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Black-ish shines light on colorism

“It diminishes the humanity of another and provides a false sense of superiority for the other."
Credit: KARE
Black-ish took on the topic of colorism in its latest episode.

ST PAUL, Minn. — Plenty of people are still talking about how the show "Black-ish" took on the issue of colorism in the African American community. 

The hit sitcom showed how skin color can separate and cause resentment among certain groups. Professor Keith Mayes specializes in African American studies at the University of Minnesota. He says colorism dates back slavery in the U.S.

“Colorism is a form of discrimination of within black and brown communities that favors or privileges lighter skin people over darker skin,” he said. “The way in which plantation masters and owners divided the black community. They gave lighter skin slaves more privileges. Mainly in the house. The hard laborers were dark. Dark skin black folks who were in the field.” 

The sitcom has never hidden from serious topics. The writer of Tuesday night’s episode about colorism told the Washington Post, the colorism episode is the one that “terrifies” him the most.

During the episode, Dre offers viewers a history lesson and provides context on colorism over a graphic. 

“Black people come in many shades, from Mariah Carey to Wesley Snipes. Because we look different, we get discriminated against differently,” Dre says on the show. “Sometimes we even discriminate against each other. It’s called colorism, the racist belief that light skin is good and dark skin is bad.”

Professor Mayes says colorism exists in all communities with black and brown skin. In the black community, “Asian, Indian and Latin American,” he said. “The hyphenated Americans and those who are from other parts of the world. Even in the 21st century it is still a factor when it comes to employment and promotion and attention from those who may PREFER lighter skin blacks over those who  are dark.” 

And while colorism has its roots in slavery, it has been perpetuated. Mayes said in the black community, there are people who use a brown paper bag test to determine entrance in certain clubs and organizations. 

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Dr. Artika Tyner is the Associate Vice President for Diversity & Inclusion at St. Thomas University. 

She says colorism is rooted in stereotypes and biases and has a harmful impact on both the perpetrators and victims.

“It diminishes the humanity of another and provides a false sense of superiority for the other. Colorism is a part of the modern fiction or myth of race in America,” she told us via email. “Science has demonstrated time and time again that race is a social construct however our society continues to embrace the false notions that one’s race and skin tone define competence, value and beauty, to name a few.” 

As an educator Tyner said she believes education is a tool for building bridges. Therefore, eradicating colorism and its harmful effects must begin with learning and engagement.

“The initial step is to gain an understanding of the history of colorism. It was used in American history as a part of a racial caste system and furthered the ideology of white supremacy. It is embedded in many aspects of the daily American life from nursery rhymes to the purchase of products (skin bleaching tools).” 

Meanwhile, Mayes echoes her belief. He also says we all can play a role in ending colorism. 

“The people who should be concerned about colorism are not only its victims but the beneficiaries of colorism and that is white people and people of color who are lighter skin,” Mayes said. “They need to eradicate it. We expect white people to deal with white racism and so should people of color who are lighter skin.”