I wrote this one more than a month ago and called it: 50 Shades of Black
Yellow bone. Bi-racial. Cappuccino. Mayate. Mulatto. Wog. Donker van klere. Blue. Why do we still insist on labelling the degree of lightness or darkness among ‘people of colour’ – and that’s another term I grapple with. Are white people without colour?
It’s a legacy that’s been left behind by colonization and various systems of Apartheid and segregation the world over. And many of us can’t even begin to understand how deep those roots run. I was reminded of that when, while arranging a shoot of inspiring women, one of the them, instead of revelling in the moment, complained that her make up was too dark. She mumbled an apology and then said … but ‘I’m not that dark’ and she felt humiliated. I can only surmise that she felt humiliated because in her mind she was light in complexion and it was a point of pride. And being dark – or made to appear dark – made her feel inferior. In other pictures I saw of her she looked like she’d been using a foundation light years away from her real complexion. I’m exaggerating. But the point I’m making is, she was that dark; she just couldn’t or didn’t want to see it.
We’ve been having many heated discussions on social platforms about the casting of Zoe Saldana to play the role of the iconic singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone. The debate is far more nuanced than the basic idea that Zoe is too light to play Nina. Nina Simone’s dark skin and according to Western norms, and unconventional beauty, shaped her very identity and appeal. That much is irrefutable. So it would only follow that someone with a similar beauty aesthetic portray her in the biopic. For starters.
I have much respect for Zoe and her acting abilities but she wouldn’t have been my choice. Pigmentation aside or racial lineage, for me, she just doesn’t have the gravitas as an actress to portray such a strong personality and influential life. Why hasn’t anyone from the black community in America who feel they own her story, told her story? It’s Cynthia Mort’s prerogative, as director, to cast who she feels is best fit to play the role in her film. But I digress.
I can rationalize Mort’s choice and make a logical argument defending her casting decision but it sits uncomfortably in my mind. We still live in a society where girls a generation younger than I am comment on how they wish they were lighter in complexion, where art directors lighten the complexions of actresses like Gabourey Sidibe on their magazine covers because she’s too black, and rappers talk about beautiful yellow bones as a benchmark for beauty.
There’s a word for it. It’s called colorism; it was coined by Alice Walker to describe how pigmentation determines social status, and the discrimination that may arise as a result. ‘I hear my presence in the industry has allowed a lot of biracial “looking” nguni speaking girls walk taller. Love & pow.’ was a tweet that has since been removed from the Twittersphere but it clearly illustrates, however inadvertently, that we still feel the need to make the distinction that we are lighter or darker skinned. And that distinction, depending on which side of the scale you sit is better or worse. How do we begin to repair the damage of decades, centuries, of social conditioning?