It’s a powerful statement! Especially since colorism has the very strange dichotomy of being something ubiquitous within the black community, alluded to all the time and quite casually, yet really discussing it is kind of taboo.
It’s complicated, and I’m not really qualified to try to unpack this concept for you. But to give you an idea of what I’m talking about, when I first arrived in Atlanta, I remember hearing through the grapevine that Spelman College, a historically black college for women, used to have something called the “paper bag test“, in which women were given admittance to the school if their skin was lighter than a brown paper bag.
Now, this is quite likely entirely an urban myth. When I heard it, I shrugged it off as rather ridiculous. But ridiculous though it may be, it may indeed have had a kernel of truth (if not with the colleges, then with the sororities and fraternities) during that time, which was several decades ago. But we all know that, sometimes, ridiculous things are true.
When I say the topic is kind of everywhere, I mean that I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people talk about “good hair” or add the words “light skin” as a descriptive of a person when there was no reason to do so. I remember once visiting a church with a friend and seeing a man playing with a boy who was around five or six years old. The boy was dancing around, and the man said, with pride in his voice and a smile on his face,
“Look at this talented little light skin boy! Look at this talented little light skin boy!”
He just kept repeating that. The boy heard him, and I often wondered what it was like for him to hear that. Did that validate the boy’s existence? Was his talent somehow intertwined with being light skinned? How many times had he already heard that in his life? Why did the man seem to admire him for his skin?
So that’s what I mean when I say the topic is ubiquitous and casually participated in. There are myriad other examples, including the frequent comparisons between Beyonce’s daughter Blue Ivy and Kim Kardashian’s daughter North that are based on their outward appearance, such as Blue Ivy’s natural hair being called “undesirable”, and North’s natural hair being called “desirable”.
But to return to my original point, a topic like colorism, though it’s everywhere and people toss certain remarks around like confetti, is still quite touchy. People don’t like a floodlight being cast upon the ridiculous things they say aloud and the beliefs they’ve internalized. Like, if I were to ask that man at church why he said that, he probably would’ve struggled to explain why the boy’s light skin was somehow part of his talent. And the man probably would’ve been annoyed at me for asking, for pointing out his absurdity.
Looking at this colorism art piece, I admit, I felt some kind of way, seeing these women’s faces and shoulders exposed in this public place, regarding a topic like this, their eyes staring straight at the camera. Lots of people walk their dogs on the BeltLine, push their babies in strollers, commute to work right past this artwork. To have this huge examination of colorism in their faces without a little more context felt too exposed to me; it felt like something that should be worked out behind closed doors, not available for people of other races to gawk at and shake their heads, like, “so sad, why don’t they love themselves.”
But therein lies the question: do we love ourselves? Any of us? Why does colorism exist at all, or racism for that matter? I guess, perhaps, to truly unravel the problem and reach its solution, this artist felt he had to do it boldly, in the public eye, exposing an internal struggle. Perhaps the human race can help one another with this issue, and many others.
Thanks for sticking with me on this topic. I know it was kind of wobbly, but I guess that just goes to show how unstable this topic is. It’s tacit yet it’s prominent; it’s joked about yet it’s secretly prized or longed for; it’s internalized and it’s a cancer. A mental cancer.
Anywho, I certainly did not plan to get complicated with this post! Kind of surprised me. But hey, blame it on the art. I think the best art is the kind that gets the conversation going. This piece definitely does. If you want to learn more about it, check out this video from the artist, Joshua Rashaad McFadden.
And there are sooooo many more pieces to see on the BeltLine besides the few I’ve shown here, so go and check them out for yourself!