Colorism is the third rail that we rarely talk about
America continues to struggle with its battle against white racism. However, what’s not addressed is the internalized racism people of color struggle with too—consciously and unconsciously. It’s called “colorism” or “intra racism.”
Colorism is not discussed openly enough in African American, African, and African diasporic communities. It is our third rail, and the pain, embarrassment, and humiliation from its legacy still lingers with us even today. Colorism is a topic that cannot be explored enough since bleaching creams are still being sold in drugstores across the country and natural hair in many circles—professional and social—is still frowned upon.
Ghanaian-American playwright Jocelyn Bioh competently tackled this thorny topic in School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play, recently at the Speakeasy Stage Company in Boston. I went to see the play because it’s been the talk across the country, as well as the 2018 winner of the Lortel Award for Outstanding Play. For 75 taut yet hilarious minutes, Bioh unapologetically forces us all to examine ourselves.
School Girls is a nod to Tina Fey’s 2004 teen comedy, Mean Girls. Now on Broadway, the production explores the theme of colorism between two main protagonists, Paulina and Ericka. If you’re a black girl like me, you know these frenemies, not just from grade school but throughout your entire life.
Paulina is a Ghanaian-born dark-skinned queen bee. She’s the personification of “mean girl culture,” and thinks she is a sure shot in being selected to become Miss Ghana to represent West African nations at the Miss Global Universe proudly. Ericka, a biracial native Ohioan, comes to Ghana, her father’s birthplace, after the death of her mother, who is white. Ericka personifies the trope of the “tragic mulatto,” and tensions reach a crescendo when she is chosen to represent Miss Ghana.
Paulina, who is awash in Eurocentric notions of beauty and self-worth, thinks Ericka is blessed to be light-skinned and embraced by white society. Ericka, however, disabuses Paulina of the notion by revealing her difficulties with being biracial.
“You think those white kids wanted anything to do with me? You think there were any other black kids in Portsmouth? I was always alone! … And my father … was here. With his cocoa factory … and his wife and children. Living this perfect life … not even thinking about me … ashamed of me … his white daughter.”
Bioh’s inspiration for the play derives from a true story. In 2011, Minnesota native Yayra Nego, who is biracial and never resided in Ghana, won the Miss Ghana title. Nego’s win touched off a global debate about colorism throughout the African diaspora as well as in Africa. Due to the harmful effects of American slavery and European colonialism, the preferential treatment given to lighter-skinned blacks was intentionally executed to sow deep-seated resentment, dissent, and competition among blacks while at the same time keeping in place the racist concept of black inferiority.
For us American sisters, Spike Lee’s 1988 film “School Daze” brilliantly dramatized the warring tension of colorism, showing two sororities—one light skin, and the other dark skin—at a historically black college ferociously going at each other. “The light-skinned girls also have a term called ‘jiggaboo’ to refer to the dark-skin girl with wild hair, and the dark-skin girls use a term “wannabes” to refer to the light-skin girl wanting to be white,” the director said about the movie.
As a little girl, I heard the children’s rhyme on colorism, which told me my place in the world before I stepped out in it.
If you’re black, stay back;
If you’re brown, stick around;
If you’re yellow, you’re mellow;
If you’re white, you’re all right.
The enduring legacy of colorism is a pall that still hovers over black women today—both within our communities and in the larger society. Lupita Nyong’o, an Oscar-winning actress, is a dark-skinned Mexico-born Kenyan. In a 2014 interview with Her magazine, Nyong’o opened up about her inner struggle and society’s obsession with lighter-skin blacks, especially women.
“European standards of beauty are something that plagues the entire world. The idea that darker skin is not beautiful, that light skin is the key to success and love. Africa is no exception. When I was in second grade, one of my teachers said, ‘Where are you going to find a husband? How are you going to find someone darker than you?’ I was mortified.”
This year, sisters of African descent have done a trifecta in being crowned the winners in three major national pageants—Miss Teen USA, Miss USA, and Miss America. All, however, are light-complexioned.
While African American sisters are opening doors, cracking glass ceilings, and disrupting Eurocentric paradigms of beauty, more has to be done in terms of allowing chocolate-complexion and darker-skinned sisters, like former First Lady Michelle Obama, to be pageant queens too.