A Complex-ion Issue: Colorism

A Complex-ion Issue: Colorism

Illustration by Samantha Ko

As Lauren Mc Gee ’20, the only African-American girl in her 6th-grade class, sat at her desk having a conversation with a friend, a classmate came up to her and called her the n-word out of nowhere.

In that moment, McGee said she felt both shocked and hurt.

“I’ve always heard the word in movies and [from] my mom reminding me of how terrible of a slur it was, but never have I been called that by someone,” Mc Gee said. “I was upset and hurt that the word found its way to me.”

Mc Gee said she put up with this abuse all throughout middle school.

“I would just take it because, back then, I didn’t feel like he was wrong, and I began to hate myself for having dark skin,” Mc Gee said. “I would think [that] nobody will love a black person, especially me, or I’m not pretty because I have dark skin.”

Feeling ashamed of her dark skin tone is something Mc Gee said she overcame when she found friends at Harvard-Westlake who helped her accept herself for who she was. Although Mc Gee triumphed over her verbal abuse in middle school, she said that she still sees similar sentiments more subtly at Harvard-Westlake.

“I always think ‘Wow, am I really one out of two or three of the African-American kids in this class?’” Mc Gee said. “It’s also the feeling of ‘I’ve got to impress or keep getting an A because I don’t want my teachers to think that this is the best I can do, for a black girl.’”

Favoring of people who have lighter skin over people with darker skin is called “colorism,” according to the National Conference for Community and Justice. Colorism stems from slavery when lighter-skinned slaves were given household tasks while darker-skinned slaves had to work in the fields. It continued into the 1900s with the “paper bag test” that disallowed anyone darker than a paper bag to get certain jobs. Modern day, skin lightening creams are still sold and bought in the United States and lighter skinned black women are more likely to get married than darker skinned women, according to research by Thought.co.com.

Brase Dottin ’20, who has a lighter complexion, said he feels colorism in a different way than it has been used in the past. Because Dottin has a lighter complexion, he said that he sometimes receives comments about how this makes him less black.

“People every once in a while say that I’m not actually black and that I can’t get away with the same things that other black people can because I am light-skinned,” Dottin said. “Of course I get a little uncomfortable when they say that, but I try not to let it bother me [because] the fact that they’re making fun of me shows that they are insecure about themselves, so I don’t dwell on it. My complexion doesn’t define who I am.”

Similarly, when one of the Black Leadership, Awareness and Culture Club leaders, Genesis Aire ’19, said she found it difficult to figure out where she belonged when she as younger. She has a mother who is of mixed race, which made people consider Aire to be ‘less black’ than other black kids.

“Depending on what school I’m attending or what group of people I’m hanging out with, there’s this weird back and forth between being too dark to fit in with some groups and being too light or ‘white-washed’ to fit in with other groups,” Aire said.

An episode of the ABC sitcom “Black-ish” discussed the topic of colorism on Jan. 15. In the episode, the youngest daughter in the Johnson family, Diane, has very poorly lit school photos which sparks a conversation in their family about how black people with darker skin have received heavy discrimination and how black people with lighter complexions are sometimes not considered black enough. The conversation continues with them discussing how Hollywood doesn’t show enough black women who have darker skin tones.

Similar to the characters in “Black-ish,” Aire said that she thinks that Hollywood should portray black girls of all different skin tones. Aire said that while she is happy that black girls have been receiving more representation in film and television, there are not enough black girls with darker complexions getting these roles.

“I think that there is a lot of diversity among black women that can and should be portrayed by visual media but is currently being underrepresented,” Aire said.”It’s not perfect right now, but I think that by even having black girls in lead roles we’re moving in the right direction. Hopefully, in the future, we’ll see a myriad of complexions and hair types represented among black women in films.”

Like Aire, Amaya Washington ’21 said that she thinks Hollywood only portrays black girls as having a lighter skin tone and believes that there is still a lot more room for diversity in film and TV.

“I feel like there are certain people who tend to try to work against [the media thinking that lighter skin black girls are the beauty standard], but in general I feel like people of darker skin color are discriminated against or just not represented in the best way,” Washington said. “I would say that it’s improved, but I don’t think it’s improved to the point where it needs to be.”
Josephine Amakye ’21 feels the effects of the lack of representation of women with darker skin tones in her everyday life, she said. Amakye said that she struggles to find skin color shades that match her skin tone when shopping for makeup or clothing.

“Rarely do I find products made for my skin tone or hair type, and often I find myself having to be content with ‘close enough’ or the ‘we’re currently working on diversifying our products,’” Amakye said.

Amakye said struggling to find products that work with her hair type and skin tone can be discouraging. She said she believes that it is inconsiderate that brands do not think about girls with darker complexions.

“It is disheartening when I see ten variations of the color white and one dark shade that barely matches my skin tone,” Amakye said. “Recently, certain brands have addressed this problem which many black girls with darker skin face, but its still unfair that I can’t go to a store and buy the nicest quality makeup because these companies fail to represent my skin tone.”

Amakye also said that she sees colorism in the other industries like modeling.

“Often times a black woman with a darker skin tone is hired for her “exotic” or “unique” look like it has never been seen before,” Amakye said. “Then, she is never to be heard from again or is not booked with bigger brands. This has been a dangerous trend in our society, but progressive steps have been made to change it. We have come a long way, and we still have room to grow.”

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