Photo by Clarke Sanders on Unsplash
Think about the last time you’ve seen a Black woman as the main character on a show that isn’t aimed toward a Black audience. When was the last time you saw a dark-skinned Black girl that wasn’t portraying stereotypes or acting in a “rare” role of exceptionalism? When was the last time a Black girl took the screen where her Blackness wasn’t being used as some deviant subplot of the main story?
In recent years, most television shows have given into the diversity ploys people have been advocating for over the years. To be clear, it requires more than Black sidekicks and subplots that are written by white writers who only imagine what Black realities look like. However, more often, it seems like they just incorporate Black characters to check off a box of requirements. There’s almost always a trio of friends with the one token Black friend to fill the imaginary diversity quota. Instances of tokenism become abundantly clear when you’re looking for them.
Even worse than the tokenism of Black representation is the overwhelming colorism embedding itself in the popular shows. Using mixed, and/or racially ambiguous, light-skinned actresses to fill Black roles is unfair to the spectrum of Blackness and our varying skin tones and appearances. Several implicit messages go along with these recurring casting faux pas:
Black girls are pretty only if they have loose curls and silky hair.
Mixed girls are used to portray racial messages because they know the audience will always be more likely to receive them.
Dark-skinned girls are only good for upholding harmful stereotypes, while light-skinned girls are the best for positive representation.
There are several trends I’ve been noticing, and I’m calling them out.
This all started when I decided to watch Netflix’s Black AF. I won’t even lie, I was disappointed by the cast. Kenya Barris is just as woke as the next guy, but I can’t help feeling like the casting compared to the name was a bit tone-deaf. Without context, Black AF sounded to me like it was going to be about a Black family being unapologetically Black. Instead, what I saw from the first episode (could hardly get through it) was a family full of conventionally attractive, biracial Black people that justified all of their reckless actions behind slavery. Problematic, but moving on.
We should be happy that there is brown and Black representation in popular media. I mean, after all, we should take what we can get, right?
The representation of mixed and racially ambiguous people should not be lauded as a win for all Black people. This is already a polarizing conversation within the community, but hear me clearly: Every shade of Black is Black enough. Don’t take this and run with it; biracial Black people are not any less valid. But there are different struggles. I am never going to diminish the Blackness of these mixed people. However, there is something to be said about their preferred inclusion.
White people throw in genetic wild cards through hair and eye colors; Black people do it in skin tones. There’s no shortage of light skin in the Black community, and there aren’t any discrepancies here about their Blackness. I disagree with the fact that Black roles are continually being given to loose-haired, racially ambiguous people who are perceived to be more attractive. (Because — Um — White supremacy much?) I do have difficulty with using them as vessels to give Black realities a platform.
The next best thing to a white ally is the mixed Black person. The notion behind all of this is that the closer you are to whiteness, the better reception your struggles will have. White supremacy strikes again! Blackness has always been measured and discounted by the Eurocentric standard of beauty. It’s likely the reason why no one wants to hear about the Black struggle from people who have experienced the brunt of it firsthand. Those messages are softened because they are expressed through a more palatable voice, from a more desirable visual. While I love Yara Shahidi, Logan Browning, and Zendaya dearly for using their platform to air these racial injustices, it should not be up to them. They should not be the preferred prototype people want to hear from. They are Black, and they are valid, but come on. It’s a double-edged sword.
I mean, really, how come a lot of these newer Black roles are filled by people with light brown skin, loose, curly hair, green eyes, and otherwise Eurocentric features? Why are they continually given the spotlight while those with darker skin tones are resigned to being shadowed supporting characters? What is there to be said about the fact that the “ghetto” roles are relegated to the darker girls? Or that the smart, athletic, and quirky Black girl sidekick is usually mixed? Or that the positive representations of Black girls are always marked by some ivy league status or some otherwise unattainable and inspiring achievement, only serving to reinforce the negative stereotypes it tries to overcome?
All of this stems from anti-Black rhetoric. Period.
It is appreciated that these issues of Blackness are being brought to light, but at what cost? What messages are we being sent by the recurring idea that there is some definitive realm of acceptable Blackness? Can we please get rid of respectability politics? Because I can assure you that light-skinned, suburban families and dark-skinned families in the projects are not the only options. We understand how others perceive us; it’s always been loud and clear. But when we start replicating those ideas, subconsciously or not, there’s a larger problem at hand.
This is not an isolated grievance of mine. I won’t even mention the several times originally dark-skinned characters have been replaced by cutesy, light-skinned women (See Aunt Viv from Fresh Prince, Claire from My Wife and Kids, Shaina from Gullah Gullah Island, etc.). From most sources, they claim the replacement of these actresses was because they were disagreeable with the rest of the cast; that is not a one-time deal either. The darker skin you have, the less tolerable people are of your mistakes, your attitude, and your audacity. They are to be (rarely) seen and (definitely) not heard. The message they send to Black women is clear: Dark skin is not welcomed, and if it is, it’s in extremely slim circumstances. But like I said, I won’t even get into that.
In consideration of Black Panther, Insecure, and Jordan Peele movies, Get Out and Us, darker women do admittedly have a chance to shine. I just wish it wasn’t once every blue moon. When is the last time you’ve seen a dark-skinned Black lead whose storyline wasn’t around her Blackness, her struggles with colorism, or any other “diverse” focus? While I appreciate the visual of Black achievements (despite the subtle hints of elitism), why does it always have to boil down to Black exceptionalism for them to be worthy of screen time? Why can’t she just be a Black girl? We come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, and everyone has a different background. So why do we keep seeing the same tropes?
Where are the depictions of women who have the nerve to have dark skin, big noses, big lips, wide hips, and boldness in their mannerisms? There’s plenty out there. Can we not have our cake and eat it too?
Many of the forms of representation are seen as gimmes, and viewers are discouraged from asking for more. I’ve been hearing the “yes, and” clause lately, and I haven’t forgotten about it since. Who are we not to demand more? Why can we not say yes, I see the stroke of representation, and I want more? Yes, I see the lead Black girl, and I want Black girls of different shades alongside her. Yes, I see the dark-skinned Black girl on screen, and I want her to be fat; I want her to be dark-skinned and popular; I want her to be dark-skinned and achieve her goals. More than that, how about a dark-skinned lesbian? A dark-skinned trans woman? A neurodivergent dark-skinned woman? A woman whose “handicap” isn’t the fact that she’s dark-skinned? Yes, please.
Okay, there are some instances. Pose on FX does an excellent job of including a myriad of colors and trans women — amazing. Netflix’s Black Lightning features a dark-skinned lesbian — love it. HBO’s Insecure features a quirky dark-skinned lead, just showing her being a woman — can’t get enough. And that’s my point. I want more of this. Diversity doesn’t only wear one face; allow characters to have complexities that don’t fit into the cookiecutter roles the white patriarchy has defined for us. Do this by hiring more Black writers, producers, and directors. Make space for us, and see how things change. It’s more indicative of reality.
Kara Ireland is a contributing writer for BSW Chronicles. You can find out more about her by following her on Instagram @kelisebooks.