On an episode of the Facebook Watch show Red Table Talk, hosts Jada Pinkett Smith, her daughter Willow, and Adrienne Banfield-Norris explore with fellow Black women the issue of colorism. Colorism within the Black community comes in different forms, and they have all experienced it in different ways, all of which have left them with personal self-esteem issues. Together, they discuss how colorism is rooted in slavery and white supremacy, and how even today it is something that the Black community struggles to overcome.
Read this if…
- You are a member of the Black community
- You have experienced colorism before
- You are a Black woman who wants to be comfortable in your own skin
In this episode, the Red Table featured four guests who have had varying experiences with colorism. First is the Smiths’ family friend Mia Pitts, who was a dancer for the New York Knicks, and her daughter Madison Miles, both of whom had experienced colorism from the Black men around them. Next is Harvard and Stanford graduate Chika Okoro, a Black academic who has both experienced and studied colorism within the Black community. Finally, the last guest is Stacey Summers, a Haitian-American woman who experienced colorism within her own family.
the distilld Lessons (extended)
Racism. Xenophobia. Misogyny. White supremacy. These are some ways that people discriminate against those from different communities. These forms of discrimination direct undue hatred from one community to another. But there is one type of discrimination that pits Black people against each other: colorism.
Colorism is when people of the same race discriminate against each other based on their skin tone. This has especially affected Black people since they were first enslaved in the United States, up to the present. Black people have had to deal with this issue on top of other forms of discrimination against them, not least of which is racism and white supremacy.
There was a time when Black people talked about their heritage in ways that do not highlight being Black – even going so far as to dilute their Blackness. This mindset of not owning their own Blackness started from slavery, where lighter-skinned children born out of white slave owners and their Black slaves were also raised to be slaves, but were given preferential treatment on account of their lighter skin. While other Black people were sent out to work in the fields, these lighter-skinned children were given easier jobs inside the home. This history of preferential treatment amongst Black people have permeated to present day.
On this episode of Red Table Talk, Jada Pinkett Smith and her panel of fellow Black women talked about their own experiences with Colorism within the Black community.
Here’s the distilld lessons inspired by Episode #1 of the Red Table Talk podcast:
1. Colorism can happen anytime and in any context
Mia Pitts was a dancer for an NBA basketball team. She shared that while she’s always had struggles with her self-esteem, it didn’t use to involve her skin color. She’d make herself sexy and provocative to feel good about herself. And it often worked.
But one of Mia's friends in the NBA pointed out that her skin color would hurt her chances of marrying an NBA player. Her friend basically alluded that her was skin was too dark. This is despite the fact that he was a Black man.
This started her issues with colorism. Being told she was going to find it difficult to marry because she was too black was harmful to her self-esteem. She later began to project this onto her daughter, Madison. As Madison became darker growing up, she feared that she would run into similarly stigmatized issues with her own skin color soon enough.
She tried to compensate for her fears by raising her daughter to a point of obsession to love her own skin. She didn’t want her daughter to go through the colorism that she did. But she ended up projecting her own insecurities onto her daughter instead.
Colorism happens to anyone regardless of their level of self-esteem or their upbringing. Even at a young age, Black boys rejected her daughter especially in the context of relationships because she was “too dark”. This childhood experience was painful for Madison, who carried this pain when she moved into a predominantly White school.
To Madison's surprise though, the White boys in her school not only didn't bully her, but she also ended up dating them. She found the appreciation she always wanted outside the Black community. Now she says she has grown more confident in her own skin, and that’s due to the appreciation she received from her new, mostly White school.
The Black community’s rejection of the dark skin tone is just a picture of the overall rejection that they feel towards themselves. It blinds them to the beauty that other people can see.
2. Colorism causes division in the Black community
Chika Okoro, who has both experienced and studied colorism within the Black community, made a TED Talk calling out the offensive casting calls for the movie Straight Outta Compton.
She relates how it split women into four highly degrading categories from “A” to “D” based on their skin tone and build. “A” girls were for the “hottest of the hot”, “B” girls were lighter-skinned and shapely Black women, “C” was for “medium to light-skinned” women with natural hair, and “D” was for plus-size, dark-skinned Black women.
Straight Outta Compton was a movie by Black people about Black people (the defunct rap group N.W.A.), and her findings were indicative of how pervasive, but silent, colorism was within the Black community.
Colorism has been used to sow discord among Black people throughout recent history. This Black woman’s experience and work shows that communities of color need to discuss colorism more openly.
3. Colorism can cause Black people to bleach their own skin
Skin bleaching is the practice of using products to lighten dark areas of the skin to achieve an overall lighter complexion. Various studies have estimated high usage of skin bleaching agents in countries with predominantly darker-skinned people, such as Africa, India, and parts of Asia. This is despite many documented harmful effects, such as acne, dark marks, and even skin cancer.
Stacey Summers, a Haitian-American woman, recalls that she used to bleach her skin as early as eight years old. She says it was because of what she saw and how she was raised as a child. A lot of the people from the Caribbean islands would bleach their skin because the people saw more value in lighter skin. The people there basically saw lighter skin as a way to have higher chances of doing well in life.
Even if most people from Haiti were dark-skinned, Stacey still felt the effects of colorism. People associated her dark skin color to poor hygiene and values. They thought she was dirty. They thought she had an attitude problem. They even went so far as to directing a disdain and disgust towards her.
But the opinions people had changed literally as soon as she started bleaching her skin. Even if she didn’t change internally, people now thought that her “attitude problem” was “passion”. People saw her as more beautiful. Even her family thought so.
Eventually, she stopped. Stacey says that it was her husband who inspired her to stop bleaching her skin. She began to start being more confident in herself with his support and showings of unconditional love. When they first got engaged, she showed him a photo album with her pictures as a baby. Even with her dark skin, he found her beautiful, and he told her so.
This was a revelation to her. Until that point, she couldn’t believe that that girl in the photos was beautiful. But because he found beauty in that girl, she realized that she had the capacity to feel the same way toward her too. She had to stop bleaching her skin. She had to start loving herself the way her husband loved her–beautiful in her own skin.
All these women have firsthand experiences with colorism. This form of discrimination coming from their own community has incited a systemic challenge to their self-esteem, which has had second order effects to their daughters or fellow members of their community.
We have to leave colorism behind. It’s caused women of all ages and from many walks of life a great deal of pain. It’s rooted in supremacy, and it’s based on superficial characteristics. It’s nothing but a form of social control that pits people of the same community against each other.
When we end colorism, we can stop tearing each other down for the skin that we all share, and we can focus on bringing out the beauty that’s inside all of us.
For a shorter conversation, the distilld lessons summary are here.