Jesse Williams, Zendaya, and Our Issues With Colorism

I recently edited an article for another publication that was met with ire and frustration from many Black readers. All of this was because it talked about colorism – the discrimination and hatred against people with darker complexions. 

The subject matter was Grey’s Anatomy star Jesse Williams’ BET speech. From people angry that we even brought the topic up to others claiming that our doing so “distracted from the importance” of Williams’ central points, it became clear to me that merely acknowledging our differences within our racial groups was seen as contentious, malicious and undermining to many Black people. This seems odd given that some stars themselves have discussed the privileges they experience because of their skin color.

In an interview with The Guardian in October 2015, Williams explained that, even though he grew up below the poverty line, he experienced issues with being treated as though he wasn’t a Black man.

“My parents were both activists and I really connected to the social justice movement. Growing up in Chicago, that was a big part of the community that we were in and the people that were in our house,” he says. “I also lived below the poverty line for my entire childhood.”

He went on to say.

“I remember a mom of a friend of mine in the suburbs made some comment about a black person and – I had to be 12, about 60 pounds – and I said something and she said: ‘Oh no, not you. You are not black. You are great.’ It was real. That fucking happened. And she meant it. And she meant it sincerely and sweetly. She was paying me a compliment.”

Throughout his career, Williams has been crystal clear about the ways that race operates in his life and the benefits he gets because of his phenotypical closeness to white beauty standards.

“To some people I might be a celebrity because I’m physically attractive. We are programmed to believe that someone is attractive because they told you that blue eyes are hot. I am not going to participate in that shit,” he says. “I aim to do what I can with what I have. And I have my [looks] – you know, European beauty standards give me access to things.”

It is this “access” that we must engage with as Black people if we are to understand how to best address racial disparity and inequality in this country. This isn’t about diminishing the accomplishments of lighter-skinned Black people who are active in the Movement for Black Lives. Rather, it is to openly address the ways that we each internalize and fall in line with certain beauty standards, especially ones which exclude darker-skinned people.

One  of the key issues with avoiding the variations of Blackness and how those differences affect our liberation in the United States is that it closes off conversation on the ways that we, as Black people ourselves, often buy into problematic narratives about Black life. We participate in respectability politics which often tag certain behaviors as inherently bad and criminal (like sagging pants, wearing locs, or other style choices). However, what this thinking also does is promote rules about how we should move throughout the world in the skin we have.

On BGLH, an article about colorism did a great job of exploring how celebrities understand their lighter-skin to be affecting their celebrity status.

For example, in her June 2016 cover story on Cosmopolitan, Zendaya said the following about the issue.

“I feel a responsibility to be a voice for the beautiful shades my people come in. Unfortunately, I have a bit of a privilege compared to my darker sisters and brothers… Like people question, Would you listen to Zendaya if she wasn’t the same skin color? And that’s an honest question. Can I honestly say that I’ve had to face the same racism and struggles as a woman with darker skin? No, I cannot. I have not walked in her shoes and that is unfair of me to say. But I’m completely behind that woman. I want to be a part of the movement and growth. And if I get put in a position because of the color of my skin where people will listen to me, then I should use that privilege the right way.”

While this comment is a step in the right direction, it is important to also note that colorism is a form of racism. It doesn’t only affect Black people or women. And, while it negatively impacts darker-skinned people, it can also promote unearned privilege on lighter-skinned people. How can we expect to dismantle structural racism without understanding the ways it has manipulated us into resentment between our own people?

This is a topic worth exploring and discussing. Actually, it is imperative that we have this discussion if we intend to make any change to the racial aggression many of us face  in the United States.


Photo: Wiki Commons

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Jenn M. Jackson

Jenn M. Jackson, PhD is a co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Water Cooler Convos. She is a native of Oakland, CA. Jenn is a radical Black feminist scholar who believes none of us are free until all of us are free.