From Slavery to Hollywood, Colorism Still Grips America

Not surprisingly colorism finds its roots in the slave era of the United States. It was yet another strategy used by slave owners to divide and differentiate captured slaves

"If you're white, that's all right.
If you're brown, stick around.
But if you're Black, oh brother get back, get back, get back."

The refrain from American blues singer and guitarist Big Bill Broonzy can be heard in his 1951 song "Black, Brown and White." The jingle may be unfamiliar to some. But its meaning is painfully clear. It's about the widespread discrimination against Black Americans in general and darker-skinned Black people in particular.

Ask the average person on the street to define racism and you'll get a PowerPoint presentation complete with charts, graphs and intricate timelines. Ask the same person to define "colorism" and you're apt to get blank stares.

So let's start with a basic definition.

What is Colorism?

Colorism is a pattern of discrimination against people of color with darker skin that rewards or promotes people of color with lighter skin and is intimately connected to the larger system of structural racism.

That's the textbook definition. Now consider colorism in practice. Many familiar with Black history could tell you about the "brown paper bag test." It's a term used to describe a colorist discriminatory practice within the Black community in the 20th century in which a Black person's skin tone is compared to the color of a brown paper bag. If you weren’t as “light” in skin color as a brown paper bag, you weren’t allowed to join certain social organizations.

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Or flash forward many decades and consider the uproar in 1994, when Time Magazine came under fire for digitally darkening the mugshot of O.J. Simpson on its cover, which many critics said was intended to make him appear even more menacing.

Dr. Margaret Hunter, senior director for the Centers for Educational Justice and Community Engagement at the University of California, Berkeley, has intimately studied the topic of colorism for decades. She believes it has pervaded nearly all aspects of life for people of color.

"For example, looking at African-Americans or South Asians, you can see very clear differences by skin tone for things like income, educational attainment, spousal status, the kind of neighborhood you live in, how integrated or racially segregated the neighborhood is, down to the kind of criminal justice sentences that people receive, school-based discipline, all kinds of things," Hunter says.

Where Did Colorism Originate?

Not surprisingly colorism finds its roots in the slave era of the United States. According to Hunter, it was yet another strategy used by slave owners to divide and differentiate captured slaves. "I think a lot of people are familiar with the idea of lighter-skinned African-Americans when they were enslaved working in the house as opposed to in the field. Those distinctions were common during the slave era in the United States."

But in 2020 colorism still has its roots firmly entrenched in many aspects of society.

"It's like a popularity contest. Like, the person who's voted homecoming queen is always the light-skinned girl... to more significant things like when groups of students are interviewed for a scholarship. Did the scholarship committee feel somehow 'more comfortable' with the light-skinned young man who ends up winning the scholarship? Those kinds of things are part of the day-to-day," Hunter says.

Hollywood's Take on Colorism

It's a topic Hollywood has both tackled and struggled with in recent years. In 2019, an episode of the ABC hit "Black-ish" confronted the subject head-on. In the episode "Black Like Us," parents Dre and Bow (played by Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross) are appalled when they see that daughter Diane (Marsai Martin) appears darker in her poorly lit classroom photo. Speaking about the episode, co-showrunner Kenny Smith said, "We felt that this was the year to just put it on our shoulders and see what we can do and hope at the very least we can get people to talk about it openly."

In 2016, a furor erupted over a movie trailer showing actress Zoe Saldana portraying singer and activist Nina Simone. Saldana's skin was darkened and she wore a prosthetic nose for the role.

And when promotional images from the animated movie "Ralph Breaks the Internet" came out in 2018, it appeared Princess Tiana, Disney's first Black princess, had a lighter complexion and sharper features than she did in "The Princess and the Frog" in 2009 — and even compared to an earlier trailer for the movie. Anika Noni Rose, who voices Tiana, met with animators and spoke about how important it was that dark-skinned girls see themselves represented.

That speaks to another piece of colorism that Hunter says is not as easily measured — its devastating emotional impact. "I think that for many people who have darker skin, women especially, there can be a lot of pain connected to family relations, messages about their own status in the family or worth. And those things can be really painful."

One Mother's Experience

Cynthia Jackson experienced that pain and frustration firsthand four years ago, when her then three-year-old daughter asked her, "Mommy, why don't I have white hair and why does my skin look like this?"

"It was hurtful for me because I just didn't expect to have this conversation so early on," Jackson said. "For her to be so aware of differences early on. Being a Black female, I'm aware that my kids are going to have to deal with certain things. I just thought that it would be when they got older."

But Jackson said most of the day her daughter was surrounded by white friends, white teachers and white church members. "It caused her to question her self-image," Jackson said." So there was a range of emotions with that experience."

In response, Jackson and her husband created an online company, Tiny Tots & Tikes, that produces various products, from wall decals to children's books, that reflect positive Black images so that little Black girls and boys are inspired and proud of the way they look.

"I really wanted to have products that had a positive representation of Black children, whether that's the illustrations and the children's books or just something that inspired them on T-shirts. I wanted them to have positive representation with the world."

Jackson adds, "We are very conscious of creating...whether through books or wall decals... Black images that have different skin tones. You know, being Black is such a beautiful thing. We have so many different shades and melanin. So we really just try to lean into that and represent the variety of voices that we that we have in our culture."