Last night, someone tweeted that she really hoped that “black-ish” didn’t “both sides” the conversation in their highly anticipated colorism episode. But that is exactly what they did. And it was a risk.
We all know that when we talk about colorism in the Black community, it’s generally a one-sided discussion. Lighter skinned people have more privilege, so their stories of struggle or inequality are often met with resistance, disbelief or apathy.
But in last night’s episode, everyone got a chance to share their side.
It all started when Diane’s face was completely obscured in a class photo because she wasn’t lit properly. Naturally, her parents were ready to turn up, run up to the school and raise hell. But Diane said that she didn’t want them to do any of that. Instead, she said that everyone takes bad pictures on occasion and that it wasn’t a big deal.
While she was cool with it, her parents were not and the school picture was the catalyst into a discussion about colorism in the Black community and its roots in American slavery, where lighter-skinned slaves received preferential treatment, worked easier jobs, closer to White people and subsequently had better connections and opportunities after slavery.
The pattern continues today. So the thought of tackling such a concept in a 22-minute sitcom on network television is ballsy, to say the least.
And while I don’t think anyone would argue that the conversation was exhaustive, they did it, coming for everybody across the spectrum.
Junior drops a huge bombshell when he walks in the room announcing that everyone in their family is colorist, especially Dre, the show’s protagonist and narrator. It’s a fact both he and Ruby immediately dispute. When Junior and Rainbow remind them of the jokes they’ve made at the expense of their complexion–at the expense of their Blackness, Ruby responds with, “Light-skinned people have problems like rich people have problems.”
Then Dre and Ruby go on to list the ways in which light-skinned Blacks have it better. Ruby says they’re seen as the standard of Black beauty, noting that only one dark skin woman is celebrated every ten years. Dre shares that lighter-skinned Black people earn more than darker skinned Blacks and even serve shorter prison sentences.
But if you thought it was going to be an episode where one side of the Black community was left voiceless, then you thought wrong. It’s rare that Junior has a serious moment with Dre. In fact, he’s often used as the show’s comic relief with his odd way of seeing the world. But when Dre follows his son upstairs after the discussion got heated in the kitchen, Junior drops something heavy on his head.
“You love light skinned women but think light skinned men are soft.”
Dre, immediately defensive, seeks to refute that claim. But Junior shares that he sees it in the way he treats Jack, his younger, slightly darker brother and the way he perceives Junior’s actions. Jack dances at the drop of a dime and spent his soccer game picking flowers, but Dre regards Junior as his “softer” son. Meanwhile, Jack’s actions are explained away with, “That’s just Jack.”
The measure of whether a show is handling a topic with any level of success is the manner in which people are able to relate to it. And watching “black-ish” last night, so many stories came rushing back to my mind.
I remember this egg-nog colored boy, who I was in an internship program with, shared that playing football in high school and college, he had to be more aggressive than he would have been just to prove to his competitors and even his own teammates that he wasn’t soft.
Afterward, Ruby and Dre chimed in about their experiences. But before they could go on for too long, Diane interrupted them to say that for as much as everyone had to say, they still couldn’t relate to her, the darkest one in the family.
As she shared various events, we see cuts and flashbacks of Diane experiencing things that are all too familiar within the Black community. She goes to a makeup counter to try on red lipstick and a dark-skinned woman at the makeup counter tells her that shade isn’t for women with their complexion.
It reminded me of my own mother, who for decades steered away from red lipstick and even red clothes, at the warning of my grandmother. It wasn’t until her fifties that she discovered not only did the color suit her well, she liked wearing it.
When Diane recounted being called “pretty for a dark-skinned girl,” my husband chimed in to share that someone had said something similar to him.
“I felt that.”
My husband, Soils, was only half-way watching the episode, and I assumed he was doing that thing he does where he makes some type of outlandish claim to get my attention. And when he took his index finger and rubbed his arm, I knew he was joking.
“What do you know about being pretty for a dark-skinned man?” I asked. “Dark-skinned Black men aren’t judged by the same standards dark skinned women are.”
And while he might have been joking at first, his tone changed when he shared a real story. He was in a cab, making conversation with the driver when the man asked where he was from.
When Soils said South Africa, the man immediately denied it. “No.”
I wasn’t there, but I can imagine my husband chuckling slightly at the man’s refusal to accept his origin story.
“Yeah, I’m from South Africa.”
The cab driver said, “You don’t even look like an African…Usually, Africans are not that handsome.”
Then, in an attempt to describe the way Africans “generally look,” the cab driver quickly waved his hand back and forth over his face to illustrate some type of unspeakable, unsightly feature all African people share.
My husband reminded him that Africa is an entire continent and the people there don’t share one look.
After that story, I knew the “black-ish” episode had struck a chord. I’ve had several conversations about colorism with my husband, mostly from the perspective of Black men and their preference for lighter-skinned women. But never had it unearthed that story. And it made me wonder what type of conversations Black families across the country were having and will have about the topic because of this show.
Colorism is such a sore subject because it speaks to the ways in which White people’s racism, which is so deep, so nuanced and so effective, that it’s permeated the beliefs we hold about ourselves. And that’s a tragedy we’re not always ready to address. But I love the ending words from last night’s episode, “We need to love ourselves out in the open because nothing gets better in the shadows.”
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