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The other racism: Colorism

The other racism: Colorism.
Photo credit:
Joan Marcus

America continues to struggle with its battle against white racism.  However, what’s not addressed is the internalized racism people of color struggle with too - consciously and unconsciously. And, it’s called “colorism” or  “intraracism."

Colorism is a topic not discussed openly enough in African-American, African and African diasporic communities, because it is our third rail, and the pain, embarrassment, and humiliation from its legacy still lingers with us even today. Colorism is a topic that cannot be explored enough since bleaching creams are still being sold in drugstores across the country and natural hair in many circles - professional and social - are still frowned upon.

Ghanian-American born playwright Jocelyn Bioh has adeptly tackled this thorny topic in “SCHOOL GIRLS; OR, THE AFRICAN MEAN GIRLS PLAY ” now at the Speakeasy Stage Company in Boston with no-holds-barred. I had to go see “SCHOOL GIRLS” because it has been the talk across the country, and it is the 2018 winner of the Lortel Award for Outstanding Play. And, for 75 taut yet hilarious minutes, Bioh unapologetically forces us all to examine ourselves.

“SCHOOL GIRLS” which is also a nod to Tina Fey’s 2004 teen comedy film “Mean Girls”  now on Broadway, explores the theme of colorism between the two main protagonist-Paulina and Ericka. And, if you’re a black girl like me, you know these frenemies, not just from grade school but throughout your entire life. 

Paulina is a Ghanian born dark-skinned, queen bee.  She’s the personification of “mean girl culture” and thinks she’s a sure- shot in being selected to become Miss Ghana to represent West African nations at the Miss Global Universe proudly.

Ericka, a biracial native Ohioan, comes to Ghana, her father’s birthplace, after the death of her mother who is white.  Ericka personifies the trope of the “tragic mullatto.” Tension reaches a crescendo when Ericka is chosen to represent Miss Ghana.

Paulina, who is awash in Eurocentric notions of beauty and self-worth, thinks Ericka is blessed to be light-skinned and embraced by white society. Ericka, however, disabuses Paulina of the notion by revealing her difficulties being biracial. 

"You think those white kids wanted anything to do with me? You think there were any other black kids in Portsmouth?! I was always alone! ...And my father...was here. With his cocoa factory... And his wife and children. Living this perfect life... Not even thinking about me... Ashamed of me... His white daughter.”

Bioh’s inspiration for the play derives from a true story. In 2011, Minnesota native Yayra Nego, who is biracial and never resided in Ghana, won the Miss Ghana title.

Nego’s win touched off a global debate about colorism throughout the African diaspora as well as in Africa. Due to the harmful effects of American slavery and European colonialism, the preferential treatment given to lighter-skinned blacks was intentionally executed to sow deep-seated resentment,  dissent, and competition among blacks while at the same time keeping in place the racist concept of black inferiority. And, among us American sisters, Spike Lee’s 1988 film “School Daze” brilliantly dramatizes the warring tension of colorism, showing two sororities - one light skin and the other dark skin - at a historically black college ferociously going at each other.

“The light skinned girls also have a term called “jiggaboo”  to refer to the dark skin girl with wild hair and the dark skin girls use a term “wanna be’s” to refer to the light skin girl wanting to be white,” Spike Lee shared about the movie. 

As a little girl, I heard the children’s rhyme on colorism, which told me my place in the world before I stepped out in it.