“I was never on the cover of Ebony or Jet. They want white-looking women like Diana Ross—light and bright.”—Nina Simone
In 2016, debate over colorism returned with renewed force. If you were looking, it was there on The Bachelor, when two half-black girls and their Haitian-born competitor argued about whether it was harder for a dark-skinned girl on the notoriously white show. It was there when Lil’ Kim debuted her most Michael Jackson–like transformation yet on Instagram and commenters freaked out about her pale new skin, some theorizing that her insecurities started when the rapper Notorious B.I.G. left her for a lighter woman. Even Beyoncé’s new visual album, Lemonade, widely seen as a celebration of black womanhood, has to reconcile the track “Formation,” whose loaded lyrics—with words such as “yellow-bone” and “Creole”—drew charges of playing into color hierarchies. Most notable is the outrage over Nina, the Nina Simone biopic currently in theaters. Simone was very black, a fact that shaped her life and work. But instead of casting a dark-skinned actress, producers insisted on the light-skinned Zoe Saldana. For the film, Saldana’s skin was darkened with makeup, her nose widened, the effect like a mask, or a “block of clay,” as the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates put it to me. Coates was one of many who spoke against the casting of Saldana after a trailer with her odd face blazed through the internet this spring.
Yet even as terms like yellowface and whitewash sink into our cultural vocabulary, there remains confusion on basic matters of colorism. In a 1983 essay, the writer Alice Walker coined the word to explain “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color.” Simply: Lighter is better. “Light blacks,” as Walker called them, fare better in white society than “black blacks,” and their skin is prized in black communities. Colorism endures because both black and white people perpetuate it.
Walker’s essay was a curtain-lifting moment. Five years later, critiques of colorism entered popular culture via the release of Spike Lee’s School Daze, a movie about the power dynamics at an all-black college. In it are two warring girl groups: the Jigaboos, black and ’froed, and the Wannabes, pale and chemically relaxed. They sneer at each other’s appearances, and by extension, moral cores. “My hair is straight you see,” sing the Wannabes in a dreamlike song and dance number set in a salon in the gym of Morehouse College, Lee’s alma mater. “But your soul’s crooked as can be,” the Jigs snap back.
Although black people know colorism as intimately as they know racism—as do Indians, Koreans, and pretty much every nonwhite culture—it is not discussed nearly so openly. Viola Davis has perhaps been the most high-profile star to bemoan it in recent years. In December of 2015, she alluded to the infamous “paper bag test” that once kept dark-skinned people out of elite black societies in an interview with the New York Times. The topic was the challenge of making it in Hollywood, but Simone might well have said something similar decades back.
Hold up a paper bag to your face. If your skin is lighter than that, you’re all the good things: smarter, prettier, more successful. If you’re darker, you’re ugly. That’s been working its way through our race for hundreds of years. I’m dark-skinned. You can’t compare me to Taraji (P. Henson), Kerry Washington, or Halle Berry, the other black women on TV. I wanted to play a fully realized, dark-skinned woman, and just doing that alone could be revolutionary.
Such statements rarely invade public discourse. Mainstream press coverage of Lemonade, for instance, has been mostly breathless. But colorist critiques hit the star on academic websites, Black Twitter, and small online magazines like Colorlines, where a scholar broke down why Beyoncé’s shouts out to her “yellow” skin and Creole blood carry such loaded meaning in the black community.
When colorism is acknowledged in broader culture—as it was during the debate over Nina, which lit up Twitter for weeks—resistance is still felt. Both the director Judd Apatow and Robert L. Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television, met the outcry over Saldana’s casting with glib dismissals, waving off not just Nina haters but the existence of colorism itself.
Apatow’s tweet, a clueless dig about how all acting is make-believe, was instantly swarmed. When I spoke to Coates about this gap in cognition, he chalked it up to willful ignorance. “I really, really, really don’t get how somebody can do this and not say, ‘You know what, let me have a conversation. This ain’t my experience. I don’t live in this world. Let me talk to folks and see.’ No disrespect on this point, but if you’re, like—Judd Apatow—you need to talk to somebody before you start tweeting.”
Johnson’s company, RLJ Entertainment, is distributing Nina, so it’s not surprising he defended the film. But the way in which he did was revealing. In an interview with BuzzFeed, Johnson insisted he didn’t understand why there was any backlash at all, calling the outcry “the most ridiculous yet sad thing that I’ve heard out of Hollywood among African-Americans in a long time.” He continued with a somewhat coded message: “When the Klan hanged people, they didn’t say, ‘Oh, we’re going to let the light people go and the black people we’re going to hang.’ They hanged anybody they could get their hands on. Because it was race—race—not color. We should remember that.”
In the social sciences, there’s a term for this way of thinking: the skin-color paradox. It’s derived from the title of a landmark 2007 study led by the Harvard race scholar Jennifer Hochschild that sought to understand why, despite suffering greater marginalization in and out of the black community, dark-skinned black Americans largely support light-skinned black ones for political office. Using national surveys, the researchers found what they called a “perception of linked fate”:
Because most Blacks see the fight against racial hierarchy as requiring their primary allegiance, they do not see or do not choose to express concern about the internal hierarchy of skin tone. Thus dark-skinned Blacks’ widespread experience of harm has no political outlet—which generates the skin color paradox.
Under this logic, racism effectively looks like a zero-sum fight, comprised of winners and losers: white versus black. Acknowledging that that there are also winners and losers inside the black community threatens a powerful, singular narrative of oppression. In this way, the bigness of racism directly feeds the persistence of colorism.
Thus with three words—race not color—Johnson insinuates a divide between critics of colorism and racism. This faceoff is as old as the apocryphal tale of Willie Lynch, the early 18th-century slave owner who, as black folklore goes, advised that the best way to control slaves was to pit them against each other on the basis of skin color. Framing colorism as a white strategy, as the Lynch legend does, or a black delusion, à la Johnson, is a way of muzzling criticism. In calling colorism out, are you inventing a division even racists don’t honor?
It also obscures the messiness of the interplay between colorism and racism. Consider the quote at the top of this essay, made by Nina Simone to an interviewer, in 1980. She cites Ebony and Jet, magazines for black readers, among those for which she was too dark for the cover. Can such a choice be called only colorist? A black bias alone, or one urged by popular tastes that sell magazines?
Saldana’s misstep in taking the Simone role calls to mind the career of Vanessa Williams, another light-skinned black woman who found herself on the wrong end of a colorism debate. After winning the Miss America crown in the ’80s, Williams spoke of being confused when some in the black community believed she beat the darker runner-up on the basis of skin tone, a notion she described as new to her. Authentic or not, the lesson seemed to affect her: She would later drop out as lead Wannabe in School Daze (exercising her right, having sighted colorism, to run for the hills).
Kyme Sallid, cast by Spike Lee as the wedge-haired queen of the Jigs in School Daze, told me she was naïve about colorism until she joined the entertainment business. Her lighter-skinned mother told her only that she was beautiful, a refrain Sallid would repeat to dark actresses who didn’t seem to believe it. After hurling insults in School Daze’s gym scene, she remembers crying with her friend, the actress Jasmine Guy, on the Morehouse lawn, the two of them shaken by the shoot. Guy, best known as Whitley on The Cosby Show spinoff A Different World, played a Wannabe.
“We were sitting out on the lawn, crying, saying, ‘I didn’t mean it! I hated saying those things to you,’ ” Sallid remembered. “We knew in the midst of all of it … that message was so important, in the hope that the film would start to change minds.”
But School Daze didn’t hit the way Lee hoped. In black circles, it earned a rep for “airing … dirty laundry,” as Bryant Gumbel put it. (Morehouse’s president kicked Lee off campus during filming, and barred him from ever returning.) Roger Ebert, the only big reviewer to gush, called it the first movie he knew of where black people seemed to be talking to each other without translating for white audiences.
Studies show that darker-skinned black Americans continue to fare worse than lighter-skinned ones in key metrics shaping society, from pay and jail time to self-confidence and rates of marriage. The freshest statistics, published last year, suggest that darker skin, in matters of pay and prison, can actually affect your odds of success more than race. And now we have cinematic proof of colorism’s grip once again, “painful to see,” as Coates puts it—perhaps more so for how ugly it is. “I look at Nina Simone, so beautiful to me, and I look at Zoe Saldana made up,” Coates said. “I think, ‘Goddamn. That’s what they see when they look at Nina Simone?’ ”