Ethos and the Rhetoric of “Blackness”
Last week Grey Anatomy’s actor Jesse Williams gave a passionate speech about several aspects of being Black in America after receiving BET’s humanitarian awards. In addition to talking about the Black Lives Matter movement, he also implored Black to people to drop materialism and become more involved in the current civil rights struggle. His speech was praised by many in the African American community and shared throughout social media. However, there was a segment of the Black community who questioned both the authenticity and authority of Williams to give this speech because he is biracial with light skin and blue eyes.
Although Williams’ speech ringed true for many listeners both white and Black, his perceived “light skinned” privilege could not be ignored by some African American listeners. Williams himself acknowledged this perceived privilege in previous interviews by stating “European beauty standards give me access to things.”
Critics of Williams believe that he has an inherent privilege by virtue being biracial and thus he can not be considered authentically black. President Barack Obama faced the similar criticisms of Black authenticity when he first ran for president in 2008. In relation to status as an “authentic Black Man,” syndicated columnist Stanley Crouch suggested that since Obama’s blackness comes from his Kenyan father and not a black man whose descendants came from slaves, he cannot be referred to “as one of us.”
This debate of blackness among African Americans and the assertion of a lighter skin privilege is called “colorism.” The Daily Show with Trevor Noah tackled the colorism issue with humor by asking the question of which is more “blacker,” being light skinned from South African as is Trevor Noah or being dark-skinned from Alabama as is the “senior Black-skin correspondent” Roy Wood, Jr.
The issue of colorism has been present throughout African American history. The idea behind this issue on the assumption that the lighter you are the more privileges you can have both in the mainstream and within the Black community. As an example, Black Greek Sororities used to have what is called a “paper bag test” for potential initiates. The women had to be lighter than the paper bag in order to become a member.
Today, some claim that this racial standard is still the case for Black women in Hollywood. According to actress Viola Davis, “if you are darker than a paper bag, then you are not sexy, you are not a woman, you shouldn’t be in the realm of anything that men should desire.” Ironically Davis’ assertion played itself out in the casting of the Nina Simone biopic. The light skinned Zoe Saldana was cast to play the dark-skinned Nina Simone to the dismay of Simone’s fans who many wanted the role to go to Davis.
The sports world is not immune to the controversy either. The colorism arguments played out recently in the NBA finals with “light-skinned” Stephen Curry’s Warriors losing to “dark skinned” Lebron James’ Cavaliers. Some in sports media suggested that Curry has benefited in endorsements and fan love because of his appearance. This fan love affair with Curry has overshadowed the popularity of Lebron James who is considered the best player in the game. Scholar Michael Eric Dyson addressed the Curry colorism issue in an essay for ESPN’s Undefeated.com where he writes,
The politics of shade have shadowed black folk from the time we set foot in North America. Curry’s fame has upped the ante: Suspicion surrounds him because of his light skin, and because he’s been lauded by both the NBA and media establishments. The subliminal message has become explicit: Curry is a brother we may not be able to embrace because the powers that be embrace him too.
Using words like “suspicion” and “subliminal,” Dyson indicates that Curry seems to occupy a space outside of “black folk.” In short, Curry’s “blackness” is at question because “Blackness authenticity” is rooted in skin color.
As all these cases suggest, for some African Americans, the ethos of the rhetor is tied closely to the rhetor’s skin complexion. This colorism conversation seems never ending which, unfortunately, is distracting from the necessary content of Williams’ speech of “staying woke” and the from larger issues affecting African Americans of all complexions.
If you want to know more:
- Colorism is explored in detain in Color Matters: Skin Tone Bias and the Myth of a Postracial America (New Directions in American History) . The editor is Kimberly Jade Norwood.
- Vanatta Ford’s “Color blocked: a rhetorical analysis of colorism and its impact on rap lyrics in hip hop music from 2005 to 2010” is an examination of how Black women are portrayed in hip hop music by an investigation of colorism within the rhetoric. It was published in Journal of Pan African Studies 5.1 (2012): 270
- Ebony Magazine’s Keith Gaynor examines colorism among Black men in his essay
“Light Skin Simps, Dark Skin Studs:Black Men and Colorism.”