It’s no secret that Hollywood favors lighter skin on black female entertainers. But some black actresses, while perhaps observing that fact, resist publicly acknowledging.
But in her June Cosmopolitan cover interview, 19-year-old Zendaya Coleman spoke about colorism with maturity and poise.
“I feel a responsibility to be a voice for the beautiful shades my people come in. Unfortunately, I have a bit of a privilege compared to my darker sisters and brothers… Like people question, Would you listen to Zendaya if she wasn’t the same skin color? And that’s an honest question. Can I honestly say that I’ve had to face the same racism and struggles as a woman with darker skin? No, I cannot. I have not walked in her shoes and that is unfair of me to say. But I’m completely behind that woman. I want to be a part of the movement and growth. And if I get put in a position because of the color of my skin where people will listen to me, then I should use that privilege the right way.”
Zendaya’s response shows far more insight than other actresses who have been questioned on colorism.
In a March interview with XONecole.com, 23-year-old actress and singer Tinashe side stepped the issue of colorism altogether when asked about it;
“Again, the way I see it, obviously, is if a Black girl is winning–whether she is lightskin, darkskin, or any type of shade in-between, that should be a win for the Black community, period. But it’s not necessarily always perceived as such. It’s like ‘Oh, she’s on the more lighter spectrum, so that is why she wins.’”
And while 22-year-old actress Kiersey Clemons acknowledged the existence of colorism in a May interview with BET, she also made the bizarre assessment that it couldn’t have played a role in her recent film Dope because the director and casting director were married to dark-skinned people, or dark-skinned themselves. (Despite featuring dark-skinned men in key roles, Dope featured only light-skinned women in key roles.)
“I got some tweets about how none of us were darker, and I got very defensive because I took it personally. Because… well… I didn’t cast the movie; I didn’t make the movie… But also, we have to realize [director] Rick Famuyiwa is married to a dark-skinned woman. Kim Coleman, the casting director, is a darker skinned woman. And this was an indie film that was made and Rick’s casting was purely based off of talent and, unfortunately, I feel like maybe some of the girls didn’t make it into the room because maybe they’ve been discouraged by the people that allow you to get into the room, which are your agents… But when you look at the bigger picture, it’s society. And until society changes there’s not gonna really be a change in Hollywood.”
Well-intentioned as they might be, both women are off base. The ‘trickle down’ mentality (a light-skinned actress who breaks barriers will pave the way for a dark-skinned one) is not how Hollywood has worked. For decades now, lighter skinned women have been disproportionately represented while the (much smaller) percentage of roles for darker-skinned black women has not significantly increased. Some would even argue that, after a brief golden age of black television in the 90s, it has actually decreased.
The good news is that black influencers in Hollywood can disrupt this trend. Black showrunner Shonda Rhimes cast Viola Davis and Aja Naomi King in lead roles for How to Get Away with Murder. And black directors Ava Duvernay and Mara Brock Akil have regularly cast darker-skinned black women in leading and primary roles in their productions. Issa Rae, whose new show Insecure debuts on HBO this Fall, has cast darker-skinned actress Yvonne Orji opposite her in the comedy.
But disrupting a trend means acknowledging that it exists, as Coleman eloquently does. And we appreciate her for speaking up when so many are silent.