Colorism: From Roots to Product
by Ciera-Sadé Wade
“That high yellow gone to waste on you.”
“Well, you so black you need to get back.”
Colorism is one of the many weapons the women of Miss Mary’s Press N’ Curl use against one another in Katori Hall’s Saturday Night/Sunday Morning. The prejudice against those with dark skin goes back to the slavery era in America. Slave owners usually gave light-skinned slaves work in the house, considering them more intelligent than dark-skinned slaves who were forced to work in the fields and were generally treated worse. As Marita Golden, author of Don’t Play in the Sun: One Woman’s Journey Through the Color Complex writes, lighter skin “began to be associated with privilege and it became associated with beauty.”
Taffy tells Gladys that Leanne didn’t pass the “brown paper bag test” when she placed third in the Miss Negro Memphis Beauty Pageant:
“She kinda pecan mocha tan instead of coffee wit’ a cow in it.”
During the first half of the 20th century, some historically black fraternities, sororities, churches, and nightclubs used brown paper bag tests to determine if someone could join an organization or be allowed entrance into establishments.
“The paper bag would be held against your skin. And if you were darker than the paper bag, you weren’t admitted,” Golden said.
In The Paper Bag Principle: Class, Colorism and Rumor and the Case of Black Washington D.C., Professor Audrey Elisa Kurr explores the most well-known example of color-based segregation; light-skinned members of the 15th Street Presbyterian Church sat in the front pews while dark-skinned members sat in the back.
Hair also plays an important role in colorism. Throughout Saturday Night/Sunday Morning, the women go to Miss Mary’s beauty shop to have their hair pressed with a hot comb to get it “straight as a white girl,” highlighting an internalized preference of European beauty standards and whiteness.
When Miss Mary tells Mabel she’s “cooking up a storm in that kitchen” or in other words, that the hair at the nape of the neck is in its natural, kinky state, she’s implying Mabel’s natural hair is a mess.
Colorism continues its influence today. Stereotypes associate light-skinned black people with a higher socio-economic and education level than dark-skinned black people who are assumed uneducated and poor.
Casting calls for film, television, and theatre still request specific skin shades, often correlating with stereotypical representations. Last summer, the film Straight Outta Compton faced backlash for an extras casting call that ranked women in four categories, “A” were for the “hottest” models of any ethnicity, “B” was for light-skinned women (“Beyoncé is a prototype here”), “C” was for medium skinned women with a weave and “D. These are African American girls. Poor, not in good shape. Medium to dark skin tone.” The casting company responsible for the call later apologized but refused to acknowledge their grouping system was racist.
However, there are some productions working to combat stereotypes. In an interview for the online black magazine, The Root, Viola Davis discusses her starring role in ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder:
“In the history of television and even in film, I’ve never seen a character like Annalise Keating played by someone who looks like me. She is a woman who absolutely culminates the full spectrum of humanity: our askew sexuality, our askew maternal instincts. She’s all of that, and she’s a dark-skin black woman.”
Ciera-Sadé Wade is a dramaturg, actor, singer, dancer, and writer in Boston.
“Colorism in the Black Community: Perspectives on Light-Skinned Privilege.” http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/02/light-skinned-privilege/
“Colorism: Roots and Routes.” http://colorismhealing.org/colorism-roots-and-routes/
“Paper Bag Test Revisited.” http://www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/archives/entry/paper_bag_tests_revisited/
“Paper Bag Test: Letter From 1928 Addresses Black Fraternity and Sorority Colorism at Howard University.” http://www.watchtheyard.com/history/brown-paper-bag/