Why compile a list of colorism quotes? The official answer is that a collection of quotations helps fulfill the CH mission to raise awareness and provide a hub of information and resources about colorism. Other equally valid and true reasons: People like quotes! Because sometimes I just don’t know what to write. Sometimes I get tired of my own voice and just want to soak up what others have said. Sometimes I feel like people aren’t hearing me, but they might be able to hear someone else.
Full disclosure: This is by no means a comprehensive survey. I selected quotations that I tend to agree with and that are by people (much) more famous than me. Not because these are the only words that matter, but simply because I had to find some way to limit the scope of this thing and because people like reading what famous people have to say. (I do plan to share some of the fabulously articulate words on colorism written by more everyday folks.)
For now, here’s a substantial chunk of prose on colorism by some names you might recognize.
Tatyana Ali, HelloBeautiful, 2014
“It doesn’t just exist in Hollywood. I think it exists in society and to be quite honest, I don’t know how much it exists in the larger society, but it definitely exists in the Black community. There are obvious historical reasons for that. The closer we were to White, the more freedom we thought we could have or the more acceptability. Beauty was defined as White and the farther away you get from that White-blond-hair-blue-eye definition of beauty, the uglier you are. The closer you get to it, the more beautiful you are and that’s what we’ve been doing amongst ourselves for a very long time.
“Look, I can’t pass a paper bag test. I’m definitely darker than a paper bag and I have ‘good hair’ and that’s just me being in a different category and a different light. I know that me and my sisters were separated by our cousins by older relatives who would make these weird comments and then not mention the beauty of the other child that’s sitting right there and playing the same game.
“There’s a separation that’s made among sisters and we end up looking at each other funny, not realizing and thinking ‘she has it so good’ and the other one thinks, ‘I feel like an outcast, she has it so good’ and not realizing that we’re both missing out on each other. My experience in Hollywood is different. When Chris Rock did Good Hair, I was like ‘Why didn’t he talk to me? He didn’t get the full story.’ He didn’t get the full story because, for example, it’s about identity, it’s about belonging.
“It’s not just, in addition to what’s beautiful and what’s not. It’s also what’s acceptable. ‘Where do I fit?’ ‘Who do you think I am based on what I look like?’ For me, when I was younger, I remember my mom, because of my hair, my mom would braid my hair at night before auditions in small braids to make my hair thicker so that there wouldn’t be a question of ‘Oh, is she Black enough?’
“What’s harmful about it is the idea of separation and the idea of not belonging and not being loved and each one of us feels it in a different way because no matter what’s being said about all of us, whether lighter is better or darker is better or being able to twist your hair is better than having straight hair. We all experience pain because of it. The bottom line is we’re all being measured by a standard of beauty that has nothing to do with who we are and where we come from.”
India Arie, Songversation: I Am Light: My Thoughts on the Skin Bleaching Allegations, 2015
“It’s all based on Eurocentric beauty ideals: For example; Straight, blonde hair, blue eyes, aquiline nose, thin limbs, lighter skin…. for many this is just considered ‘beauty.’ Why? Because eurocentric aesthetics are seen as the standard, and therefore are more palatable and desirable by the world as a whole. The entertainment industries are no exception, they SELL this desire to the world. MOST publications lighten darker people, because lighter skin and hair reflect more light and are more eye catching, magazines are after all a business. BUT! For example: Where ARE the cameras that make brown skin look amazing? Oprah has them I can tell you that! LoL! But in general, lights and cameras are ALWAYS tuned for lighter complexions. This is what institutionalized racism looks like. So, for musicians and actresses in the public eye, you are not just selling your talent, you are actually selling yourself. YOU become a product. The less your product fits into conventional beauty ideals, the less MARKETABLE, and therefore, less safe of an investment you are.”
David Banner, “An Intimate Conversation With David Banner On The State Of Black Love & Marriage” on xoNecole, 2015
“This song is for [all] Black women, but it’s especially for the dark-skinned black women,” says Banner. “If you look at our culture, our women don’t feel protected. They don’t feel wanted. You look at most of who so-called people of success cater to—nine times out of 10 it may not be a Black woman at all. And if it is, it’s definitely not ones that look like our cousins or our great-grandmothers. And I said man, if nobody in the world says that they love them and that they respect them and that they want them, it’ll be me.”
Tom Burrell, “Uglified: Why are Black and Beautiful Still Contradictions?” in Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority, 2010
“The further we are from the European standard, the lower we find ourselves on the beauty scale….
“We are better if we are lighter. We want our children to be pretty because we know beauty will grant them an easier life in a color-coded society. Most of us don’t want to be reminded of our past, our ancestors, and where we come from. Many of us boast of having a little Indian, Irish, Italian—any additional blood in our lineage boosts our value. We find ourselves using a sliding racial scale, somewhere between black and white, with lighter or whiter always, always defined as better….
“For most of our history in the New World, we openly coveted light skin and straight hair. Today, the pinnacles of black female beauty remain almost white-looking. It is disturbingly telling that the long weave seems to be a prerequisite for black singers, actors, and models. Hip Hop videos feature light-skinned black, Latino, or Asian women—to the exclusion of darker-skinned black dancers….
“The ‘color-struck’ class war played out in black families, neighborhoods, social clubs, churches, colleges, fraternal organizations, and nearly every conceivable part of our culture. As the stigma progressed, class stratification within the black community became based, to a large degree, on the presence or absence of black features. It is a profound irony that the attractiveness rating was enhanced by the whiteness of hair, skin color, and facial features.
“Sadly, that rating system continues today….
“We can ‘go along to get along’ with dominant society’s dictates or we can start the analytical process by weighing the costs and benefits of our thoughts and actions….
“Centuries of propaganda created the perceptual aesthetic deficit. We will need powerful weapons to dis-enslave and reprogram how we see ourselves. To wage a winnable war, both internally and externally, we will need the proper ammunition.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Dark Girls” in The Atlantic, 2011
“For me it’s a matter of what I thought when I was a kid. There’s an anecdote in the book where I foolishly tell one of my mother’s friends “I like light-skin girls.” My mother, who is lighter than me, read me the riot act in such a way that it sticks with me to this day.
Michaela Angela Davis, Who is Black in America Panel on Starting Point with Soledad O’Brien, 2012
“Acting Like it doesn’t exist doesn’t heal. . . . America as a family, this is our taboo issue that brings up so much. It triggers a lot of black girl pain. It triggers a lot of secrets. It triggers a lot of bias. It triggers a lot of emotional things. And like any family, when we go into our history and say this horrible thing created this characteristic, people don’t want to look at it. But this is the road to healing, right. This is the only way we’re going to feel whole: is we talk about where we’re fractured.
“This is it. Having this conversation, this is the solution.”
Viola Davis, “Viola Davis Defies Hollywood Stereotypes as She Keeps It Real,” The Wrap, 2015
“That being said, when you do see a woman of color onscreen, the paper-bag test is still very much alive and kicking. That’s the whole racial aspect of colorism: If you are darker than a paper bag, then you are not sexy, you are not a woman, you shouldn’t be in the realm of anything that men should desire. And in the history of television and even in film, I’ve never seen a character like Annalise Keating played by someone who looks like me. My age, my hue, my sex. She is a woman who absolutely culminates the full spectrum of humanity our askew sexuality, our askew maternal instincts. She’s all of that, and she’s a dark-skin black woman. Some people who watch TV have acknowledged that and understand that. But I encourage you to search your memory and think of anyone who’s done this. It just hasn’t happened. I hear these stories from friends of mine who are dark-skin actresses who are always being seen as crack addicts and prostitutes.”
Bill Duke, “Bill Duke Talks Dark Girls And Colorism” on WOLDCNews, 2012
“What we’re finding more and more is that sometimes it’s not a conscious effort to hurt anybody. But what it comes down to is pain that is deeply held by children, and they don’t discuss it because they feel they’re going to be ridiculed by discussing it. So, we’re giving a voice to that discussion.
“The reason we think that dialogue is important is because it’s the beginning of healing. If you hold things and you don’t discuss it, it does bad things to the human body, psyche, everything.
“All women are dark girls, because whatever standard is set, you’re never going to meet it. And as soon as you get close, they say ‘Oops! We’ve changed it. But we love you so much, we’re gonna help you get to the new standard. Here’s some new products.
“How you were born is fine. Whoever says that it’s not is one of two things: a liar or a business person. It’s that simple.”
Zora Neale Hurston, “My People! My People!” in Dust Tracks on a Road, 1942
“I found the Negro, and always the blackest Negro, being made the butt of all jokes, particularly black women. …
“If it was so honorable and glorious to be black, why was it the yellow-skinned people among us had so much prestige? Even a child in the first grade could see that this was so from what happened in the classroom and on school programs. The light-skinned children were always the angels, fairies and queens of school play. The lighter the girl, the more money and prestige she was apt to marry. So on into high school years, I was asking myself questions.”
Trellie Jeffers, as quoted by Alice Walker in In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, 1983
“What then can be the destiny of a people that pampers and cherishes the blood of the white slaveholder who maimed and degraded their female ancestor? What can be the future of a class of descendants of slaves that implicitly gives slaveholders greater honor than the African women they enslaved? What can be the end of a class that pretends to honor blackness while secretly despising working class black-skinned women whose faces reveal no trace of white blood?”
Karen M. Julkes, RollingOut.com Interview, 2015
“Actually, my inspiration [for becoming a makeup artist] initially came from a place of insecurity. I was teased as a young girl about being dark-skinned and I had a speech impediment. As a teen, I began to play in makeup to feel pretty. I never felt pretty like the other girls, so makeup allowed me to mask the real me. But as I matured, I realized that me being unattractive was very much so a lie. So instead of makeup being a coverup, it became a way for me to be creative. And then in my late 20s, I realized I could use this as way to build up other women that may have dealt with the same challenges as myself. I wanted to make them feel beautiful but talk to them and encourage them to love themselves beyond the makeup!”
Kendrick Lamar, Twitter, 2013
“Not Light ‘Vs’ Dark tho. More about ‘BALANCE’ ..Givn every shade of woman life, not just what da industry thinks is ‘Hott’ 4 camera.”
“When u put the term light ‘Vs’ dark continues it as a BATTLE. My point 4 poetic was to spark the idea of making it an EQUAL.”
Naturi Naughton, VladTV Interview, 2015
“I think there’s always this cycle that happens when you’re a black woman in Hollywood … it can be frustrating because you start to feel like you’re just a fad. Like, now the dark skin, beautiful, brown, chocolate sisters are in. And we’re praising Lupita and all that, which is beautiful, but she was beautiful five years ago. I was the same way three years ago. But it depends on the time. They’ll say, ‘You know what? We’re looking for a black woman but we want something ethnically ambiguous’ is what I have heard. Or, you know, they’re looking for a specific look. And it’s hard because you start to feel like, well wait a minute, what’s wrong with my features, my complexion, my body type? And I just try to tell other black women, not just in Hollywood, just in general, you don’t have to compromise or change yourself to try to fit into whatever mold is popular. That is frustrating. And I’m not even going to lie, it’s emotional. I go through moments when I’m like ‘I can’t take it.’ But at the same time, you know, I’m working, and I’m in a position where I’m able to be a black woman that’s toted as beautiful, and my lips, my features, my body. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”
Lupita Nyong’o, Essence Black Women in Hollywood Speech, 2014
“I remember a time when I too felt unbeautiful. . . . I got teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin. And my one prayer to God, the miracle worker, was that I would wake up lighter-skinned. . . . And when I was a teenager my self-hate grew worse, as you can imagine happens with adolescence. …around me the preference for light skin prevailed. To the beholders that I thought mattered, I was still unbeautiful. …
“My mother reminded me often that she thought that I was beautiful, but that was no consolation: She’s my mother, of course she’s supposed to think I am beautiful. …
“And then Alek Wek came on the international scene. A celebrated model, she was dark as night, she was on all of the runways and in every magazine and everyone was talking about how beautiful she was. … a flower couldn’t help but bloom inside of me. When I saw Alek I inadvertently saw a reflection of myself that I could not deny. Now, I had a spring in my step because I felt more seen, more appreciated by the far away gatekeepers of beauty. . . . I could never have guessed that my first job out of school would be so powerful in and of itself and that it would propel me to be such an image of hope in the same way that the women of The Color Purple were to me. …
“And so I hope that my presence on your screens and in the magazines may lead you, young girl, on a similar journey. That you will feel the validation of your external beauty but also get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside. There is no shade in that beauty.”
Soledad O’Brien, Essence Black in America Hangout, 2012
ESSENCE: “How do you think colorism is playing out in 2012?”
O’BRIEN: “It just is. The same way it’s always played out, which is people value certain skin tones differently. It’s inherently apparent. I thought one of the most disturbing things in the documentary was to see a seven year old who really is clearly getting those messages. She’s seven, and she fully understands the messages that are sent to her, and that’s very problematic. I think colorism exists today like it did years ago and generations ago.
“Back to twitter, a lot of the conversations, there was one sort of stream: “Well, Soledad, if you would stop raising this it would go away, and it’s your fault that we keep having these discussions about race and colorism and discrimination.”
“I don’t think that’s the case. I think we are going to confront tough issues and tough conversations that maybe other people don’t want to have.”
ESSENCE: “How do we start to heal? How do we get the seven year olds to start thinking differently and feel acceptable in their skin tone?”
O’BRIEN: “I think the only thing that’s a solution is conversation. I think the only thing that is a solution is pointing out here is a trap you’re falling into that has been set for you, that has been set over history. And let’s go back and take a look at what’s happening in front of you so that you don’t fall into this trap.”
Keke Palmer, Hollywood Confidential Panel in Los Angeles, 2013
“When I was like 5 years old I used to pray to have light skin because I would always hear how pretty that little light skin girl was, or I would hear I was pretty to be dark skin. It wasn’t until I was 13 that I really learned to appreciate my skin color and know that I was beautiful.”
Kelly Rowland, Interview on CNikky.com, 2013
“You know what, I had great women in my life to help me overcome that. I remember I went through a period where I didn’t embrace my ‘chocolatiness.’ I don’t know if that’s a word, but I didn’t embrace my chocolate lifestyle. Just being a chocolate, lovely brown skin girl and being proud of that. I remember Tina Knowles, Bey’s mom, and I remember being out in the sun and I was trying to shield myself from the sun and she said, ‘Are you crazy?’ She said ‘You are absolutely gorgeous’ and she just told me how beautiful I was and how rare chocolate is and how gorgeous the skin is, all of this stuff. And I was just like ‘Yeah!’ Like a light went off and so between her and my mother and me sitting out in the sun a little more, just to be a little more chocolate.”
Gabourey Sidibe, her blog post for Entertainment Weekly, 2015
“Also, yes. I, a plus sized, dark-skinned woman, had a love scene on primetime television. I had the most fun ever filming that scene even though I was nervous. But I felt sexy and beautiful and I felt like I was doing a good job. I’m very proud of the work we all did to make that scene a great opening for the episode. I keep hearing that people are ‘hating’ on it. I’m not sure how anyone could hate on love but that’s okay. You may have your memes. Honestly, I’m at work too busy to check Twitter anyway. #Booked. Hope you enjoy next week’s show!”
Geneva S. Thomas, ‘Blood, Sweat, and Heels’ Star: ‘I Celebrate my Dark Skin’, Essence.com, 2014
“But to throw shade at our shades (pun intended), is a nadir far too tragic for anyone to make a punch-line.
“After I got past all of my feelings about the comment, I called my father to thank him for how he and my mother worked tirelessly to create an environment that wasn’t merely about acceptance, but a standard, and the expectation that our dark skin was to be unapologetically celebrated. It was an effortless confidence level I carried about as a youth. So much so that even that one time, when my ballet instructor decided it was a good idea to tell 6-year-old me I was pretty for a dark skinned girl, it was the heartiest of chuckles I gave that she couldn’t fathom. . . .
“I’m not so caught up in my own dark-skin party to think all dark skinned Black girls grow up with the kind of love my family gave me. We all know colorism has been an internal issue in our community dating back to slavery; that thing we just don’t talk about, but exercise. Is colorism here to stay? Will it continue to be okay for us to go there with each other?
“Let’s do more than hope not. Let’s make it our business to teach little Black girls that whatever shade they may be, they are to be celebrated.”
Gabrielle Union, Ebony Magazine, October 2012
“Your deep Mahogany skin may not resemble that of the others in your family, but it’s just as gorgeous, and you’re just as worthy … One day you’ll appreciate how much your brown skin shines in the moonlight, glistens in the sun and ages ever so slowly.”
Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, 1983, excerpts from “If the present looks like the past, what does the future look like?”
“We were speaking of the hostility many black black women feel toward light-skinned black women, and you said, ‘Well, I’m light. It’s not my fault. And I’m not going to apologize for it.’ I said apology for one’s color is not what anyone is asking. What black black women would be interested in, I think, is a consciously heightened awareness on the part of light black women that they are capable, and often quite unconsciously, of inflicting pain upon them; and that unless the question of Colorism–in my definition, prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color–is addressed in our communities and definitely in our black ‘sisterhoods’ we cannot, as a people, progress. For colorism, like colonialism, sexism, and racism, impedes us. …
“Still, I think there is probably as much difference between the life of a black black woman and a ‘high yellow’ black woman as between a ‘high yellow’ woman and a white woman. And I am worried, constantly, about the hatred the black black woman encounters within black society. To me, the black black woman is our essential mother–the blacker she is the more us she is–and to see the hatred that is turned on her is enough to make me despair, almost entirely, of our future as a people.
“Ironically, much of what I’ve learned about color I’ve learned because I have a mixed-race child. Because she is lighter-skinned, straighter haired than I, her life–in this racist, colorist society–is infinitely easier. And so I understand the subtle programming I, my mother, and my grandmother before me fell victim to. Escape the pain, the ridicule, escape the jokes, the lack of attention, respect, dates, even a job, any way you can. And if you can’t escape, help your children escape. Don’t let them suffer as you have done. And yet, what have we been escaping to? Freedom used to be the only answer to that question. But for some of our parents it is as if freedom and whiteness were the same destination, and that presents a problem for any person of color who does not wish to disappear. …
“… However, the word ‘beautiful’ itself was never used to describe black women in those days. They might be called ‘handsome’ in a pinch. ‘Her skin is black but she is sure nuff pretty,’ someone might have thought, but not sung. Stevie Wonder’s lyrics, though in our time backward in this one instance (‘but’ rather than ‘and’), would have been considered revolutionary in the fifties and early sixties. ‘Beautiful’ was for the white women and black women who look like you. Medium browns like me might evoke ‘good-looking’ or ‘fine.’ A necessary act of liberation within myself was to acknowledge the beauty of black black women, but I was always aware I was swimming against the tide. …
“— I remembered —-, who was asked by the light-skinned girls in our dormitory to move somewhere else, because she was so dark; the men who came to call on them found her blackness ‘inharmonious.’ …
“This essay is for you. … A sister I do not wish to lose to the entreaties of parents or grandparents standing behind you whispering “lighten up’ or ‘darken up’ the race. Nor do I, a dark woman, intend to give you up. When we walk down a street together and those who hate their black mothers admire only you (really your skin color and hair) we will not let this divide us…
“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.
“We must cleave to reality, to what we know, we feel, we think of life. Trusting our own experience our own lives; embracing both the dark self and the light.
“It is our ‘familial’ relations with each other in America that we need to scrutinize. And it is the whole family, rather than the dark or the light, that must be affirmed.”
Jesse Williams, Drum Award Acceptance Speech, 2015
“European beauty standards have given me a better seat at the table and a bigger microphone than my darker brothers and sisters my entire life. That’s not me. I didn’t have anything to do with that. Because I understand the history of white supremacy and the construction of Black civilization, I had to, really had to give these presentations in my living room in my house if I wanted to play sports. That wasn’t me. That’s parenthood.”
Oprah Winfrey, quoted by Henry Louis Gates Jr. in Finding Oprah’s Roots, 2007
“I remember being there, and I instantly knew that Miss Miller did not like me because of the color of my skin. I was too dark and I was a nappy-headed colored child, and Miss Miller would say it. And my half-sister Pat was five years younger than me and she was light skinned and my mother was staying there because Miss Miller loved my half-sister. And I was put out on the porch to sleep. There was a little vestibule, like a porch area where you came in and left your shoes before you went into the house and so that’s where I slept. I wasn’t even allowed in the house to sleep. It makes me sad to think about it. And it was because I was brown skinned and it didn’t compute for me because my mother was brown skinned, too. But I realized she was okay because she had Pat.”
Malcolm X, “Not Just an American Problem, but a World Problem,” Feb 16, 1965
“It’s imagery. They use their ability to create images, and then they use these images that they’ve created to mislead the people.
“You have to understand it. Until 1959 the image of the African continent was created by the enemies of Africa. As these Europeans dominated the continent of Africa, it was they who created the image of Africa that was projected abroad. And they projected Africa and the people of Africa in a negative image, a hateful image. They made us think that Africa was a land of jungles, a land of animals, a land of cannibals and savages. It was a hateful image.
“And because they were so successful in projecting this negative image of Africa, those of us here in the West of African ancestry, the Afro-American, we looked upon Africa as a hateful place. We looked upon the African as a hateful person. And if you referred to us as an African it was like putting us as a servant, or playing house, or talking about us in the way we didn’t want to be talked.
“Those who oppress know that you can’t make a person hate the root without making them hate the tree. You can’t hate your own and not end up hating yourself. And since we all originated in Africa, you can’t make us hate Africa without making us hate ourselves. And they did this very skillfully. And what was the result?
“They ended up with 22 million Black people here in America who hated everything about us that was African. We hated the African characteristics. We hated our hair. We hated our nose, the shape of our nose, and the shape of our lips, the color of our skin. Yes we did. And it was you who taught us to hate ourselves simply by shrewdly maneuvering us into hating the land of our forefathers and the people on that continent. As long as we hated those people, we hated ourselves. As long as we hated what we thought they looked like, we hated what we actually looked like.
“When you teach a man to hate his lips, the lips that God gave him, the shape of the nose that God gave him, the texture of the hair that God gave him, the color of the skin that God gave him, you’ve committed the worst crime that a race of people can commit. And this is the crime that you’ve committed.
“Our color became a chain, a psychological chain. Our blood — African blood — became a psychological chain, a prison, because we were ashamed of it. We felt trapped because our skin was black. We felt trapped because we had African blood in our veins.
“This is how you imprisoned us. Not just bringing us over here and making us slaves. But the image that you created of our motherland and the image that you created of our people on that continent was a trap, was a prison, was a chain, was the worst form of slavery that has ever been invented by a so-called civilized race and a civilized nation since the beginning of the world.
“You still see the result of it among our people in this country today.”
- Tatyana Ali: by Stazi, Wikimedia Commons
- Viola Davis: by Red Carpet Report on Mingle Media TV, Wikimedia Commons
- Naturi Naughton: by Angela George, Wikimedia Commons
- Soledad O’Brien: by The Rudz, Wikimedia Commons
- Gabourey Sidibe: by Greg Hernandez, Wikimedia Commons
- Jesse Williams: by Applause2.0, Wikimedia Commons, [Public domain]
- Malcolm X: by Marion S. Trikosko, Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)