Colorism Is The Conversation We Should All Be Having

Her Voice

"When I think of colorism, I think of light-skinned versus dark-skinned and, being that I am a black woman, my thoughts definitely go towards my own community. I think of instances where attractiveness and perceived worthiness go hand-in-hand, just because of the shade of my complexion. I think of lighter-skinned people being automatically held at a higher value simply because they aren't dark-skinned."Sheriden Chanel, managing editor, xoNecole

I find it pretty fascinating (and also a sign) that, as I'm sitting down to pen this, the second episode of the fourth season of Queen Sugar is on. The scene that I'm watching consists of Charley—a biracial woman—reading a passage out of her sister Nova's—a dark-skinned woman's—book.


In it, the topic of colorism comes up. Here's just a part of what Charley read back to Nova that Nova wrote about her:

"My sister. Born to privilege, raised with wealth and half-bathed in whiteness, used her light skin as her shield and her sword. Weapons, in every room she entered, every deal she made…she used her honey skin to keep her safe, all the while keeping her complicit in the continued oppression of Black bodies."

Colorism. In this case, it's not just between a light-skinned and dark-skinned woman, but also between a light-skinned woman who happens to be biracial. Bookmark that, OK? I'll be coming back to it. But first...

The Pop Culture of Colorism

Before going any deeper into this, please forgive me in advance, because colorism is something that deserves to be a docu-series and a five-day seminar and a series of TED Talks and…and…and. Yet here, there are simply not enough inches to give the topic all of the unpacking that it truly deserves; not even close. Still, with headlines like "Scottie Beam Talks Light Skin vs. Dark Skin Colorism, the Humanitarian Crisis in Sudan & More [Video]" "Mathew Knowles Talks Colorism's Role in Beyoncé's Music Career" and (sigh) "Tory Lanez Responds to Claims He Staged Video Allegedly Showing Colorism (UPDATE)" that were published, all in one week, my editor and I agreed that while this can lean towards being a "touchy subject", that doesn't mean that we shouldn't acknowledge it.

And by "acknowledge", I just mean, let Black women know that I/we see you. Light, in between light and dark, and dark-skinned alike. We know that colorism is something that shouldn't be ignored, sugar-coated or skirted around, especially within our own community. We get that although it can be uncomfortable, and even sometimes painful to explore the issues of color, it must be done. It's irresponsible not to. Full stop.


That said, I want to initially approach the traditional definition of the word from this angle. Because I am (mostly) a relationships writer, I think colorism is quite… "bold" is the word that immediately comes to mind when it comes to the dating scene; especially the celebrity dating scene. As a popular YouTube blogger by the name of Paris Milan—who regularly addresses the issue of colorism (along with other beautiful sistahs like Leah Gordone, I Am Eloho and Chrissie, who is the publisher of the magazineDivine Dark Skin)—and I were discussing her feelings about colorism, we took a moment to try and think of famous Black men who were with dark-skinned Black women. We both sat in silence for quite a while. A few came to mind (Idris Elba, Dwyane Wade, Keith Powers), but what we agreed on is that we shouldn't have had to strain our brains to come up with some. "I think there is something to be said for preference," said Paris.

Then after a pause, she continued, "I also believe that it often is a mask for colorism. It's very interesting that a lot of Black men will make sure to say that they love Black women, but we never see them with us. It's like they know that they have to cater to us in some way because we are their audience, but their words don't line up with their actions. In their personal life, women are light, biracial or white."

"To me, when your message doesn't line up with your life, that's when it crosses over into pandering. And there is certainly a lot of that. And, if you don't want to discuss it, you're deflecting."

I agree. Colorism definitely goes beyond relationships, though. Paris and I also discussed how dark-skinned characters like Pam (from Martin) and Maxine (from Living Single) may have made their shows in a lot of ways, but they were also loud and, as Paris put it, "less feminine than many of the other characters". Was that by design? Or even if you fast forward to now, many Black people don't feel like the Blackish spinoff Mixedish is must-see TV because "Blackish is already mixed", and as another Black YouTuber by the name of Masani Musa said, "Biracial people are dominating Black spaces in entertainment".


Then there's music visuals. When's the last time you saw a chocolate (a descriptive that Paris said made her feel "delectable") sistah as the romantic lead? Or even when you look at the pics from the nights when Miss USA, Miss Teen USA and Miss America won their titles, why is it that the two light-skinned women (Cheslie Kryst and Kaliegh Garris who also happen to be biracial) didn't straighten their hair, but Nia Franklin, the dark-skinned winner, did? Was that personal preference or pressure? Colorism is everywhere, y'all. And I do mean everywhere.

The "Lighter" Side of Colorism

Remember how, at the top of this piece, I asked you to "bookmark" the fact that Charley was not only light-skinned but biracial? I think her experience has its own subtle sides of colorism. Tia Mowry-Hardrict released a semi-recent video entitled "Growing Up Multiracial. It's COMPLICATED!" and, last April, actor and activist Jesse Williams (whose mother is white and father is Black) shared with Sway his thoughts on colorism. At the 26:00 mark in the interview, he speaks on the fact that he finds it to be "unnecessary" and "self-imposed complication" to complain about the challenges of being biracial, although he admits that it can be confusing to unpack.

"We live in America," Jesse expounded. "This country's racial politics are so poisonous and clear. Race doesn't exist scientifically, but it exists in real life…lived experience matters. Your personal experience matters and I'm only a product of mine. It feels like I'm almost…gonna sound insensitive, but it's a lot harder to be f—kin' Black. Do you know how easy it is to be biracial and mixed?...I imagine it is a lot more confusing to be dark-skinned. And be told that you're trash, but we also want to worship you and be like you. But we hate you. I've gotten so much in my life because I'm light, because I have light eyes. It's way easier, period."

I wonder. When Jesse speaks of the privileges that he has or how accepted it is that he feels in mainstream society, how much of that is about how "light" he is vs. how much white that is in him? Is there too an issue of colorism as it relates to light-skinned Blacks and biracial individuals? Are they automatically one in the same? Have we forgotten race-related facts like, "Not only does the one-drop rule apply to no other group than American blacks, but apparently the rule is unique in that it is found only in the United States and not in any other nation in the world"?

Do we realize the damage that this rhetoric alone has done?

My godchildren's mom, Rissi Palmer, an artist and activist, is a light-skinned Black woman, would probably not easily pass the South African hair "pencil test" (another byproduct of racism). And yet, she finds it off-the-charts offensive whenever people assume that she must be mixed or when she hears that she has "good hair".

"I'll admit that I have some PTSD from my childhood when it comes to this," shares Rissi. "But I didn't really struggle until I went to a school that had a lot of Black children in it. There is when I was told that I wasn't 'black enough'. Honestly, I think the white kids listened in and caught on to the fact that within my own ethnicity, there were issues with color. Then they started to mimic statements like 'You're not Black Black.' Do I think that dark-skinned Blacks have it much harder? Definitely. But I do think that light-skinned Blacks have been infected by whites and their constant attacks on us as a whole too. At the end of the day, they want us all to not feel like we are good enough. Skin tone and hair texture doesn't matter, so long as we hate ourselves—and each other."



Colorism Divides. However, Talking About It Does Enlighten.

"So many of us are brainwashed by white supremacy and don't even know it," Paris states. "As a result, a lot of us project colorism, without realizing it. But here's how you can know if you've got issues with colorism. If you associate skin tones with someone being better or more attractive. If you use phrases like 'good hair' to describe a person. If you're surprised when someone with a dark complexion excels in a particular field, you have colorism issues, no doubt about it. And you know what? Gone are the days when dark-skinned people are afraid to tackle these topics head-on. We don't have to conform to any kind of standard of beauty or expectation and we're going to spread awareness to let others know that they don't have to either. Black is beautiful. That's a complete sentence."

After I got off of the phone with Paris, I put on a song by a friend of mine named Classik Levine who's an independent artist in Louisville. It's called "DSGWAB" and that stands for Dark Skin Girl with a Body. I remember when it first came out and some light-skinned women were like, "Why does he have to single out dark women?" Meanwhile, I was more like, "Where are your T-shirts, so that I can buy them for some of the chocolate women that I know?" I think I responded that way because my mother is light. My father was chocolate. My complexion is somewhere in between.

My point? We all are Black. We all deserve to be seen, honored and celebrated for being Black. Not one more than the other. Period.

Articles like "The Varying Skin Colors of Africa: Light, Dark, and All in Between" are blaring reminders that our diversity—all of the hues of Blackness—is a part of what makes us…us. Colorism blinds us to this very fact because it's designed to. That makes it a cancer. A disease. Something that works against, not for us, as a people. And yes, we must talk about it. Not deflect. Not duck and dodge. We must hit it straight on. Consistently so. How can we heal if we don't?

"I don't think colorism is talked about enough," shares Sheriden. "In fact, I've heard members of my community say that by talking about things like that, we make ourselves more divisive. I don't think acknowledgement in that regard is inherently divisive, as much as it's bringing awareness to an aspect of the community that might feel undervalued and underserved."

If you don't agree with that, you already know what I'm about to say. You, sis, have a real problem when it comes to colorism; not a little bit, but period. And there ain't nothin' good, healthy, positive or beneficial about that. Not even if you believe that you only have a so-called "one drop" of it in you.

Featured image by Getty Images.

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A music lover since childhood, Amira grew up in an artistic household where passion for music was emphasized. “My dad has always been my huge inspiration for music because he’s a musician himself and is so passionate about the history of music.” Amira’s also dealt with deafness in one ear since she was a toddler, a condition which she says only makes her more “intentional” about the music she makes, to ensure that what she hears inside her head can translate the way she wants it to for audiences.

“The loss of hearing means a person can’t experience music in the conventional way,” she says. “I’ve always responded to bigger, bolder anthemic songs because I can feel them [the vibrations] in my body, and I want to be sure my music does this for deaf/HOH people and everyone.”

A Black woman wearing a black hijab and black and gold dress stands in between two men who are both wearing black pants and colorful jackets and necklaces

Amira Unplugged and other contestants on Becoming a Popstar

Amira Unplugged / MTV

In order to lift people’s spirits at the beginning of the pandemic, Amira began posting videos on TikTok of herself singing and using sign language so her music could reach her deaf fans as well. She was surprised by how quickly she was able to amass a large audience. It was through her videos that she caught the attention of a talent scout for MTV’s new music competition show for rising TikTok singers, Becoming a Popstar. After a three-month process, Amira was one of those picked to be a contestant on the show.

Becoming a Popstar, as Amira describes, is different from other music competition shows we’ve all come to know over the years. “Well, first of all, it’s all original music. There’s not a single cover,” she says. “We have to write these songs in like a day or two and then meet with our producers, meet with our directors. Every week, we are producing a full project for people to vote on and decide if they’d listen to it on the radio.”

To make sure her deaf/HOH audiences can feel her songs, she makes sure to “add more bass, guitar, and violin in unique patterns.” She also incorporates “higher pitch sounds with like chimes, bells, and piccolo,” because, she says, they’re easier to feel. “But it’s less about the kind of instrument and more about how I arrange the pattern of the song. Everything I do is to create an atmosphere, a sensation, to make my music a multi-sensory experience.”

She says that working alongside the judges–pop stars Joe Jonas and Becky G, and choreographer Sean Bankhead – has helped expand her artistry. “Joe was really more about the vocal quality and the timber and Becky was really about the passion of [the song] and being convinced this was something you believed in,” she says. “And what was really great about [our choreographer] Sean is that obviously he’s a choreographer to the stars – Lil Nas X, Normani – but he didn’t only focus on choreo, he focused on stage presence, he focused on the overall message of the song. And I think all those critiques week to week helped us hone in on what we wanted to be saying with our next song.”

As her star rises, it’s been both her Muslim faith and her friends, whom she calls “The Glasses Gang” (“because none of us can see!”), that continue to ground her. “The Muslim and the Muslima community have really gone hard [supporting me] and all these people have come together and I truly appreciate them,” Amira says. “I have just been flooded with DMs and emails and texts from [young muslim kids] people who have just been so inspired,” she says. “People who have said they have never seen anything like this, that I embody a lot of the style that they wanted to see and that the message hit them, which is really the most important thing to me.”

A Black woman wears a long, salmon pink hijab, black outfit and pink boots, smiling down at the camera with her arm outstretched to it.

Amira Unplugged

Amira Unplugged / MTV

Throughout the show’s production, she was able to continue to uphold her faith practices with the help of the crew, such as making sure her food was halal, having time to pray, dressing modestly, and working with female choreographers. “If people can accept this, can learn, and can grow, and bring more people into the fold of this industry, then I’m making a real difference,” she says.

Though she didn’t win the competition, this is only the beginning for Amira. Whether it’s on Becoming a Popstar or her videos online, Amira has made it clear she has no plans on going anywhere but up. “I’m so excited that I’ve gotten this opportunity because this is really, truly what I think I’m meant to do.”

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