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Colorism and Black Identity – a response to Kenya Barris

Kenya Barris recently posted a cryptic tweet: “I’m going to say this and then let what happens happen… Colorism is a divisive tool used by the powerful to separate the truly powerful.” 

deleted tweet on colorism by Kenya Barris

This was apparently in relation to another tweet launching his new show, “Black Excellence”:

tweet launching Kenya Barris show Black Excellence showing cast of show with no dark-skinned black faces

The response from #BlackTwitter has been decisive: a calling out of Barris for consistently omitting dark-skinned Black folks from his shows, or, when including them, doing so in roles that are inferior or demeaning. In less than two days Barris deleted his tweet on colorism. Apparently, something had happened.

I found myself taking on Barris in a couple of Tweets, one of which has received some traction. In another tweet, that has received hardly any attention, I did something that I rarely do: identify publicly as a Black man.

I want to talk about that identity a bit. I won’t much explore the complexities of mixed-race and Black identity but I will situate what Barris might be trying to say about colorism and power in my family history. That history anticipates the emerging reality for mixed-race folks in the US. In doing so I want to highlight the serious failure of analysis in Barris’ claim, particularly given his actions.

The last time I stridently identified as a Black man was also the last time I lost my temper — a rare, embarrassing and always memorable event. Three years ago my housemate — a friend of 25 years — was driving me back from a dinner to celebrate my birthday. He is a white Spanish-Filipino man who, like me, lived in several countries before migrating to Toronto as an adult.

I mention his background because it speaks to a mutual history growing up in post-colonial societies — in my case the Caribbean — where different groups have to degrees mixed and had children for many, many generations. Colorism — the social elevation and valuing of lighter skin tones — is a standard feature of every such society I am aware of. It doesn’t only pertain to those with African heritage. All other non-white backgrounds and inter-mixings get arrayed on a social hierarchy with white at the top.

Colorism is complicated. Yes, the lighter your complexion and the straighter and softer your hair is the more status you have. However, there’s another wrinkle. Mixed heritage itself becomes a “thing”. Those whose mixed heritage creates unusual features that still align with classic, i.e. white, definitions of beauty can also achieve status — so dark skin with distinctly Asian eyes and a not-too-broad nose might push you fairly high up the ladder for example, if you are judged to be attractive. So can dark skin and blue or green eyes. This is why Iman was so successful as a model. This status based on attractiveness is important to understand because almost everyone who is being featured in show business is attractive by these standards. When you hit the double jackpot — light skin and features that count as beautiful in an “exotic” way, you have a status that isn’t white but has its own distinct and powerful form of colorist privilege. In some ways, particularly among other people of colour, it trumps whiteness.

 

I speak from experience. Until my early fifties, when thanks to age my looks became average, this was a privilege I enjoyed.

 

Photo of the author as an attractive young man.

Experiences I have had moving through the world were significantly different from the experiences of my dark-skinned Black Friends. I’ve never been stopped for driving-while-black. My encounters with police have not been dehumanizing or threatening to my life. I’ve never been called a racial slur to my face unless you include “exotic”. I’ve never known that how I was treated was a clear response to the colour of my skin though certainly when I lived in the US there was the odd time that I suspected it. I don’t find myself trailed when I go shopping, and white women don’t take a step back, clutching their bags, when I walk into an elevator.

My hesitancy to self-identify as Black when I moved to the US for the second time in my late teens was rooted in a desire to not omit other, non-white, aspects of my heritage. There also was, and continues to be, a valid fear of the hurtful possibility that others will reject or challenge that identity, something that actually happens fairly often now when I identify as Jamaican. As I have grown older, I rarely identify as Black because I believe it is offensively presumptuous to assert an identity while not having to experience the consequences of that identity. If pressed I instead identify as mixed, or brown, but most often as Jamaican. (The response to that, at least in Canada, literally nine times out of ten: “but you’re not Black!”) If people see and identify me as Black, that is fine. In Canada, where I now live, it is rare. Racialization is contextual.

Which takes me back to the story with my white-Filipino friend. A few weeks prior to our conversation, Black Lives Matter staged a spectacular protest after having been invited to lead the Toronto Pride Parade. The gay community was deeply divided over the protest and its aftermath. I believe that the protest was effective activism which called a great deal of attention to unacknowledged issues of fear and violence for Black and Black queer folks at the hands of the police. My friend who was driving me home is of the camp that believes that Black Lives Matter was “hurting their cause”. When he started to get emotional about it and alluded to racist stereotypes about the nature of the protest, I lost it and found myself saying loudly, several times over “I am a Black man.” Our friendship survived and I’d like to think he learned a thing or two.

 

I can only guess that the undivided power Barris is speaking of is the power of solidarity in a Black identity for all people with African heritage. That’s the power I was drawing on when I asserted my identity as Black to my friend and it’s what I did again in my tweet. I don’t dispute that unity and a willingness to be counted together is powerful. But to link that power to a dismissal of colorism is a grave mistake. 

 

I grew up in the family that Barris seems to be trying to reconstruct in “Black Excellence”.

David Mordecai's family in 1973

That’s my father’s side of the family way back in 1973 with me at the bottom right. I value the fact that on both sides, my relatives span all hues and that interracial mixing has been happening for many, many generations. My Black grandfather, near-centre in the blue shirt, had hazel-green eyes, so chances are even he had a white ancestor.

 

There are some colorist possibilities suggested in this picture. My step-Grandmother, just left of Grandpa, was the second woman he had married who was not white but who was much fairer than he was. (With my blood-grandmother I am only guessing, based on my father’s complexion, as she died when my Dad was four and I have never seen a picture.) This parsing of family relationships in terms of distinctions in skin colour is both normal and necessary if you are honest about the realities of living in a colorist society. My parents, who were pretty equal in complexion, never shied away from the topic of racism and the realities of anti-Black racism specifically. In Jamaica growing up, I was not Black, I was brown, but I always knew and accepted that Black was how the majority of people in the US would racialize me once I lived there. Certainly in the 1980s, when I last did, if not so much now.

I also knew to observe, as I was growing up, who chose who for friends and lovers. My own choices were varied, but I find myself most comfortable among folks who are not white (which is not to say that I do not have very close white friends). Some folks would choose differently, apparently seeking out the company of white people, which is something in Jamaica because there aren’t all that many of them. This is all significant because what Barris doesn’t seem to accept is that colorism is just white supremacy acting at a micro-level. 

Which takes us back to Barris’ tweet and his shows. As more and more families in the US, and the world, look like mine did in 1973, we cannot ignore that white supremacy impacts us differently. We need to be honest about the realities of colorism. People like Barris, who has the power to decide who gets to represent Blackness, need to realize that anti-Black racism is very much anti-dark-skinned-Black racism. And promoting only certain representations of Blackness has consequences. As I said in my tweet: when colorism renders dark-skinned Black folks invisible, it is actually reinforcing anti-Black racism through that omission. 

I don’t want to speak for other Black folks who pass the paper bag test but I don’t need to see more people who look like me in mainstream media. Brown folks have been representing Black people for a long time. I want to see more dark-skinned Black folks, including dark-skinned Black folks who don’t rise to the heights of the attractiveness of Daniel Kaluuya or Lupita Nyong’o. That is the kind of representation that can challenge white supremacy and advance the social acceptance of all Black people.

If we fail in advancing that kind of representation, my experience in several societies, where racial mixing has been common for many, many generations, tells me that what will happen is that a growing class of light-brown folks will emerge as distinct from dark-skinned and even mid-toned Black people. Contrary to what Barris seems to be suggesting, all of us identifying as Black is not the solution, though being comfortable with a Black identity is important. The solution is that all of us, no matter how we identify, need to assert that anti-Black racism is a problem with particularly harsh consequences for all dark-skinned people.  We need to own the possibility of our own, colorist, participation in that racism. We can start with an honest examination of who we are attracted to sexually and romantically. If there are significant differences in the answer to that question based on skin colour, we need to accept that we have a problem with internalized racism and work on that problem. When mainstream media refuses to cast dark-skinned Black folks prominently and positively, they are reinforcing that problem. Especially after the wonderful success of “Black Panther”, there is no excuse, people like Barris need to do better.

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