Colorism on Film: Yellow Fever by Ng’endo Mukii

Yellow Fever is an international award winning film by Ng’endo Mukii. This short film (less than 7 minutes) is a mixed media work of art. I think the film is unique in that it really zooms in (sometimes literally) on the unsettling emotional and psychological experience of internalized white supremacy.


Yellow Fever: FULL from Ng’endo Mukii on Vimeo.

Fairness: The Standard of Euro-American Femininity

“One reason the novels of nineteenth-century black authors abound with white-skinned women characters is that most readers of novels in the nineteenth century were white people: white people who then, as, more often than not, now, could identify human feeling, humanness, only if it came in a white or near-white body. And although black men could be depicted as literally black and still be considered men (since dark is masculine to the Euro-American mind), the black-skinned woman, being dark and female, must perforce be whitened, since ‘fairness’ was and is the standard of Euro-American femininity.”

—Alice Walker

Black Ballerinas

Misty Copeland and Ballet’s Color Problem

“This month, Misty Copeland and Brooklyn Mack made history as the first black ballet dancers to star in Swan Lake, arguably the most infamous ballet ever. In 2015, that means Copeland and Mack are the first blacks to dance lead in Swan Lake in about 140 years. The world of ballet clearly has a color problem.

A Leak in the Pipeline

Of course there are serious pipeline issues. For a lot of people, professional ballet training is just too expensive. Then there’s the factor of location. Many communities simply don’t have the facilities or dance and ballet schools that better resourced communities have.

When long time artistic director of The Washington Ballet, Septime Webre, was asked years ago why he had no African American dancers in his company, part of his reply was:

“that would remain the case until the great training grounds, the great ballet schools of America become welcoming places for 9-year-old black girls. Families need to feel that their daughter or son of color is welcomed in these big ballet academies.” —Septime Webre

Webre’s statement points to the pipeline, the schools and training institutions, as a reason for the lack of professional black ballerinas. However, Webre doesn’t use cost and location as an excuse. His comments get to the heart of something more insidious—interpersonal discrimination.

Your Kind isn’t Welcomed Here

In many institutions, not just ballet schools, students of color are made to feel unwelcomed, alienated, and marginalized as a result of direct or indirect words and actions from their peers, teachers, and administrators. I don’t have space in this post to thoroughly explain this phenomenon, but I will make a few general statements.

  1. Being the only person of color in a classroom or school is often enough by itself (without direct or overt racism) to alienate a student.
  2. Indirect, latent, subtle, well-meaning, light-hearted, humorous, micro-aggressive discrimination or harassment is often invisible to others and difficult to explain or “prove” because of the nuanced and subjective nature of such encounters. And the burden is always on the student of color to prove that their experience was discriminatory or unfair.
  3. The two things I just described add an additional burden and stress on top of the standard task of being a good student and a developing adolescent.
  4. Carla A. Urena and Joyelle Fobbs explain:

“the perception of what constitutes a talented or gifted dancer often effects the quality of training a student may receive.” —Urena

“research indicates that having some or several of these European phenotypes appears to be linked with increased classroom attention , training and opportunities…” —Fobbs

(Implicit) Bias

Even if a black ballerina makes it through the great training grounds of ballet, she will still have to overcome the biases of artistic directors, judges, choreographers, audiences, reviewers, colleagues, and others.

People have preconceived notions about black women that do not match their preconceived notions of ballerinas. While the world may think of black women as physically “strong” and thus suited for sports, many (most?) people do not think of black women as graceful, poised, light, delicate, dainty, feminine, and soft—all the things a ballerina should be. These preconceived beliefs often obscure reality, so that even when a black woman is dainty or soft, she often is not perceived that way. African American ballet dancer Joyelle Fobbs writes:

“For women of color, not resembling a past ballerina may consciously or subconsciously send the message to those around them and even to themselves that they have less potential, will receive less positive attention, training, and opportunities because in this particular area of appearance they do not fit within the established norm.”

But of course, the idea of what and who a ballerina should be can stretch and change. The world of ballet can open up for different types of ballerinas, ones that are shaped differently, ones that are colored differently, ones with their own unique attitudes and rhythms. Especially in a field like ballet that’s purely aesthetic, purely about the visual, purely about how one looks as a dancer.

Ballet’s Color Problem as Colorism

Wherever there’s racism, there’s colorism.

Fobbs writes:

“The ballet world has not been a stranger to the bias of colorism; in fact, the difficulties that a black ballerina already faces in finding a place at a ballet company are exacerbated by darker skin…. [T]here are still dance instructors who believe that darker skin tones are less equipped to meet ballet’s requirements.”

Pointing out racism or colorism in ballet does not mean that successful ballerinas who achieve great successes do not absolutely deserve them. It simply means that an equally talented dark skinned ballet dancer may be overlooked for the same opportunities.

Why Misty Copeland Gives Me Hope

Misty Copeland gives me hope that the ballet world could look very different in the future because she’s actively seeking to make a difference. She’s consciously and purposefully taking on her professional opportunities as opportunities to be a role model for other young girls of color and to change the public’s notion of what a ballerina looks like.

Even though Copeland is fair skinned by African American standards, her complexion and her body type are unique in the world of ballet. Her presence and success in that world can open doors for other dancers who do not fit the norm.

But again, Copeland goes above and beyond doing her job. She utilizes her visibility and media attention to push for change.

Photo Credit: Gilda N. Squire

Colorism in Americanah by Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie released her most recent novel, Americanah, in 2013. Although I’m more than a year late reading the book, I think it’s worth writing about the issue of colorism as it appears in the story. Colorism in Americanah doesn’t rely on the standard melodramatic pity party or blame game. Instead the novel has a rather matter-of-fact tone on the issue, one that seems based more on observation than painful memories or emotion. I guess the story itself is so interesting and well-written that the discussion of colorism doesn’t seem forced—it just seems real.

The public has discussed Adichie’s writing in connection to colorism before. People complained and even started a petition when filmmakers decided to cast the very fair skinned actress Thandie Newton in the lead role of Half of a Yellow Sun (the movie version of Adichie’s novel by the same title). Protesters claimed that the casting decision was an instance of colorism because Newton does not resemble the typical Nigerian woman.

I have not found any direct statement from Adichie about her opinion on the casting for that movie or on colorism in general (if you find something let me know!). In the novel Americanah, however, it’s clear that Adichie is familiar with colorism, and she seems to understand it in both an American and a Nigerian context. (Adichie grew up in Nigeria and currently splits her time between Nigeria and the United States.)

The novel is ultimately a love story at heart, but because the two main characters each spend significant time in America or England, issues of race and colorism are frequently brought to their attention as well as the reader’s.

I said earlier that colorism in Americanah is depicted as a realistic part of the story rather than seeming forced or cheesy. Here’s an example of that.

While in school in Nigeria, the main female character Ifemelu has a close friend named Ginika. Ginika is described as “the second most popular girl” in school. She has caramel skin and wavy hair that falls “down to her neck instead of standing Afro-like.” Ginika is voted “Prettiest Girl” in school every year, but she claims it’s only because she’s “half-caste.” Because the students think Ginika is so pretty and popular, they try to match her with the handsome and popular guy Obinze. But Obinze falls for Ifemelu instead.

Adichie allows us to see colorism (people’s biases about skin color and hair texture), but she doesn’t resort to the typical girl fight between the dark skinned Ifemelu and the light skinned Ginika. Instead Adichie shows that close friendships can exist across the color spectrum. Adichie also shows that colorism doesn’t always play out when and how we think it will, because despite what other characters expected and wanted, the dark skinned friend ends up dating the popular guy. And he treats her well.

Adichie also portrays the practice of skin bleaching among some Nigerian women. In describing Ifemelu’s boss, the narrator says, “it was easy to tell that she had not been born with her light complexion, its sheen was too waxy and her knuckles were dark, as though those folds of skin had valiantly resisted her bleaching cream.”

In her American setting, Ifemelu writes a blog post titled: “Why Dark-Skinned Black Women—Both American and Non-American—Love Barack Obama.” In the post, Ifemelu explains how light skin is valued above dark skin in many contexts, but especially in America. So of course the main argument of the post is that dark skinned black women love Obama because he loves a dark skinned black woman. She says, “He knows what the world doesn’t know: that dark black women totally rock.” And in the typical humor of Ifemelu’s writing she tacks on a last sentence that says, “Oh, and dark black women are also for cleaning up Washington and getting out of Iraq and whatnot.”

I appreciate this honest, direct, and explicit statement about colorism. But even in its directness, it’s still an organic part of the story, it’s still true to character, it’s still funny, and it’s still well-written.

The novel contains several other instances similar to the ones I’ve pointed out here, but I recommend reading Americanah yourself to discover what else it has to offer on race, colorism, culture, immigration, love, and more.

Who is to meet the challenge?

“Africa has had such a fate in the world that the very adjective ‘African’ can call up hideous fears of rejection. Better then to cut all the links with this homeland, this liability, and become in one giant leap the universal man. Indeed I understand this anxiety. But running away from oneself seems to me a very inadequate way of dealing with an anxiety. And if writers should opt for such escapism, who is to meet the challenge?”

—Chinua Achebe

The Brango Show Discusses Colorism