rashida Jones)
(Left to Right; Black-ish creator, Kenya Barris, Actress Rashida Jones)

When Black-ish creator, Kenya Barris premiered his newest series, #BlackAF, on Netflix, my first thought was had Barris finally broken beyond his embarrassingly binary view of Blackness? Perhaps then, I thought, just maybe I should give this #BlackAF thing a chance. I loved Mixed-ish just as much as the next man, but who were we fooling, it was hardly the Blackest portrayal of Blackness we’d ever seen on screen. Hell, “mixed” was right there in the title.

Six episodes into my suffrage, I concluded that Barris was either bold or blind. Bold enough to bestow upon this narrow notion of the Black experience a moniker as unambiguous as “#BlackAF”, either that or simply too blinded by his bias to care. I watched in awe, was this his ode to unapologetic Blackness? The f*ckery was far from figurative, now how it equated Blackness to any extreme was the real enigma. Barris spared no intellectual expense on his self-absorbed satire, parading his preferences and insecurities as though they were a matter of cultural authenticity. So, I paused to consider if they were. Was this Barris’ attempt at artistic purity, an unwillingness to step away from his narrow world view?

Apparently not. In an April interview with Newsweek Magazine, Barris expressed that his on-screen family was far from a fictional photocopy. Telling the interviewer, “The wife character is not so much based upon my kids’ mom other than her being biracial. I really took a different approach with [the wife character] this time — I wanted her to be a little bit more militant and a little more zany”.Militant? Zany? Call me crazy, but was this Barris’ bid on “outside the box”? Not some burdensome duty to the accurate depiction ofhis loved ones’ likeness? Not at all. We were simply seeing the unconscious coupling of Barris’ biases with his quest for visible validation. And boy, was it something to see.

Black, Where?!

Barris wouldn’t be the first Black man in Hollywood to display deference towards Black women of a lighter complexion in his castings, nor would he be the first to covet a woman of a lighter complexion under the covers. As it’s been stated many, many times before, even our conditioning has primed us for further conditioning. A Multi-City Study on Urban Inequality concluded that not only were lighter-skinned Black women more likely to be proposed marriage by Black men, especially in areas with low Black male populations, they were also more likely to be married to men of higher economic status, a practice known as financial hypergamy. This was no matter of collective preference, more a matter of collective programming. One fueled by the systemic celebration of lighter-skinned people within communities of color, a practice known as colorism.

(Left to Right) Zendaya Coleman; Zoe Kravitz; Zoe Saldana
(Left to Right) Zendaya Coleman; Zoe Kravitz; Zoe Saldana

Colorism is one of those constructs that didn’t end at emancipation, with India’s caste system sitting as one of the more egregious examples we have to date. With its’ citizens systematized into varying sectors of society, wherein they are sorted by skin, one’s place within India’s caste system predetermines access to education, feeding, social intercourse, marriage, occupation, housing, and just about every other aspect of human interaction. And while we may not be as brazen in our beaconing of this behavior, the elevation of lighter skin is hardly amiss in our communities, from inequality in education and earnings, to incarceration and socialization. We want to believe that we buried this beast back on the plantation, but our communities are crowded with evidence of its evolution. Colorism didn’t end; we simply decided not to see it.

But without too gaped a gaze we’d find it’s not that far away, conspicuously clinging to our subconscious partner selections. We’re no longer relegated to the cotton fields or the kitchen. But the sentiments associated with that period of the past permeated not only our oppressor’s offspring but ours as well. We internalized the association of whiteness with righteousness, a belief bolstered by an inherently rigid religion. It was evident down to our descriptions, that that bias was built into the language of this land. We weren’t “dark” or ”light” by default, our language was lined with a calculated contrast. And that language set out to define our character, not just our complexions.

What’s in a Name?

The word “fair” didn’t always defer to one’s place within the color continuum. Originally an Old English idiom used as a measure of weather, the word once inferred a bright and beautiful sunny day. But with its literal expansion came a literary one, one that broadened the scope of its symbolism. What began as a way to gauge the weather would become a way to gauge what was right, as the term quickly expanded its application from pleasantries to principles. Religious celebrations turned into Fair Days. Courts promised prisoners a fair day in court. To be “fair” was to be right and righteous, making fairness an ideal state of being. At the turn of the 12th century, the term travels down yet another fork in the road. This time finding its fit in the conversation on color and complexion, as illustrated in the film adaptation of 19th-century German folklore, “Snow White”. Depicting the desperation of an evil old auntie who simply couldn’t out-right or out-white her beloved niece, the film praised the pale princess, appropriately named Snow White. Highlighting her porcelain appearance as much as her principles, an intentional inference on moral standing, and the skin that comes with it.

There’s a reason we use the word “dark” to describe deeper complexions, a word that doubles as a descriptor for all things sinister and sad. Deriving from the Old English word “deorc”, the word once exclusively illustrated a lack of physical light, cheer, or brightness. Later, it would be used to infer on men and women what it implied about the mood and weather, a general sullenness, but of the soul, not of the sky. Later these concepts would collide with plantation politics and the color-coordinated categorization of African slaves in North and South America. Those within a richer range were presumed to have capped mental capacities, less moral wherewithal, natural aggression, and muscular build, making them more suited for intense physical labor. Meanwhile, those with “fair-skin” were seen as more intelligent, more docile, phenotypically more White-aligning, all-around more palatable versions of an otherwise unpleasant people. This dichotomy has always been deliberate.

The Hills Have Hue

Gone With the Wind Star, Hattie McDaniel, 1st Black Oscar winner
Gone With the Wind Star, Hattie McDaniel, 1st Black Oscar winner 

We’re a long way from the unyielding scorch of the field sun, even further from the facade of the front porch. But we’ve held dear to the damage it’s done on our psyches, as evidenced by our continued treatment of one another. When we set our sites on Hollywood after its inception in 1853, we took with us the same mentality that accosted our collective pride in the past. We backed up our bias, refusing to feel guilty for our favoritism. We scoffed at Hollywood for hollowing our heroines and watering our warriors. They had no room for a Hattie McDaniels kinda-headliner, a rich-skinned, full-figured, kinky-haired Black woman with an unmistakably African appearance. But truthfully, neither did we.

When given the opportunity, we propagated the very practices we rightfully accused Hollywood of perpetrating against us. Even the brownest of us bought into the caste that colorism created. We too held ourselves to a hued hierarchy, socially elevating what we subconsciously saw as both visually and virtuously superior. We grew up guided towards and guided by backward beauty standards that programmed us into preferring one brand of Blackness over the other. It’s no wonder when presented with the opportunity to portray Blackness from a more all-encompassing angle, we did everything but that.

We were no longer relegated to the roles White Hollywood rejected for themselves, maid or mammy, but Hollywood’s hued preference was far from absent from the spaces we actualized for ourselves. Hollywood wasn’t hand-selecting the Black bodies that popped up on our big screens, but we couldn’t tell the difference, it was clear that even when left to the vision of Black creatives, where the Black body intersected beauty was right about where it bordered Whiteness. Black directors continued to cast almost exclusively lighter-skinned actresses. Black writers continued to craft love stories around lighter complected women, religiously representing them as having access to more lavish lifestyles and love interests. Light-skinned characters, especially women, were fashioned as feminine, funny, virtuous, tough to attract, and hard to keep happy. Simultaneously, darker-skinned characters were depicted as mean-spirited, masculine, aggressive, jealous, and undesirable. Not in every single situation whereby a Black creative controlled the camera, but in enough for us to notice and normalize the notion. And that’s just what we did.

“Damn, Gina!”

We adapted to the act, the attitude, the Gina-Pam Dynamic. The light-skinned baddie with the bad-mouth, weave wearing, dark-skinned best friend. Those inferences became ideations, those ideations, identities. It’s seasons of Ms. Parker chasing Professor Oglevee while he lamented over the haughty light-skinned hottie of his dreams. It’s light-skinned Aunt Viv, a softer, sweeter version of her characters’ dark-skinned antecessor. It’s Zoe Saldana in a prosthetic nose and face paint, poorly portraying dark-skinned jazz legend, Nina Simone. It’s a dark-skinned princess hopping and hoofing for an otherwise unimpressed prince in Eddie Murphy’s Black classic film, Coming To America. It’s the prince relinquishing his birth-rite in pursuit of his light-skinned love interest, whose dark-skinned sister is simultaneously portrayed as promiscuous and pessimistic, quietly in a constant state of jealousy and competition. It’s the casting call for “Straight Outta Compton” assessing extras according to curl pattern and complexion. It’s not a matter of what we can’t see, it’s a measure of what we refuse to. 

Let’s be real, Rashida Jones is hardly as #BlackAF as they come. And she’s the last lady to come to mind when hearing another human disparagingly described as #BlackAF. Not because of cultural rejection or erasure, but simply because she’s not. We’re long overdue a conversation on the forced identification of people of mixed race. We sat on the internet for days debating how far back the Black scales tipped in favor of Drake’s two-year-old toddler, a child three-fourths white. It’s a subconscious desire to associate Blackness with an otherwise biracial aesthetic, an aesthetic actualized through genetically diluted Blackness. While the social identity of mixed raced individuals is solely their selection, their genetic makeup is a matter of biology. It doesn’t make them any less Black by social standards, but it does mean that there are aspects of the Black experience that differ for them, differ to the degree that they see benefits where others see barricades. 

Children of the Solomon Islands
Children of the Solomon Islands

Then, who IS #BlackAF… enough? Perhaps the Black mother so Black she “sweats coffee”, or the dark-skinned kid in gym class who can’t out-jog the ”African Booty Scratcher” jokes. Or maybe the young Black girl who gets called every kind of crude oil, or the Black boy who all but embraces his colorist childhood nicknames; Smoke, Soot, Midnight, Molasses. We know what it means to be #BlackAF when the situation calls for ridicule and deprecation. Why is it then, that Blackness under otherwise perfect pretenses is everything but Black to an equally tangible tint? Is it a coincidence that when it comes time to compliment Blackness, suddenly Black is without boundary. We travel to the ends of the Solomon Islands to defend our desire to see Blackness reflected in non-traditionally Black forms. We’re proud of our ability to replicate everyone’s racial markers but our own. Suddenly, there’s no white too white, no blonde too bleached, no eye too blue to constitute Black excellence.

I’m not Rooting for Everybody Black

And why does that matter anyway? After all, it IS still black, isn’t it? And if Black is Black and there’s no easy way to be Black, then what does it matter if the most visible of us aren’t all that categorically Black, to begin with? Shouldn’t we celebrate Black achievement in whatever shade it shows up, support our own, and applaud the artistic endeavors of Black creative minds? Who else is hiring little-known Black talent if not for these very visionaries, ground-breakers like Barris himself? Aren’t we supporting everybody Black, isn’t that the bigger picture?

Not exactly. The bigger picture calls for an honest observation, an in-depth dialogue pressing the stereotypical portrayal of Black people in television and motion picture, particularly where we prove to be complicit. It’s not the perpetual presence of lighter-skinned individuals that is the issue, it is, however, the overarching absence of darker-skinned ones, coupled with our unwillingness to acknowledge how that too is culturally threatening.

People Beautiful Issue; Beauties of the Year 2020
People Beautiful Issue; Beauties of the Year 2020

Every year, People Magazine publishes its annual list of the most beautiful people in Hollywood, crowning one individual People’s Most Beautiful Person. Throughout the thirty plus issues of the celebrity special edition, many women (and men) have graced the coveted cover, only four of them have been individuals of color. The rest, your everyday, average looking white men and white women, and not just any ole white, #WhiteAF. Blue or brown eyes, blonde or brown bone-straight hair, thin features, pale complexion, you name it, the whole white nine. There’s no confusion as to what constitutes beauty in the white community, attractiveness is intentionally attainable for the average, everyday white girl. And on any given day, the cover of any white-owned magazine goes above and beyond to deliver that message loud and clear. Their it girl IS your average All-American girl next door, the Reese Witherspoon up the road. America’s favorite white girl is actually #WhiteAF, and for once, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Can you imagine, for a moment, a world where a woman like Halle berry was the five-time People Magazine cover winner as opposed to a Julia Roberts, heralded as the standard of beauty, not just for us, but for them as well? If America’s sweetheart looked a little more like Tracee Ellis Ross or Jurnee Smollet-Bell, can you imagine the impact their image would have? Yeah, white America can’t either. 

How difficult then would it be for the average white girl to grow up feeling beautiful, in a world where the Brittany Murphy’s and the Drew Barrymore’s and the Kristen Stewart’s didn’t exist? Would we force-feed her a sarcastic song about self-love management, chastise her for not seeing herself when she looked up at the screen? Try to convince her that any White is White enough, all while treating her as though she were just a cut below the cusp?

Pretty for a Dark-Skinned Girl

This is why any Black body won’t do. Diversity and inclusion don’t begin and end in White spaces, nor are Black people free from the real need for adequate representation. Besides, if it were all #BlackAF anyway and that blackness knew no barometer, we wouldn’t be hiding from the sun in the summer or calling darker-skinned girls “pretty” as an exception to some unspoken rule. It’s not enough, then, to say that those who suffer from said mistreatment are responsible for their own restorative efforts, especially when we, as a community, take every action and inaction to further their brokenness. Nor is it enough to deduce this discussion to a vow for validation, we know that representation for girls is about much more than the male gaze. We champion the inclusion and visibility of brown bodies in white minority spaces, we’re radical for the just causes of every other community of color, yet when it comes to that same cause in our own, we’d rather play possum. Why is it that colorism in other communities is met with compassion, but the discussion among our own is deemed divisive?

Yet, we can acknowledge that an overall lack of representation and inclusion are what bring Black girls to YouTube, desperately trying to force their kinks into curls and contouring their noses down to the carcass. Our mouths won’t acknowledge the implied hierarchy, but our minds know the difference. Rapper Glokknine said it best in a viral interview, for many, the burden their dark skin affords them is one they hope is a “one-time thing”. Their much lighter offspring, they believe, will grow to reap the benefits of a form of Blackness that isn’t all that visibly Black, while enjoying the richness that Black collective culture affords them, some call it self-hate, others, survival. Dark-skinned inclusion isn’t light-skinned erasure, it’s the responsible representation of a portion of our community that has perpetually gone unseen. And any concern that more all of us equates less of some of is simply highlighting evidence of a privilege that a portion of us are unwilling to part with.

At the 2018 Beautycon Festival, actress Zendaya spoke on the Black obligation, the call on all Black creatives to be beacons of change in and on behalf of Black communities. “As a black woman, as a light-skinned black woman”, she said to a packed house, “it’s important that I’m using my privilege, my platform to show you how much beauty there is in the African-American community. I am Hollywood’s, I guess you could say, acceptable version of a black girl,” she continued, “and that needs to change. We’re vastly too beautiful and too interesting for me to be the only representation of that. What I’m saying, it’s about creating those opportunities. Sometimes you have to create those paths. And that’s with anything, Hollywood, art, whatever.”

Is Kenya Barris bound by that same obligation, called to a cause by the collective experiences our skin has afforded us? Some might argue so. And let’s say for the sake of argument that we are indeed obligated to the support of our own, and they, in turn, to the call of their community. Then with that duty, Barris and other Black creatives are bound by more than just the realistic representation of the kind of Black they go home to. Aspiration art that ignores the ordinary is no longer enough, nor will well-scripted narcissism suffice. Little Black boys and girls should get to grow up in a world where their bare beauty is affirmed, no filters required, no procedures necessary, no matter how brown their beauty may be, and certainly without being told to look elsewhere to see it. What good is a community that refuses to affirm its own future? Trick question. It isn’t any good, and therein lies the Black ass problem. To truthfully be #BlackAF is to embrace Blackness in all its many forms, including the forms you don’t personally fancy. And to do so with duty, at least until it no longer feels like one.

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