The Problem With the Light-Skinned vs. Dark-Skinned Debate

Another casting announcement for a popular movie series or TV show about a black character is released, and there is a debate about the character’s skin tone. It happened to Alexandra Shipp with the Storm casting for the X-Men movies, and it happened again to Amandla Stenberg with The Hate U Give. I remember the second controversy in particular because it upset me as well. My sister and I both read the book The Hate U Give the summer after it came out, and I loved the illustration of the dark-skinned girl on the cover. As I read the book, it felt nice to imagine a character that looked like me, which is so rare for darker-skinned women. So, when the casting came out, I felt disappointed. It didn’t align with what I, and many other readers, had pictured. More recently, Yara Shahidi was cast to play a darker-skinned Jamaican immigrant in A Sun Is Also A Star. Why are black people finally get the diverse stories we’ve been asking for, but without the casting representation of a variety of skin tones?

I remember a lot of people on social media exclaiming “What’s the problem! We’re all black!” In some ways, I understand where this idea comes from, but in many regards, I find it tone-deaf to the issues of darker-skinned black people. It has the same energy of being “colorblind”– seemingly well-intentioned, but most people of color have interpreted it as an excuse for people who just don’t want to talk about race. Whenever I hear people dismiss a dark-skinned person’s story with the mantra of “we’re all black!” it instantly strikes me as an attempt at silencing the struggles of other people, just because it is not something that affects everyone. We may all be black, but there is a clear difference in the way lighter-skinned and darker-skinned people are treated. It is seen in the way so many of our black icons have lighter skin and the way that children are told to stay out of the sun for fear of becoming too dark. The Hate U Give could have been an amazing moment of representation for a lot of black girls who often don’t see faces that look like theirs on movie screens, but instead, darker-skinned women were overshadowed again.

Still, it is undeniable that the light-skinned vs dark-skinned debate creates a divide between African-Americans. It was designed that way, starting right at the beginning with slavery. Lighter-skinned African Americans had more educational and work opportunities, and were treated much better than darker-skinned slaves. Even after slavery ended, it continued with certain privileges being based on whether an individual could pass the brown paper bag test. Now, it seems like casting movies involves a metaphorical “paper bag test” as well, allowing big movie studios to preach diversity while avoiding the casting of darker-skinned people, most commonly women. There are so few up and coming dark-skinned actresses, yet we seemingly have a surplus of girls with light skin and loose curls, ready to be cast for new roles in a supposedly increasingly diverse Hollywood. Where do dark-skinned women fit in in this Hollywood? There needs to be a way to acknowledge privilege, but also a way to acknowledge how divides are being created. I think it starts with a willingness to listen–  or else there can never be healing on either side. It’s not as if representation for all black girls isn’t important– girls like Yara Shahidi and Amandla Stenberg are talented and deserve success, it just shouldn’t come at the expense of colorism. The best interpretation I’ve ever heard of this issue came from Zendaya, another light-skinned actress. She called herself Hollywood’s “acceptable version of a black girl.” And that’s all it is, the definition of “acceptable” is one that has to be changed.

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