Fighting My Way Out Of A Paper Bag | Dissecting Colorism And The Big Picture On Racism
(I changed my mind. I only publish on weekends now.)
To start, I’d like to tell you a story.
From when I was nine years old, I ran competitive track and field. I was pretty good at it, too. I even went to Nationals a few times! I was once at a National qualifying meet in 2012, getting ready to place in the top 5 in the 3000 meter run. While I was warming up, several girls approached me to tell me that I looked like the actress who played Rue in The Hunger Games, which had had a motion picture adaptation earlier that year.
I hadn’t actually seen the movie yet, in fact I had just finished the book. A few weeks later, I finally got to see the movie. Apart from nitpicking everything that was different from the book (standard procedure for a preteen bookworm such as myself), the main thing on my mind was keeping my eyes peeled for Rue, to see if those girls had been right about me looking like her.
Lo and behold, they were. Seriously, it was like looking in a mirror.
This is supposed to be a big deal, according to the people who insist that “representation matters”. There I was, an eleven-year-old girl getting to see somebody on the big screen who looked just like me, playing a character I loved in an adaptation of a book I loved! This was great! Right?
Well, it depends on who you ask.
Searching on Google for reactions to Rue’s casting back in 2012 took me to several articles and blogposts written well before I had discovered the fandom portion of the Internet. Turns out, some people were unhappy that Rue was portrayed by a black girl. Apparently, they didn’t read the book, which was pretty clear about Rue being black. It wasn’t that hard for me to picture when I was reading.
There’s something to be said for how characters are “presumed white” by white audiences. I hate to be that person (that’s a lie, by the way), but that’s not necessarily a racist assumption. In general, the race of the characters in a story is imagined by those reading to be closest to the races they interact with on a daily basis. On the other hand, another influencing factor for imaging a character’s race is that of the author and the context in which they write. Anybody who reads a book by Sharon M. Draper (my favorite writer) will probably have no problem picturing her characters as black. There are several versions of the story of Cinderella (here is just one that I remember reading as a child), each depicting its characters in the majority race of whatever culture it is told in. Sometimes this assumption happens on a global scale, like how Jesus is usually depicted as white.
The tweets made by people who disliked Rue being portrayed by a black girl, while alarming in nature, were well-documented, small in number, and received oceans of backlash by those among us with a measure of common sense, as well as getting little to no likes if the screenshots were anything to go by. Given how these tweets were treated (with them being deleted by those who originally wrote them), it’s hard to know exactly how many like these there were (even the curators and reporters referred to them as “a smattering”, meaning not many), let alone how many were sincere and not trolls.
In a Buzzfeed News article, Amandla Stenberg, now an advocate for race and LGBT+ issues, looks back on how at the time, there were hardly any roles for young black actors that weren’t “degrading” and how Rue was a character she latched onto because she looked like her. I could talk for ages about how these tweets and comments shouldn’t be used to represent all Hunger Games fans, fandom culture, or Western society as a whole, but that’s a discussion for another day. I could also talk for ages about whether roles considered “degrading” are actually such and how it’s all a matter of perspective, but that’s yet another discussion for later. I could ALSO talk about how cultural attitudes on race have shifted significantly for the better since 2012 back when this all went down, but… well, you get it by now.
Obviously, the people behind tweets like these were ignorant at best and bigoted at worst. But what about the people who thought that the biggest racial miscasting wasn’t Rue- it was Katniss? And that those people also had expected Rue to be darker than she was portrayed?
Guys, gals, and non-binary pals, if you couldn’t tell from the title of this article, we’re talking about colorism today, as well as how racism manifests in non-white communities. I strongly advise reading the whole thing before commenting, because apparently you have to ask for that now.
In a previous article, I mentioned that I am “black, at least visibly” or something along those lines. Strictly speaking, I have one black and one white parent, just like the “first African-American President of the United States” Barack Obama.
So here I am. Mixed. Half-black. Mulatto (never did like that word). But nobody calls me “white”, because I’m pretty clearly not. So to save time, I self-identity as black, and nobody so far has probed any further.
Colorism is defined by Merriam-Webster, and largely understood by those familiar with the term, as “prejudice or discrimination especially within a racial or ethnic group favoring people with lighter skin over those with darker skin” (I personally find this definition incomplete, but more on that later). Tv Tropes (which can go die in a hole for several reasons) calls this “But Not Too Black”. The trope is used to mean a lot of things, to the point where I’m not even sure what the purpose of including it was. It seems pretty disparaging to use this to describe characters that are mixed-race or light-skinned PoC, which does account for some examples on the page.
On the discussion page for “But Not Too Black” I stumbled upon this conversation:
-Why does this thing sound like an excuse to bitch about light skinned blacks? That’s got Unfortunate Implications within itself.
>This isn’t “bitching about light skinned blacks/other races (though there is some of that in the article). There is a true problem of colorism in the media, and it is tropeable.
-Tropeable, as in “leaping at anything that may be colorism”, or ACTUAL colorism? Because, most of the time I see Unfortunate Implications, it’s someone being oversensitive, and it sounds like this page has a lot of the former.
>Unfortunate Implications is extremely subjective, so there’s no real right or wrong here. I mean, it has the subjective tag right above it. Some people think “oversenstive/PC-ness” is a defense for wrong-headed ideas so, Your Mileage May Vary. Greatly. I’ve looked at the page again, and while there is some grumbling, I think most of the examples are valid points raised. There is some natter and some cases of “A dark-skinned black person was portrayed as BAD so it fits” which isn’t the trope, sorta. Kinda. Maybe.
There’s a lot to unpack here, but the first guy is right and the second guy tried and failed to change the subject matter. The “examples” of the trope listen on the page range from advertising to in-universe discussions to speculation.
When animated TV shows change a PoC character’s design to have lighter skin or “whiter” features, that’s what some people refer to as “whitewashing”. I remember when this was a big talking point when season 8 of Winx Club was announced (a show that I am personally a big fan of). People point to Aisha’s design from Season 7 to 8, and say that any little black girls watching Winx Club wouldn’t be able to see themselves in her anymore. Personally, if I was a little girl nowadays seeing Winx Club for the first time, I would still be able to draw the connection between Aisha and myself, in terms of race.
As for Musa’s changes away from her East Asian-coded design, it seems to be less so a case of whitewashing and more of a product of Same-Face Syndrome, a design flaw that has plagued ensemble cast shows since the beginning of time.
Also, features commonly associated with certain races don’t exclusively belong to them, and this goes for “Asian” features like epicanthic folds. Not only do not all East Asians have them, not all who have them are East Asian.
As for Flora… I mean, white Latinas exist. It’s mostly just uncanny. At least her season 8 portrayal is closer to her original personality than in season 7 (in fact, that’s something I can say for all the characters), and at the end of the day the writing is what I care about the most.
A few fans have pointed out that all of the original six main characters have gotten lighter in season 8, even the white-coded ones.
The same goes for the characters’ portrayals in World of Winx (by the way, after Cuties, I don’t know what people expect anything remotely good or progressive from Netflix). The show colors are certainly more muted, noticeably so.
Some people point to this as being an accident, an inconsistency. One piece of evidence supports this: the Winx Club dolls and merchandise- you know, basically the whole reason for the show’s continued existence?- have not undergone such drastic changes over the years, at least not in terms of a gradual progression towards lighter skin.
Even though the skin tones of the dolls varies wildly depending on the makers (like the ones that were in the Kinder Surprise eggs), they’ve remained largely the same over the years. This seems to be a problem only within the show.
The worst thing you can consider such designs to be are changes to pre-existing characters, except I thought changing pre-existing characters was okay? Explain “historical context” to me all you want, but you should be dressing for the job you want, not the one you have.
I personally have no trouble recognizing the characters as who they are, regardless of their physical changes. But maybe that’s just me.
I find it potentially really dangerous how foolhardy race activists are in their criticisms of characters being portrayed as lighter than original. White people get accused of perpetuating colorism exclusively, but in my experiences the dark-skinned people of color who treat their races as an exclusive club are much worse. Imagine being a mixed-race kid and seeing shit like this. Imagine seeing “biracial” being used in a derogatory manner. How might that make you feel?
The mere fact that light-skinned people of color have a larger media presence isn’t by itself bad. If we’re talking about media for kids, it’s the parents’ job to teach them self-worth and use media as teachable moments when need be. If we’re talking about media for adults, they don’t require validation from culture. That needs to come from within.
An interesting note is that colorism, unlike what is understood as “plain old racism”, has a largely class-based component as opposed to being mostly about race itself (racism is also largely class-based, but that’s for another time). Historically, paler skin was a status symbol signifying a person who were rich enough to not have to work in the fields all day. For this reason, paler skin became more desirable and appealing. Later, along with razors, skin-lightening treatments were a cosmetic alteration that transformed society. Do not put any trust in corporations and their advertising to be progressive; their actions are not necessarily representative of society as a whole. All they care about is money.
The link between colorism and capitalism is exemplified by this quote from a Guardian article regarding a Nissin advertisement where tennis star Naomi Osaka appeared to have been “whitewashed”:
Baye McNeil, an African-American writer based in Japan, said Nissin had altered Osaka’s appearance to make her more commercially “appealing”.
In his “Black Eye” column for the Japan Times, McNeil noted that Osaka’s representatives had been involved in the ad’s creation, but accused Nissin of missing “the chance to show that Japan is striving to be increasingly inclusive, diverse and forward-moving — with companies like Nissin leading the way”.
Key term: “commercially appealing”
That brings us to racial issues in “non-white” countries. Yes, I’m mainly talking about Japan here.
Most people in the West have caught wind of the idea that Japan is the most homogenous, racist, and xenophobic country there is. This has a modicum of truth to it. Biracial Japanese citizens, called “hafus”, face issues like housing discrimination. As is the case in the West, there is a commercially-driven preference for lighter skin. Above all, they feel the aftereffects of colonialism just as hard as the rest of the world. However, just like in the West, the experience of black and non-white, non-Asian people of color in Japan is not exclusively one of hardship and pain, with nobody from the majority population in your corner.
In the case of the Naomi Osaka commercial that gained so much backlash, it is worth noting that a manga magazine in Japan later worked on a drawn interpretation of Osaka that more closely resembled her. Japan is not a monolith, in any sense of the word, even in regards to portrayals of and attitudes towards black people.
Japan is not unfamiliar with the concept of black people. Some performers even engage in what we in the West would consider blackface to “pay respect to their favorite black performers” and such. Is it racist if there is no ill intention? That’s up for debate, and varies on institutional and interpersonal levels.
Some people call into question non-white people’s support for the black community because they would never *choose* to be black. That’s like saying that if you truly support the LGBT+ community, you have to get gay-married, even if you’re straight. Most people are fine with who they are, thank you very much.
People need to get rid of the idea that Asian countries are uniquely xenophobic and racist, and that the West holds no responsibility for this. I’ve seen Asian people, particularly Japanese people, apologize for how awful and bigoted their culture is, but they have nothing to apologize for. Their culture is not a monolith, and nobody worth listening to thinks that you’re a bigot just because of the government policies or media of your home country.
I even saw a comment once about how “Dragon Ball kids” will excuse racism in Japan but cry when any Western country is racist. From what I’ve seen, hardly anybody falls into the category of caring about racism anywhere EXCEPT Japan.
On the subject of addressing racism, it used to be that people of color, all of them, together, had to lead, and that white people could only follow. Now, light-skinned PoC have to step aside and let dark-skinned PoC talk about racism exclusively because their experience is seen as more valuable.
I don’t know about you, but I think the story of what happened to Daunte Wright is pretty valuable, regardless of what “kind” of black he was. Is that why he isn’t as talked about by Black Lives Matter as some of the other victims of police brutality; the fact that he is -was- a light-skinned black man? I don’t know for sure.
I only barely pass the “paper bag” test as it were. As such, growing up I was constantly asked by black kids my age “What are you?”. Immediately, I knew what they were getting at, so I told them about my parents: a white mother, a black father. This seemed to satisfy them. No judgement was passed.
But that was then. Now Zendaya expresses concern that she is “Hollywood’s acceptable version of a black girl”. Rather than that being the thing that needs to change, I say that all of Hollywood culture is oppressive and toxic, but I digress. I mean, more so than usual. Seriously, the solution to racial disparities in media is not the idea that “everybody is beautiful”, it needs to be the deconstruction of beauty standards in the first place and their impact on society.
When people discuss colorism, it’s usually in the context of dark-skinned girls getting turned down for dates and modeling contracts (not trying to trivialize the consequences of colorism, I know it goes deeper than that and factors into things like the odds of fatal encounters with the police). It’s hardly ever in the context of light-skinned girls feeling like deformed half-human monsters who feel the need to be darker to fit in, as I once did.
When the plight of “hafus” in Japan is discussed, people often say that only the half-black and other half-non-white Japanese people experience systemic problems, that all the half-white Japanese people are held up on pedestals and are immune to facing discrimination. That’s not true (they are still prone to issues such as housing discrimination), and it’s not true anywhere. As the effects colonialism are still felt around the world, so too are the same patterns in regards to the manifestation of bigotry (besides, the plight of Koreans and Chinese people in Japan, as well as the plight of Japanese people in those countries as well, is a very tangled web and arguably more pressing in regards to foreign relations, but I don’t have time to get into how much all the East Asian countries hate each other).
Where do some activists get off making light-skinned PoC feel illegitimate? What makes this person so confident in slinging their bullshit? I can answer that right now: it’s the same school of thought that only white people can be racist, that black people can only be prejudiced, and (only implicitly stated) that prejudice isn’t “as bad” as racism. The goalposts keep shifting, and light-skinned people of color are resented for their “proximity to whiteness”.
Am I black enough for my anti-racist writing to have merit? Or will I always have people telling me it could be worse? Will I always be accused of speaking from a place of whiteness? Will my criticisms of anti-racism rhetoric be dismissed on account of my “white half”? Will people endlessly ask for details of my upbringing? Will I go through the rest of my life feeling that half of myself is a problem to be solved?
The way I see it, colorism is an open declaration that light-skinned people of color are an acceptable casualty within the fight against racism. It’s the idea that a house negro is considered any less of a negro by white racists when push comes to shove.
Maybe this will serve as a wake-up call for you to move beyond the intent of your rhetoric, and take a good look at its impact. Or you can continue with your delusions of racial animosity being a one-way street.
To all of the dark-skinned people of color out there, on behalf of all the light-skinned people of color out there, we still have feelings. We‘re still weathering the same storm as you, still fighting for your visibility as much as ours, and none of us benefit from this division. There’s a heart underneath that milk coffee-colored skin.