#FeelNoShame Series: Colorism
Back in October of last year, I wrote about singer/songwriter Maxwell’s new music video Shame.
The video written and directed by the famed writer/director duo Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz gained much critical acclaim, because the visual celebrated African American beauty in a way that is not usually customary in the fashion and entertainment industry.
The models in the video were not only Black, but were also darker complected.
Historically, the entertainment industry has had a problem with portraying dark-skinned individuals in a positive light.
Variety quoted Maxwell as saying, “We wanted to celebrate beauty. Specifically the beauty of Black women. Black women- Black people- don’t see themselves heralded as a standard of beauty nearly enough in the media, especially in entertainment, high fashion and art.”
The singer went on to explain that people of color have been made to feel shame about all of their natural physical attributes- skin tone included. He ended in saying, “This video is a love letter to my women of color. Feel no shame in your skin- you are beyond beautiful.
Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz also contributed to the article with this quote, “Shame is a bold, sexy, audacious statement, that is meant to catalyze a conversation around extending beauty norms beyond European sensibilities.”
The elephant still standing in the room after both of these charming, yet very politically correct quotes is the age old conversation of colorism.
Colorism is a hard word which contains an even harder and more wounding history. I’ve wanted to write this article every day since the moment I viewed the Shame visual, but since this is such a very sensitive subject, it took nearly five months for me to gain enough courage to do so.
Walk with me as I endeavor to unveil the concept of colorism and the shame it has created for millions of Black people on a broad scale.
What is Colorism
Colorism is basically discrimination against people of the same race based on the hue of their skin. Typically, inside of the black race, lighter skin is viewed as more favorable and attractive while darker skin is labeled as unattractive.
How Did Colorism Get Its Start?
Knowing exactly what started colorism is very difficult to pinpoint, because it exists not just internationally among blacks, but also nearly every race of color suffers from the effects and injustice of colorism globally.
People in India, South America, China, and many other places have had their self-worth and even lives tried by the fires of color discrimination.
It has been argued that colorism might have gotten its start from white colonizers who inhabited the world and tried to push lighter skin off as a standard of beauty.
In America, however there is a clear history surrounding colorism.
The Inception of Colorism in America
During slavery, many white male slave owners would rape black women and conceive children with lighter toned skin.
Because these children belonged to the slave master, favorism was often shown. Mixed race children with fair skin were given easier tasks and sometime offered paying jobs, education, or freedom.
Another reason colorism took off in America is because of the Willie Lynch doctrine.
In 1712, William Lynch, a British slave owner in the West Indies, gave a speech in the Virginia colony. The speech was on how to “break” slaves into obedience so that they would stay mentally as well as physically enslaved.
One of Lynch’s wicked tactics was to find the slightest differences between slaves and make them feel inferior because of it.
Lynch’s exact words were, “The black slaves after receiving this indoctrination shall carry on and will become self refueling and self generating for hundreds of years, maybe thousands. Don’t forget you must pitch the old black male vs. the young black male, and the young black male against the old black male. You must use the dark skin slaves vs. the light skin slaves, and the light skin slaves vs. the dark skin slaves.”
Apparently, Lynch’s instructions swept the nation and of all the ideas he had about who to pitch against whom, the light skin vs. dark skin battle won hands down.
Lynch’s suggestion started a riff in the black community that would last for years to come.
How Colorism Effected Black People Thoughout History
As I stated before, lighter-skinned slaves began having privileges such as getting to work in the shade of the master’s house instead of the scorching heat of the fields.
Light-skinned privileges did not end after slavery. Post-slavery, better jobs like secretarial positions were offered to blacks of a lighter hue.
An often repeated story in my own family history is a dark fact of colorism. My grandmother’s grandmother was bi-racial and raised by her white father along with his white wife and white children.
Even though each child, grandchild, great-grandchild, and even great-great-grandchild after her married darker-skinned black men and women (interesting, now that I thing of it), the off-spring by way of my maternal side has remained fair-skinned and the first two generations were nearly able to ‘pass’ as white.
When one of my great-aunts found herself in an abusive marriage, my mother as a child overheard another one of my aunts scold, “Ruby should just get a job. Her skin is light enough to work anywhere she wants!”
Yes, you read that correctly. In the 1950’s in the classified portion of the newspaper, especially in our home states of Alabama and Georgia, there were actually job listings for “light-skinned negros”.
Willie Lynch was right about one thing, his doctrine lasted for hundreds of years and caused many blacks to divide among themselves.
Light-skin became the “right skin” and many black social clubs and even historically black colleges, fraternities and sororities only accepted light-skinned individuals.
Sadly, the infamous Brown Paper Bag Test, a test in which black people were only allowed entrance into a job or social club if their skin was lighter than a brown paper bag, was not created by whites but African-Americans.
African-Americans associated light-skin with white privilege so much that it caused real division amongst the community.
Colorism in the Entertainment Industry
Black people of all shades had an incredibility hard time breaking into the entertainment industry. Once finally there, there was a clear divide in which roles which shade would get to portray.
Lighter skin actresses like Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne were placed in sexy roles where they were sought after and adored. While darker-skin actresses like Hattie McDaniel and Ethel Waters only got to portray the roles of maids or mammies.
Theresa Harris who famously played a maid in Hollywood for decades is quoted as saying, “ I never had the chance to rise above the role of maid in Hollywood movies. My color was against me anyway you looked at it. The fact that I was not “hot” stamped me either as uppity or relegated me to the eternal role of stooge or servant […] My ambition is to be an actress. Hollywood had no parts for me.”
Easy Listening Crooner Nat “King” Cole had his own variety show in the mid-1950’s. During one particular day of taping, a make-up artist purposely tried to cover Cole’s beautiful dark skin with very light talcum power to whitewash his appearance.
By the 1970’s, dark skin took common place on television; however, lighter skin was still glorified into the 1980’s especially in music videos.
Watch Babyface’s 1990 video, Whip Appeal, and notice that the models are mostly white or light-skinned black women. When the video does pan to a very pretty dark-skinned girl who is a fictitious audience member, she has significantly less screen time than the lighter models.
This was the standard in the televised music video and darker-skinned women don’t seem to get the acknowledgment or celebration they deserved into the mid-1990’s.
Colorism in Fashion
High fashion remained a realm fairly inaccessible to black models.
Behind the scenes, a black woman made all the fashions worn by Mary Todd Lincoln, a black woman designed Jackie Kenndey’s wedding dress, and a black woman also manufactured the Playboy bunny costume.
However black people were not truly thought of as a visible standard of beauty until Donyale Luna.
Luna is recognized as the first black supermodel and the first black person to cover Vogue. She was a lighter skinned black woman, but often lied about being mixed race to the press, probably for the white privilege associated with being bi-racial.
She was often photographed with foundation that was too light for her skin tone and colored contacts. Devices used to make Luna appear more fair skinned than she actually was.
When Naomi Sims broke into modeling industry a few years later, she was told she was too dark by many modeling agencies.
By the 1970’s however, black women of all shades started to share success in the fashion industry. Unfortunately, the color divided was still silently there.
Model Tyra Banks who enjoyed great success in the 1990’s into the 2000’s shares that she was told early on in her career that she would have an easy time booking deals because of her light-skin and light eyes.
In recent history though, there has been a decline in black models of all skin tones. This is an issue that model Iman, Naomi Campbell, and Bethann Hardison who call themselves the Diversity Coalition are trying to address and rectify.
Colorism is still a major problem in the black community, in all sectors of living.
Rapper Kodak Black and many other celebrities have expressed their personal dislike of dark-skin, despite being dark-skinned themselves.
Kodak Black rapped in his song Snap Sh** , “Where them yellow bones? I don’t want no black [explicit]. I’m already black, don’t need no black [explicit].
On his Instgram Live Kodak retorted when asked by a fan what he thought of the beautiful dark-skinned actress Keke Palmer, “I’d bag her, but I don’t really like black girls like that, sorta kinda.”
Yung Mimi from the rap group City Girls tweeted this defamatory statement against dark-skinned women:
Comedian Kevin Hart also wrote a tweet against dark-skinned women:
Former professional basketball player Gilbert Arenas took to Instagram to express that Black women with true African features are “only cute when the lights are off.”
Not only is the issue of complexion a problem in entertainment, there is the problem of employment.
A study from the University of Georgia entitled, Colorism the Job Selection Process: Are There Preferential Differences within the Black Race? found that light-skinned Black men with less education and qualifications were more likely than dark-skinned-Black men with more education and qualifications to be preferred for a job.
Another study published in the journal Social Currents conducted by Lance Hannon of Villanova University found that white interviewers thought of light-skinned blacks and Hispanics as more intelligent than blacks and Hispanics with darker skin.
What’s worst is a study by Jill Viglione Et al., found that lighter-skinned Black female criminals were given a more lenient prison sentence and severed significantly less time incarcerated.
For entirely too long, dark skin has been a point of shame for many Black people. I fervently wish for the day where Black beauty is seen as beauty, Black intelligence as sheer intelligence and not quantified by shade.
It is so devastating to know that as a race we have allowed colorism to divide us and make us feel inferior based on something so wildly insignificant.
The time has come and is long overdue, for shame to be removed from the faces of all people who have been made to feel embarrassed over the hue of their skin.
Dark skin is absolutely beautiful. Its soft incandescent glow is one of the most elegant mysteries of the universe. The paradox of fragility and strength of its tone makes dark skin thousands of times more artistic than the Mona Lisa -more precious than pure jade from the East.
Dark skin is not a curse, it is a blessing that deserves constant praise.
It is important to understand colorism’s real inception was rooted in jealously.
White colonist desired to know the secrets of such natural beauty so they raped dark-skinned women. In their shame for their personal lack of self-control, they tried to glorify the white skin they secretly hated.
The suntan/self-tanner/ tanning bed/ and the genral tanning industry would not be worth billions of dollars today if dark skin was truly undesirable. Several of my white friends even pay a monthly subscription to visit a tanning bed so their white skin can remind ‘dark’ year round.
Brothers and sisters, feel no shame. You are a work of art, you are the standard of beauty .
Join Sissi Johnson’s #feelnoshamechallenge on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter and share your story about overcoming personal shame. Checkout this article for more information about the song and visual that started a ‘shameless’ movement.