I’m tired of seeing my light skin represented in Black media
Black Hollywood has birthed a generation of young talent that towers over those of us who don’t cleanly fit into this mold.
In May, People Magazine reported that 21 year-old model Jordyn Woods would make her acting debut on season two of Freeform’s Grown-ish. Woods is scheduled to guest star as a freshman undergraduate named Dee, who possesses a “soft-spoken and sincere vulnerability” and is expected to share the screen with Trevor Jackson’s character Aaron.
After Woods’ “break-up” with long-time friend Kylie Jenner following the so-called “Tristan Thompson and Jordyn Woods Cheating Scandal”, a lot of Black women, including myself, are happy to see that the violent, misogynoiristic abuse she was on the receiving end of by the Kardashian Klan and their stans did not end her career. At the same time, even more of us remain distressed by the continued, narrowly representational casting of relatively thin, light-skinned Black women in the Black-ish universe.
This is not the first time Black women, the clear target audience of Grown-ish, have expressed sincere concerns about the visibility, or lack thereof, of dark-skinned Black women on these shows. In March of 2018, Yara Shahidi, who plays the role of “Zoey” in both Grown-ish and Black-ish, disengaged Grown-ish fans tweeting her about her complicity in colorism in Hollywood. One user, who was soon blocked by Shahidi, tweeted “I’ve been waiting on @YaraShahidi or any of the other cast members to address the fact that grown-ish has no dark-skinned people, the one dark-skinned woman they showed, what’s his name used her as a prop to show Luca that he didn’t have a type.”
Another user tweeted, “Miss Yara Shahidi is presenting herself as some modern-day academic Jamila Baldwin like she’s radical and political but can’t even use her own privilege to combat the colorism on her own show.” Other fans of Grown-ish argued that Shahidi’s shame should be shared with Kenya Barris, the creator of Black-ish, Grown-ish, and now, Mixed-ish. One user tweeted, “How much responsibility for the shortcomings of the show do we place on the actors? Legitimately asking, no shade intended.”
In episode 10 of Grown-ish’s first season, “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” attempts to highlight misogynoir and colorism within the college dating landscape. Fans hoped to see Grown-ish answer to one of its most valid, consistent critiques and to see that the Black talent involved in the project is committed to depicting a more widely representational collegiate experience for Black women. Unfortunately, though not unsurprisingly, the episode did not deliver. Among the most glaring disappointments is the storyline with Jazz and Sky Forster, played by the talented, sister-duo Chloe and Halle Bailey. Jazz and Sky facilitate a dialogue on how difficult dating is for them because men of color on their college campus prefer – wait for it – light-skinned girls. It is simply ludicrous for the Forster sisters to feel that they are somehow not light-skinned or the kind of girls their peers prefer.
The addition of Jordyn Woods to the Grown-ish cast in the face of already ongoing criticism from its viewership should not be reduced to arrogance or stubbornness. It’s much deeper; it’s a part of a strategic visibility effort that exclusively elevates multi-privileged demographics. This casting reaffirms what many of us believed before its first episode had even aired: it’s not really for us.
Notice that the those extended the opportunity to be visible are not only possessing of lighter skin, but also of straightness, cisness, (upper) middle class status, thinness, and college education. And these select few, assigned the task of representing our community, willfully abide by cis-heteronormative ideas of femininity and typically embody traditional, western feminist values – misusing intersectionality on the timeline and carrying Bad Feminist with them when they are in reality just bad feminists.
Directors, producers, and writers will tell us that the “Black media” we’re consuming with these traditional leads are shattering glass ceilings, challenging the “good ol’ boy” networks in Hollywood, and proving that Black stories trump white mediocrity. We have been fed this idea that Grown-ish, though most of us do not see ourselves in it, is a part of a mission that is bigger than any of us. These pieces of Black media are somehow going to bring us and our multitudes into the mainstream.
I do not understand how any of this can be true when these pieces of media do not depict our multitudes or properly address our intra-community relations. Rather, Black Hollywood has birthed a generation of young talent that towers over those of us who don’t cleanly fit into this mold. This has become even more evident since the first trailer for Mixed-ish was released, depicting brown-skinned and dark-skinned Black children as antagonistic bullies to racially ambiguous, light-skinned mixed children.
This is not just Twitter. This is not about bylines. Our cultural critiques are not rooted in bitterness or jealousy. As a lighter-skinned, feminine presenting person, I am visible in Black media. In Black media, I am sought after by Black men of all shades. In Black media, I am the target of jealousy by Black feminine presenting persons of darker shades. In Black media, I am a role model for little Black girls, who are encouraged to develop their identity parallel to how I’ve developed mine. There are extremely few shows and films relevant (or even irrelevant) within the Black community where I am not central to the plot line nor where these problematic ideas are replicated.
The reality of these intra-community relations are much more complicated, particularly as we interrogate the influence of colorism on the engagement between light, brown, and dark-skinned feminine presenting persons. What Black media often portrays as jealousy of lighter shades of brown, of thinner noses, of narrower hips, and other more Eurocentric features, could not be farther from it. Rather, the tension in our relations are informed by the fact that in being lighter, we are held at a higher value and closer to humanity by both Eurocentric standards and the standards of our communities.
These relations are informed by the direct knowledge of the unambiguous, data-supported reality that the Blackness of light-skinned feminine presenting persons makes us far less vulnerable to harm than our brown-skinned and dark-skinned counterparts. A 2019 YouGov study of 811 Black Americans reports that of those surveyed, 51% of those with darker skin indicated that they experience racism “very” or “fairly” frequently compared to just 26-34% of Black Americans with lighter complexions. The reduction of these complexities to “jealousy” and “cat fights” is an unfair aggression tolerated by Black people in discussions about colorism. This is in and of itself colorist, and enables the exclusion and marginalization of dark-skinned Black women and Black feminine presenting persons in media and our society at large.
As we focus discourses about representation on who is and is not there, we must also speak about why we are and are not there. When projects like Grown-ish exclusively cast lighter-skinned actresses, while their writers declare these projects as representative of the Black experience and critics then praise these projects and regard them as the standard, there is also a very explicit message sent to those of us who do not fit this mold. That message is that the parts of us that we do not see are a threat to the Black media conglomerate. What we need is a collective, progressive representation politic. Seeing ourselves on screen should not satisfy us as long as we are preventing others from seeing themselves.
Indigo, who uses both they, them and he, him gender pronouns, is a Black Puerto Rican lesbian essayist and recovering community organizer. While pursuing their undergraduate degree, Indigo served as the inaugural president of their campus’ Queer and Trans People of Color Coalition, organizing educational program on social, economic, and political issues impacting primarily Black and Latinx queer and/or trans persons. Currently, Indigo is pursuing a juris doctorate degree at CUNY School of Law.