The Enduring Impact of Colorism in Hollywood

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Words: 2519 |

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13 min read

Published: Feb 13, 2024

Words: 2519|Pages: 6|13 min read

Published: Feb 13, 2024

Colorism is a standing problem for African Americans in Hollywood. Colorism is prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group. Historically, this social set up of racism perpetuated by slavery made the norm to treat people better or worst based on the tone of skin and color, moreover, it created tension in the black community. These ideologies have become set in almost every aspect of American culture. And how Hollywood keeps the narrative for these ideologies reflected in the media. The history of colorism in Hollywood demonstrates how both positive and negative portrayals of black people affect Americans’ perceptions of African Americans. The history of Colorism in Hollywood is a deep-rooted issue that has affected us for too many years.

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The roots of colorism started with slavery and racism in America. It all started with The Atlantic slave trade or transatlantic slave trade. This was the gathering, branding, and transport of African people. Roughly taking 70,000 people mostly from the West coast of Africa. Many slaves did not make it to their new life, due to suicides, beatings causing death, mount nutrition, and horrendous conditions on the cargo ships converted for their purposeful transport. When the remainder of the slaves finally arrived in America, they were essentially sorted and shipped out to the highest bidder.

Life as someone else's property was terrible; at any moment you could be sold off, taken from your family, beat, or another frequent occurrence raped. Most of these women were sold at a higher price for this exact purpose, to be mistresses and sex slaves essentially normalizing rape. Even many of the writings in the 19th century branded black women as “Jezebels' ' seducing these white slave owners to sleep with them.

The writings were a means rationalize the sexual abuse taking place that no one could deny when the children were the proof. These mixed-race children that the masters or overseers usually did not claim as their own, but when they did receive special perks darker-skinned slaves did not get. They received better schooling, meals, clothes, and over review an unspoken higher status amongst other slaves.

These children were classified as “mulatto” in society and based on a state's laws most if not all mulattoes were considered white. Which meant a rise in their social status whilst forgetting all about their black lineage. But the “Black Code '' AKA the Code Noir put in place under Spanish and French rule banned marriages between full-blooded slaves and mulattos. Mulattos had a higher social status than a free Black person. In the Black Community, lighter-skinned black women start to become more preferred by black men VS dark-skinned women, Thus creating one of the brightest problems in the black community colorism.

Ending slavery entering the Jim Crow era which was between 1877 to the mid-1960s ( The Civil Rights Movement). Jim Crow started as a character mocking African Americas, Thomas Dartmouth Rice the charters' creator and actor perceived Black people as lazy, dirty, untrustworthy, dumb, and definitely inferior and not even worthy of integration. So some years later comes “Jim Crow '' laws based on the same beliefs that character portrayed. These laws put Black people as second class citizens in a country they sadly were forced to build. The laws include the legal principle of “ separate but equal”, and this segregation extends to public transportation, restrooms, diners, jobs, schools, and even the U.S Army. The separate facilities for White Americans were clean and pristine, facilities for the African Americans and other people of color were the exact opposite half the time it wasn't even a facility.

During these times the term passing was made, Passing is the term used for a Black person who is light enough to pass as a White person. Passing became very common during the Great Depression. Some black people even chose to pass as white, society made them think life as a black person wasn't even worth it and would just be easier white. As said by Gail Lukasik, author of White Like Her, “In escaping the Jim Crow South, coming north and marrying my white father, she must have thought gaining white privilege was worth the price of losing family ties and her authentic self” (Lukasik, 2017). Gail continues to write, “The irony was that in gaining white privilege, in passing for white, the onslaught of racism was splayed open to her. Its ugly face could now be shared with her, a ‘white’ woman who would understand and possibly agree” (Lukasik, 2017). Gail speaks about her mother choosing to pass as white, choosing to lose herself, her family, and she still receives racism.

Yet some black people didn't even intend to pass as whites, A well-known example of a black family ending up passing for white would be the Johnson family. Dr. Albert C. Johnson, was a biracial man, his wife who was one eight black, and their kids all passed for white. No one ever inquired about the family's race until the Navy suspected Johnson of having colored blood of which he admitted to and told his children but this did not change the family's role in society. As quoted by Albert Johnson’s wife, Thyra, “We never intended to pass for white, it just happened accidentally” (citation). And a movie was made about the passing family called “Lost Boundaries” with an all-white cast. This is a perfect example of a white actors appropriating black roles. Another well-known example of White Americans appropriating Black roles is “Birth Of A Nation” they had an all-white cast even slaves were white.

Jim Crow affected the big screen, so beauty standards in Hollywood were clear only white actors and actresses were in these movies. And if a black person were to be seen on the big screen, they would have to be “passing” or playing stereotypes. But instead of giving African Americans suitable roles, dark skin African Americans were forced to embody stereotypes, while the light skin Africa Americans played good, positive roles. So many things in the media pushed this “light is right '' and or “white is right '' agenda on the black community. Dark skin black people thought being dark was dirty, evil, even nasty and everything else negative about their skin tone. The racism of Jim Crow capitalized on that even black companies took part in it, Like an ad “Sweet Georgia Browns ' skin bleaching creams. “Have lighter looking skin is too dark looking skin making you feel sad and worried? Are you being neglected by those who love you because of your complexion? Use Sweet Georgia Brown Skin Bleach Cream to help your skin look prettier and more attractive. Have the skin men love.”

Eventually, African Americans got tired of seeing themselves as stereotypes on the big screen and television. Between 1910 and the 1950s Black movie theaters started making “race films” made by and for African Americans. Featuring African Americans acting in roles they could relate too, unlike the stereotypes they've seen before so profusely. There was still colorism in race films many fair skin actors and actresses were cast, but these films still showed a wide array of what black directors could do given the chance. A few of the actors that starred in the films were able to cross over into the mainstream. Over 500 race films were made but a little over 100 remain due to them being shut out of Hollywood for not following the standards.

Much of the same still happens today in Hollywood the standards of African Americans have not changed much it's just shown and said differently. Dark skin African Americans or African Americans with prominent black features are so far and few between in Hollywood stories. Black beauty in Hollywood is still held to a white standard. Hollywood still prioritizes light-skinned actors, racially ambiguous or mixed people are almost always seen as the face of blackness. And when a Darker skin African American does get a role or is at the forefront of something it's the same handful of women and men. Dark skin women are still seen as less desirable, due to constant lack of representation and these standards set by society. Now with social media and the media, in general, have a big influence on society and its perpetuation of colorism. Even actress Zendaya was quoted saying 'I am Hollywood's acceptable version of a Black girl and that has to change. We're vastly too beautiful and too interesting for me to be the only representation of that.' in a conversation with businesswomen Bozoma Saint John. (citation)

Public misperceptions about race have are based on what is spoon-fed to us on T.V the lack of representation has caused people to put others in categories. Forever holding them in a certain type of light, like with black hair. The way black hair is viewed when it’s on someone of a lighter complexion V.S a darker complexion it’s as if it’s two different types of hair. Due to a lack of diversity in hair types, that society conditioned us to think to look at people based on skin tone and race. They place these fixed roles in front of us for decades. That narrative of light is good and dark is bad still rings true to this day. For example, the show “The Proud Family” shows a light skin character Penny Proud was a cute smart girl with a good family, while her dark skin friend Dijonay was loud, ghetto, and came from a broken home with many siblings. Another famous example is from the show “Martin”, Gina was the main character also light skin, had a man and always got compliments on her appearance. But her dark skin friend Pam was single for most of the show and was the butt of everyone's jokes.

Looking back on so many things you realize that colorism has been a part of our lives and we didn’t even know it. So constantly seeing that narrative as something “normal” when in all actuality it just shows that Hollywood equates beauty to lightness. Further perpetuating these misconceptions are the basic and constant repetition of roles given to black actors or entertainers in Hollywood they give off the “Pet or threat” narrative constantly. We are often seen as “The Big Mama '' or “The Mammy ''. These women are older women, overweight, dark skin. She is a caregiver, loyal, non-threatening, sassy, but cozy type of woman. The embodiment of a servant is often trying to fix her family issues while being loud handing out butt whoopings and teaching lessons to her children, grandkids, and so on so forth. We never get a back story on these women she just there to solve all her family problems.

“The Jezabel '' or “Sexual Siren” is the sexually promiscuous, careless, virtue lacking women, who use her sexuality for personal gain. Author MW Hughey’s Cinethetic Racism: White Redemption and Black Stereotypes in 'Magical Negro' Films. A “Magical Negro” is the portrayal of a lower class, uneducated African American who helps broken white characters transition into competent people (Hughey, 2009). Hughey goes on to say that though this representation is often viewed as positive and progressive it actually reinforces society’s idea of white normativity and the racial status quo present in American society (Hughey, 2009) In today’s time these roles are known as the “The Sidekick” or “Comic Relief” this character essentially does the same just tweaked to not look as racist. They usually white counterparts bestie or coworker that reminds them to get back on their A-game, and encourage them to do better, and is there for a laugh to break awkward moments. Another shallow character line we never really learn anything about just another role they place black people in just so it's some type of diversity in the film.

But Hollywood's absolute favorite is “Thug”. This role is always played by a young black man in the hood either selling drugs, pimping, scamming, and all other things illegal. This racial stereotype that black men are dangerous and instead of trying to do good they are just drawn to illegal activities. Most of the time the t.v and films give little to no social context on why more African American men are way more likely than others to end up in the criminal justice system. The writers overlook how the economic and racial injustices make it so much harder for black men to dodge a prison term or how to stop and frisk policies, racial profiling, and police brutality make these black men targets of the authorities. They continue to fail in asking whether black men are just more likely to be criminals more than any other race or if society plays a role in making these prisons pipeline lifestyles for them.

The ceaseless cycle of stereotypical shallow roles and underrepresentation in Hollywood is ridiculous. African American representation in film had been a long-standing issue, event hashtags like #OcscarsSoWhite come around every years as an outcry to the ignorance of Hollywood higher-ups. The Academy Awards are broadcasted globally every year continuing to marginalize black Hollywood into a box. Since the first award ceremony in 1929, after more than 3,000 awards have been given out 39 African-Americans have won Oscars. These shows constantly discriminate against people of color year after year, with little to no change, truly mirroring Hollywood as a whole. Most of these actors only won for supporting roles, screenplays, and songs. Halle Berry continues to be the only Black actress to take home the Best Actress award for her role as Leticia Musgrove in the 2001 film Monster’s Ball, and she just so happens to be a light-skinned woman.

But in Hollywood, there are some positive representations of African Americans, movies like Black Panther and Get Out. They gave roles to black actors we don’t normally see and are just given to light-skinned actors, these films were inclusive. Even T.V shows like Blackish and Insecure bring light to colorism, other social issues, and continue to show all-black cast in its entirety. These examples are so few and don’t make up for the years of Oscar subs, misrepresentation, and constant ignorance from Hollywood about inclusion. Seeing yourself in the media is so important.

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Overall these films and tv shows are so much more than that the generation that is coming up needs to see themselves in media as everything they ever imagine they could be. We need to be seen as superheroes, firefighters, models, dancers, and so on and so forth. And not just as in one complexion, with one hair type, and the same ole story. black people come in a wide array we need more people that look like us in those board rooms making conscious decisions about what they broadcast for the world to see. Inform others about things they may have been oblivious to due to these positive and negative portrayals constantly seen giving people ideologies and narratives that Hollywood has set up over time. We have to break that mold and listen to the people who are telling you they need to see themselves.

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This essay was reviewed by
Dr. Oliver Johnson

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The Enduring Impact of Colorism in Hollywood. (2024, February 13). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 21, 2024, from
“The Enduring Impact of Colorism in Hollywood.” GradesFixer, 13 Feb. 2024,
The Enduring Impact of Colorism in Hollywood. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 21 Jun. 2024].
The Enduring Impact of Colorism in Hollywood [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2024 Feb 13 [cited 2024 Jun 21]. Available from:
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