Colourism in Hollywood. Colourism in Bollywood. Colourism in the words, unnoticed within the quick stream of a rap song, that imply that someone who looks like my mom isn’t worth the effort. Worth anything.
Hate is a powerful background noise which builds up over time. But how am I supposed to feel as someone who is biracial*? Why does the lighter-skinned Black girl get all the spotlight? How am I supposed to feel when I ask myself the same thing? Colourism is another layer of racism, peeled back from people within the same community, with the same traditions and sometimes within the same family. Colourism is when someone who has more “European” features, is lighter-skinned and generally considered to be “Fair & Lovely”** is rewarded for these features of their appearance. To have lighter skin within a group of darker-skinned people anywhere often translates into privilege. To have a different shade within a colour can be desired, but only when it is rewarded by the collective.
As a young, rebellious child, I’d idolize the white male actors Hollywood placed in my central line of vision. Anyone else was peripheral – filling the sidelines as a Mentor, Ally, or Guardian. Lando Calrissian in Star Wars, Dionne in Clueless, and Micheal in The Blind Side are all the curtains we pull back to reveal The Heros (Han Solo, Cher, and Leigh). But recently I’ve found that these same curtains are opening with a reflection of myself on center stage. I’m growing suspicious – not proud. Not satisfied, but confused.
Zendaya and Laura Harrier in Spiderman. Alisha Boe in Thirteen Reasons Why. Zazie Beetz in Deadpool 2. Amandla Stenberg in The Hate U Give. Yara Shahidi in Grownish. Logan Browning in Dear White People. Alexandra Shipp in X-Men. Nathalie Emmanuel in Game of Thrones.
To be clear, I think this is a great step forward. Albeit a small, calculated step which makes no promise of moving any further. It is all too easy to imagine producers and casting agents patting their own backs as darker-skinned Asian, Indigenous, Latinx, Black girls, and more sit waiting for their turn. I say producers and casting agents because I believe that although a young, lighter-skinned actress has the power to decline a role (as Amandla Stenberg allegedly did for a role in Black Panther), the former have more power and responsibility concerning these decisions.
So many young racially-ambiguous women and too few of so many other people. Feeling more guilt with every casting that could’ve made someone else feel seen and accepted and beautiful and smart and bad-ass. Growing shame because it feels as if I want this: an over-saturation of spotlight. It is troubling to accept that my identity has become a trend.
Is a girl only desirable, smart, and funny, when she has features which conform to Western beauty standards and is only slightly non-white? A bite-size chunk of diversity, comfortable food for the supposedly white consumer. Change should not be watered-down so as to make it digestible to those who oppose it. Change is uncomfortable and designed to jolt us all awake. Not compromised upon so some can hear the disturbance, the noise from outside, and continue to sleep.
Insecure, an HBO series starring Issa Rae, celebrates the awkward Black girl in all her glory. Black Panther acknowledges that Black, darker-skinned characters can be funny, fierce, and proud (as well as evil). The Farewell shows how East Asian characters deal with grief in different ways within a family. Roma teaches us that Mexican women have important stories to tell.
These narratives demonstrate that the colour of someone’s skin does not limit their ability to feel, think and be. But sometimes a specific message is repeated on TV, through song, at work, by friends, teachers, and coaches. Anyone can internalize this message and plant a seed of doubt within themselves.
When Alexandra Shipp, biracial, was cast as Storm in X-Men, even though the character in the comics was dark-skinned.
To darker-skinned Black women: you are not enough.
When Yara Shahidi and Charles Melton, both biracial, were cast as leads in a movie based on a book about immigrants from Jamaica and Korea, respectively. When both of the families in this movie looked different: not biracial.
To Korean and Jamaican young women and men: you are not enough.
When Naomi Scott, biracial, was cast as Jasmine in Aladdin.
To darker-skinned South Asian/Middle-Eastern women: you are not enough.
As someone who is biracial/racially-ambiguous/honestly I don’t really know, I recognize my privilege. As a consumer it is my responsibility to challenge what I’m seeing and call it out for what it is. Colourism: hate by another name. It is quite clear that silence won’t get us anywhere. Silence is too often mistaken for consent.
All I’m asking is that we, consumers of popular culture, openly criticize what we consume. Representation just for the sake of representation isn’t always a good thing, especially if it comes with the exclusion of an entire group of people (read: darker-skinned people of colour). So maybe it is time to ask ourselves why that side-character fulfills a trope and not a fully-fledged role/the lighter-skinned Black girl is nicer and smarter than the darker-skinned Black girl on that TV show/that woman of colour is portrayed as exotic and hypersexualized before she is properly introduced.
These examples may sound insignificant, but they add up, creating a wall of stereotype and prejudice around people of colour built by the subtle suggestions of popular culture. Chipping away at these walls to reveal the people hidden behind them takes time, vulnerability and a desire for change. I’ll admit that I didn’t know what colourism was until recently, cast a blind eye to the racism behind Cato Fong in The Pink Panther and the Libyan terrorists in Back to The Future and didn’t recognize my privilege as someone who is lighter-skinned because I was not aware of it. What will you admit to yourself, and what will you do to address it?
*I used biracial in this article but personally don’t call myself this for a few reasons. Biracial implies that my parents identify as one race, which isn’t the case. Also, the idea of different races is somewhat problematic. Unfortunately, this was the only term I thought could convey what I mean.
**Fair&Lovely is a controversial brand which bleaches skin to make it look lighter.