Colorism within the Black community has been an issue for many years. But it’s not often that those who benefit from it speak about it openly and honestly.
That makes the recent interview with actress Kiersey Clemons all the more refreshing. The 22-year-old spoke directly about colorism in Hollywood and her admission that she has received certain roles because of her skin color was refreshing. Clemons said, “I agree that lighter-skinned women get favored in Hollywood and I’m not proud to say that.”
The issue has existed in the Black community long before Clemons was born. Fifty years ago, HBCUs, sororities and other civic organizations used what was known as the Paper Bag Test to decide on admission. If you were the same color — or preferably lighter — than a paper bag, you were in. If you were darker than a paper bag, you had to keep it moving. There was also the Blue Vein Society, made up of Black folks who were light enough that their veins could be seen on their arms or legs.
This is an ugly history — one that divided African-Americans on the inside as much as racism and colorism from whites divided us on the outside. In 2016, it’s politically incorrect to openly prefer one complexion over another (unless you’re a rapper). But, unfortunately, the idea is just as pervasive now as it was in 1900, even if people don’t admit to the preference publicly.
A quick look at music videos (or a listen to rap lyrics) over the years shows that hip-hop music and culture has always put a premium on light skin. Take, for example, the “good hair” Beyoncé references on the song “Sorry.” Also, have you seen Lil' Kim lately? This is a woman who has clearly been affected by colorism in hip-hop.
That preference extends to Hollywood. In film and television, darker skinned women are either erased altogether or reduced to troublesome stereotypical roles. You’d be hard pressed to list ten mainstream movies from the past century that featured a dark-skinned woman in a starring role — one that didn’t involve her being a slave or a victim of some kind, a mammy or a comedian who specializes in pratfalls and comic relief.
In advertising, darker-skinned women are not represented — or are Photoshopped to appear lighter. Even stars like Beyoncé and Kerry Washington often have their images altered to appear lighter than they are.
As we move toward a time where appreciation for darker-skinned women has opened up a necessary dialogue, there are light-skinned Black women who may feel left behind or vilified for benefiting from light-skinned privilege.
The idea of privilege for your station in life is not new. In the 1980s, professor Peggy McIntosh outlined forty-six examples of privilege for men — particularly white men. Over time, the idea of privilege has extended to many groups — and it does and should include light-skinned Black women as well.
Yes, light-skinned Black women suffer some of the same indignities as dark-skinned Black women (expressions like “The blacker the berry the sweeter the juice” can feel exclusionary.) But to not acknowledge the differences and the privilege is a mistake.
It is often said that white women and men and others who have unearned power need to “check their privilege” before they jump into discussions and debates about situations they don’t realize they benefit from. While there may not be reliable statistics to highlight the privilege of being a light-skinned Black woman, it doesn’t take a study to know it’s there.
Where does this conversation go? How do we continue to make sure this dialogue lives? What do we do to make changes? How do light-skinned Black women check their privilege without losing their own pride?
As with many issues surrounding race, there are a lot of questions but not many answers. What we know for sure — it’s something all shades of Black men and women will have to continue to confront.