Are We Still Talking about Color(ism)?

Curator's Note

The summer 2019 release of Beyoncé’s “Brown Skin Girl” could not have come soon enough because, yes, we are really still talking about colorism.  Colorism is the privileging and estimation of lighter skin as more beautiful and more valuable than darker skin. While the skin hue hierarchy repeatedly appears within the Black communit(ies) of America, it should be noted that colorism is a global phenomenon that often affects our assessments of others within the workplace, romantic exchanges, familial relations, and other social settings - resulting in skin that may or may not yield, depending on the hue, social and cultural capital (Jones, 2009; Spellers, 2010).        

A few contemporary examples illustrate this point. A month prior to “Brown Skin Girl,” singer Chris Brown released a song in which he sings the words, “Only wanna f--- the Black b------ with the nice hair.”  When confronted with allegations that the lyrics professed colorism, and that his other proclamations such as an ongoing policy to only allow light-skinned women into his club sections, the singer blatantly dismissed his actions as hurtful to a huge portion of his fanbase and instead he reiterated his sentiments, refusing to apologize. 

In April 2019 at the televised memorial service for hip hop artist Nipsey Hussle, rapper YG made the following statement for which he was widely criticized: “We got some light-skinned, pretty girls we gotta raise. We in trouble, my n----.  What we gonna do?”  Not only were his words inappropriate for the setting, but the prevailing sentiment suggests that our brown-skinned girls don’t need “raising” in the form of mothering, fathering, protecting, loving, or guiding simply because of their browner complexion. The implication alone is disturbing, but also a reality for many Black women that begins when they are young girls treated differently by members of their own community, or worse, their own families.

A quick perusal of social media comments in response to Beyoncé’s  #BrownSkinGirlChallenge posts highlights remarks that minimize the lived experiences of all Black women of various skin hues. A Black woman who self-identified as light-skinned lamented the fact that others told her she could not participate in the challenge because of her skin complexion. This seemed troubling to her because she, too, believes she is a “brown skin girl.”  In contrast, a self-identified brown-skinned Black woman proudly declared, “Now all you high yellow, red bones, red Bishhhes, mixed chicks have a seat because @BEYONCE told me my brown skin is just like Pearl[s] and it’s the best thing in the world and she would never trade it for anybody [else].”

The effects of colorism can serve to empower those who often are not the benefactors of this hierarchy. But it also reifies the complexity of a system that breeds psychological self-contempt (Russell-Cole et al., 2013) and manifests as a tool for intraracial divide. The fact that we find young girls and women continuously shunned, ignored, or mistreated because of their darker skin hue is why we are still talking about colorism in 2019.  And it also explains the timeliness of Beyoncé’s “Brown Skin Girl” whose lyrics remind all of the insidiousness of colorism because our “melanin too dark to throw her shade.”


Works Cited

Jones, T. (2009). The Case for Legal Recognition of Colorism Claims. In E. N. Glenn (Ed.), Shades of Difference: Why Skin Color Matters(pp. 223-235). Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.

Russell-Cole, K., Wilson, M., and Hall, R. (2013). The Color Complex (Revised): The Politics of Skin Color in a New Millennium. New York, N.Y: Anchor.

Spellers, R. E. (2010). Sun Kissed or Sun Cursed?: Exploring Color Consciousness and Black Women’s Tanning Experiences. In R. E. Spellers and K. R. Moffitt (Eds.), Blackberries and Redbones: Critical Articulations of Black Hair/Body Politics in Africana Communities.New York: Hampton Press.

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