The "Dear White People" syndrome: Why movies are obsessed with light-skinned black characters

The following post is from Salon. It was written by Morgan Jenkins.

By: Morgan Jenkins

For Princeton University’s recent Black Alumni Conference, an advance screening of “Dear White People” took place at the town’s Garden Theater, and I was one of many who could not wait to see it. Throughout the film, I could hear many black alums scoff at some of the micro-aggressions that we’ve all experienced and heard about, or laugh at all the things that we’ve all wanted to say in response to white people when these experiences occur but may have never had the gall to do so. The film is a bold attempt. But I could not help wondering why a light-skinned biracial woman was the lead female protagonist, the champion of civil rights on the fictitious Winchester University’s campus.

Frankly, as a light-skinned African-American female, I am tired of seeing women who look like myself presented as the epitome of complexity when it comes to setting forth the many different layers of the black experience for a mainstream audience. Yet we all know why this happens. A lighter-skinned black person is more marketable to an overwhelmingly white-dominated space. Not to mention, white appeal equals more marketability. The brown skin with a yellow undertone is the color “nearest [to] the light,” as Goethe once wrote, or in this case, to whiteness. White moviegoers want to see their reflections. Film is a form of escapism tinged with a dash of possibility from this perspective. A white character can be a villain or a hero while exemplifying a wide variety of emotions, and for a light-skinned black character with a name as equally “safe” as Samantha White, it all makes sense. She was able to show her radical and revolutionary side while effortlessly switching to her vulnerable side, via teary eyes, deliberate hesitations in speech, and even hairstyle changes to reflect her character development.

Meanwhile, the dark-skinned female supporting character, Colandrea Conners, or Coco Conners, is seen as a weave-wearing, eye-rolling, social-climbing and pretentious woman who is afraid to admit that she comes from South Side Chicago. Secretly, Coco wants to be Samantha since Samantha is getting more attention, both virally and literally from a TV producer. Again, this narrative has been produced: A lighter-skinned woman is given more attention while a darker-skinned woman struggles for the same recognition. While Samantha is juggling the interests of two male characters, both black and white, Coco is relegated to being nothing more than a secret hookup for a budding black politician on campus. She rarely shows the drive behind her thoughts until the end with a confrontation with Samantha, and that’s about it.

I found myself wondering, why couldn’t she have been the lead? And furthermore, why couldn’t she have had Samantha’s personality instead? Imagine how much more powerful it would have been to have Coco stand up to her racist white classmates without so much as blinking and showing impressive courage to Winchester’s administrators and their antiquated ideals. “Dear White People” is a satirical drama, so these archetypes are relevant and correct. However, I was not satisfied with taking the easy route when it comes to how lighter black characters are constantly presented to get white audiences to pay attention to our issues and how they consequently affect their own.

The colors black and white are opposites of one another. Goethe and Wittgenstein, both famous theorists of color, decided not to include these hues on the color circle. According to Wittgenstein, white cannot be called “white” without its opposite, which is black, and vice versa. They are forever connected to one another. In fact, in Wittgenstein’s “Remarks on Colour,” he states: “Blending in white removes the coloredness; but the blending in yellow does not.” Whiteness and blackness suppress the magnitude of colors and all the emotions, moods and experiences that they produce. But interestingly enough, yellow does not. The same can be applied for casting in films. Lighter-skinned black characters are more often than not ushered to the forefront because they can blend better, oscillating back and forth between white and black spaces. Because of this multiplicity of movement, they are, as Goethe would have put it, those who possess an “exciting character.” They are complex.

Another film, Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever,” demonstrates this same idea about color theory. Drew Purify, the wife of the philanderer Flipper Purify, is a light-skinned black woman who is used to illuminate the conflicts of interracial love vis-à-vis “black love.” As a sort of a powwow, the dark-skinned black female supporting characters all sit on couches in Drew’s living room, talking about how no men, not even black men, desire them. It was, for me, one of the most powerful moments of the film — one that ended too soon. At the end of the scene, we are drawn back to Drew’s situation. The camera focuses on her downtrodden face as she says, “My man is gone.” One of the darker-skinned women places a hand on Drew to console her and then the scene is over. But when will we get to the moment when a dark-skinned black character, especially a woman, is the one who demonstrates complexity as well?

Picture yourself in a well-lit room. Everything is, of course, visible. If you’re not colorblind, you can clearly see the different colors and the objects to which they belong. Now if the lights were to suddenly go out, there is an impulse to perhaps move your hands around in the darkness to search for the light switch. But if you take a second, you might get over the initial shock and perhaps be able to notice individual figures in the darkness. You may not know their characters thoroughly, but you know that there’s something there and it doesn’t have to be frightening. You might assist your eyes with your hands to investigate.

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