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Colorism Explained in 22 Minutes Or Less on “Black-ish”

By Lori L. Tharps


This blog post appeared originally on My American MeltingPot.

I’m not mad. Not mad at all that executive producer, Peter Saji, covered the same ground regarding colorism and family dynamics in a twenty-two-minute Black-ish episode that I covered in my 200-page heavily researched 2016 book, Same Family, Different Colors: Confronting Colorism in America’s Diverse Families.

I’m not upset that the basic premise of last week’s show, that originally aired on Tuesday January 15, literally could have been scripted from the pages of my book, where I collected the lived experiences of people who lived in families where folks were the same race, but different colors. On Black-ish, Diane, the youngest daughter in the fictional Johnson household, is rendered nearly invisible in her class picture because of poor lighting on her dark(er) complected skin. This is the inciting incident to a volatile family reckoning about colorism in the Johnson family and in the wider world. Lines are drawn between the lighter-hued family members (Bo and Junior) and the more melanin-rich (Andre and Ruby).

Colorism 101

In fact, when I sat down to watch the episode, I was ready with my pencil and pen to take note of all the things the show’s creators missed or overlooked when trying to make a sitcom episode about colorism. I mean, how could they cover all the things in twenty-two minutes? But they kind of did. They covered everything from the fictitious Willie Lynch letter, to the very real facts about lighter-skinned Black people receiving shorter prison sentences than their darker-hued brothers and sisters.

They also interrogated the idea of light-skin privilege, instead of just presenting it as fact that light skin Black people lead “easier lives and don’t have to deal with discrimination.” Light-skinned Black people suffer from colorism too, but it looks different than the way darker complected Black people experience it. In my book, I talk about things like light-skin isolation and how lighter-skinned Black people often have to “defend” their Blackness. I wrote an entire chapter about this, but Bo and Junior pretty much summed up what it feels like being “not Black enough” in their moving monologues on the show.

Colorism Doesn’t Discriminate

Which brings me to my next point. I just knew that in a twenty-two-minute Black-ish episode about colorism, Saji and his crew weren’t going to have time to explain that colorism is a global phenomenom, and not just a “Black thing.” In Same Family, Different Colors, I spend equal time discussing colorism in the Asian American, Latino and Mixed Race communities as I do talking about colorism in the African American community, because colorism doesn’t discriminate. I wanted that to be very clear. Obviously, Saji feels the same way, because even with only twenty-two minutes to work with, he managed to insert a Schoolhouse Rock!-inspired cartoon break that explained global colorism in all of its insidious glory.

By the time the episode was almost over, I stopped “taking notes” and sat back to simply enjoy the show. And I’m glad I did, because the ending was truly satisfying. Even though there was no neat and easy resolution to the family strife, and a solution to global colorism wasn’t discovered, the final message delivered in a voice over by family patriarch, Andre, put a smile on my face. He said,

“Colorism is our secret shame, and the pain it causes keeps growing because we rarely talk about it. But as I looked at my multicolored black family, I realized that because we talked about it, our wounds could finally start to heal as we learn to love ourselves out in the open. Because nothing gets better in the shadows.”

Colorism Out of the Shadows

Basically, Dre took the words right out of my mouth . . . or rather, right out of my book. But I’m not mad. Not mad at all. I’m happy that colorism is getting talked about out in the open and out of the shadows, so as a community, as a culture and as individuals, we can all begin to heal.


About the Author 

Lori L. Tharps is an associate professor of journalism at Temple University and the coauthor of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in AmericaKinky Gazpacho: Life, Love & Spain, and Same Family, Different Colors: Confronting Colorism in America’s Diverse Families. Her writing has also appeared in the New York TimesWashington Post, and Glamour and Essence magazines. She lives in Philadelphia with her family. Follow her on Twitter at @LoriTharps and visit her website.