On Feb. 12, 1988, Spike Lee released his second feature film. The acclaimed director from Brooklyn had become one of the most buzzed-about new filmmakers of the ’80s after his 1986 debut, She’s Gotta Have It, and he was following that indie hit with an ambitious musical depicting life on a historically black college campus.
School Daze was, like She’s Gotta Have It, a uniquely black perspective on the nuances of the black experience. In this case, Lee examined the varying degrees of classism and colorism in the world of middle-class black social circles and academia. One of the more memorable elements of School Daze is a rivalry between two female factions on campus: the light-skinned sorority girls The Gamma Rays, aka the “Wannabes,” who are dismissive and derogatory to the darker-skinned non-sorority-affiliated women, who they call the “Jiggaboos.”
Lee’s film was controversial—it was famously skewered by activist/scholar Amiri Baraka as depicting HBCUs as “brown-skinned Animal House”—but it was one of the first mainstream films to directly address colorism within the black community and how it shapes our perceptions of ourselves, how it determines who and what we value. Colorism was once again a topic of conversation this week after an excerpt from a Mathew Knowles interview with Ebony magazine hit the web.
In the piece, the music manager who helped guide his daughters Beyoncé and Solange to stardom—before a highly publicized falling out—reveals that he only recently came to confront how colorism had shaped so much of his life.
“When I was growing up, my mother used to say, ‘Don’t ever bring no nappy-head black girl to my house,’” Knowles explains. “In the Deep South in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, the shade of your blackness was considered important. So I, unfortunately, grew up hearing that message.
“I have a chapter in the book that talks about eroticized rage. I talk about going to therapy and sharing—one day I had a breakthrough—that I used to date mainly white women or very high-complexion black women that looked white. I actually thought when I met Tina, my former wife, that she was white. Later I found out that she wasn’t, and she was actually very much in-tune with her blackness.
“I had been conditioned from childhood. With eroticized rage, there was actual rage in me as a black man, and I saw the white female as a way, subconsciously, of getting even or getting back. There are a lot of black men of my era that are not aware of this thing.”
A common criticism of so many black male entertainers of yesteryear has been their proclivity for white women. From Sammy Davis, Jr. to Harry Belafonte, there was a long-held belief that black men of stature wanted white women both as trophy—an affirmation that they’d “arrived” at the same level as their white counterparts—and as an act of racial rebellion against a white establishment that decided that the greatest affront to whiteness was a white woman sharing a bed with a “negro.” Knowles’ words are echoed in writings like Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice—and in a recent interview with legendary composer/arranger/producer Quincy Jones.
In a lengthy sit-down with GQ, Jones touches on his own history with women and race.
“Here’s what you’ve got to understand: The interracial thing was part of a revolution, too,” Jones states. “Because back in the ’40s and stuff, they would say, ‘You can’t mess with a white man’s money.… Don’t mess with his women.’ We weren’t going to take that shit. Charlie Parker, everybody there, was married to a white wife.”
The proximity to whiteness became high currency, even among some of the more “progressive” black folks in scholarly and political circles. The revolutionary awakening of the 1960s led to some dismantling of the mindset, but it never fully went away. How could it? It had been beaten into the black subconscious since slavery that black was ugly and unlovable.
According to ThoughtCo.Com:
“In the United States, colorism has roots in slavery. That’s because slave owners typically gave preferential treatment to slaves with fairer complexions. While dark-skinned slaves toiled outdoors in the fields, their light-skinned counterparts usually worked indoors completing domestic tasks that were far less grueling. Why the discrepancy?
“Slave owners were partial to light-skinned slaves because they were often family members. Slave-owners frequently forced slave women into sexual intercourse, and light-skinned offspring were the telltale signs of these sexual assaults.
“While slave owners did not officially recognize their mixed-race children as blood, they gave them privileges that dark-skinned slaves did not enjoy. Accordingly, light skin came to be viewed as an asset among the slave community.”
This set a foundation for the kind of colorism that was passed down to future generations. Light-skinned was upwardly mobile and more likely to navigate and thrive in white society; and in terms of beauty standards, it was elevated because it was closer to what white people conditioned the colonized world to view as “beautiful.” What is now known as “light-skinned privilege” has been an undercurrent of racism in America for centuries. And it conditioned the way black people saw themselves and saw black progress.
“The Brown Paper Bag Test” is an oft-cited practice in some black social groups in which a prospective participant has to have their complexion “measured” against a brown paper bag. If you’re darker than the bag, you are denied entry. Michael Eric Dyson famously wrote in Come Hell or High Water that the practice originated in the cultural hotbed of New Orleans.
“In fact, New Orleans invented the brown paper bag party—usually at a gathering in a home—where anyone darker than the bag attached to the door was denied entrance,” Dyson wrote.
But the Brown Paper Bag Test has never left our consciousness. It’s been mentioned as a “tool” for hip-hop video castings; and whether explicitly true or not, it’s hard not to recognize that lighter-skinned, racially ambiguous models seem to be the women of choice for the average rapper “vixen.” Throughout entertainment history, there is clear evidence that lighter-skinned is held as the beauty standard—from Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge to Vanity and Lisa Bonet to Zendaya and Zoë Kravitz. When one thinks of blackface minstrelsy, it’s obvious that the stereotyped features of black people—dark skin, full lips, kinky hair—are what’s being parodied. When racists dress as black celebrities for Halloween, they often rely on those features to exaggerate the “blackness” of the costume—even when the actual celebrity they’re supposed to be dressed as is as light as Nicki Minaj or Barack Obama.
Knowles, in the Ebony interview, acknowledges how his own daughters aren’t exempt from the politics of colorism in music.
“When it comes to black females, who are the people who get their music played on pop radio?” Knowles asks. “Mariah Carey, Rihanna, the female rapper Nicki Minaj, my kids [Beyoncé and Solange], and what do they all have in common?”
In the 1980s, when so many black pop stars became major crossover acts via MTV and Top 40 radio, most of the artists who were able to reach the pinnacle of popular music were lighter-skinned. Prince was light enough to convince the world he was the product of an interracial marriage (via his fictional family in 1984’s hit musical drama Purple Rain); Michael Jackson began the decade as a darker-skinned R&B star but ended it as the light-skinned King of Pop; Whitney Houston was often photographed shades lighter than she actually was and only wore her natural hair on her first album cover. After that, she was constantly wearing elaborate, curly wigs. Lionel Richie, DeBarge, Janet Jackson—all varying degrees of lighter-skinned black stars (or stars who presented as lighter-skinned) that were accepted by mainstream America. For years, rumors (since debunked) persisted that ’80s R&B singer Alexander O’Neal had been the first choice to front legendary funk band The Time but lost the gig because Prince (who helped put the band together) thought he was too dark-skinned.
And things don’t look all that different in the years since.
In the 1990s, when TLC, En Vogue, and Salt-N-Pepa became the biggest girl groups in music, there were those who felt they’d crossed over bigger than contemporaries like SWV and Xscape because of their complexion. When Alicia Keys won Best New Artist at the 2002 Grammy Awards, many of her critics believed that she was picked over fellow new artist nominee Indie.Arie because her lighter skin (Keys’ mother is white) made her more “acceptable” to mainstream fans and that led to her being preferred by Grammy voters. Even as young black starlets like Zendaya, Yara Shihidi, and Amandla Stenberg become voices for a new generation of “woke” black people, there is concern that only a certain “type” of black girl gets the spotlight and the platform. Those concerns are valid. We haven’t proven otherwise, really.
In their respective interviews, Mathew Knowles and Quincy Jones affirm what most black folks have long known: Colorism is deeply embedded in our culture. Knowles seems more committed to unpacking that bit of baggage than Jones, but it’s something that all black folks, and especially black men, should assess within themselves. And America should recognize that this is something that was born and bred via the colonialism that shaped so much of this world. Convincing people that white is right also told them that black was wrong, and we are still working to un-learn so much of that damaging ideology. There is nothing new here, but this is as good a time as any to reignite the conversation.
And to revisit School Daze. Thirty years later, we’re still working to wake up.