Introduction to Colorism and Black Female Stereotypes

by Thomeka Watkins


“The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” ~ Chimamanda Adichie

In the memoir Negroland, author Margo Jefferson goes into detail on the beauty standards of the 1950s, including skin color, grades of hair, and noses. In this blog, I will discuss the intersection of colorism, racism, and black female archetypes in the 1940s-50s’ American entertainment industry and how skin color contributed to the typecasting of black actresses into specific stereotypical roles, so I will mainly highlight the socially constructed skin tone hierarchy that Jefferson illustrates and given an overview of some black female stereotypes.

First, Jefferson says, “Ivory, cream, beige, wheat, tan, moccasin, fawn, café au lait, and the paler shades of honey, amber, and bronze are best.” In contrast, Jefferson then says, “Generally, for women, the dark skin shades like walnut, chocolate brown, black, and black with blue undertones are off-limits. At the very least it calls attention to your race and can incite demeaning associations.” Since America inherited Eurocentric beauty standards and they were forced upon enslaved populations, colorist ways of thought emerged in the black communtiy as well.

Colorism vs. Racism

To give it a more distinct definintion, colorism is prejudice against people with a dark skin tone. What makes it distinct from racism is that with colorism, two people of the same race but different skin tone would be treated differently, while with racism, two people of the same skin tone but different races would be treated differently. Some examples of colorism in the black community are the paper bag test and the blue vein test, dishonorable tests that were used to determine who had access to certain privlieges and certain churches, fraternities, and nightclubs. Women who fell into any of the shades Jefferson highlighted, who were lighter than a paper bag, and/or whose blue veins were visible on their wrists were considered more attractive under Eurocentric beauty standards and had more privilege relative to their darker counterparts. Some primary examples of the “demeaning associations” Jefferson mentioned are the “Mammy,” “Jezebel,” and “Sapphire” stereotypes of black women.

Women of different races but the same skin tone; discrimination based on race would be racism
Women of the same race but different skin color; discrimination based on skin shade would be colorism

Three Primary Stereotypes

The “Mammy” stereotype is a cheerful mother figure who typically is depicted caring for white children over black children and was made to create the illusion of a happy slave. The “Jezebel” stereotype is dishonest and has an insatiable appetite for sex. It was created to portray black women as overly sexual and untristworthy, so that perpetrators could commit sexual violence against them without penalty. The “Sapphire” figure is the stereotypical angry black woman, who is depicted as overbearing, masculine, and overprotective of her children. This too was a distortion of the status of enslaved black women, created to shift fault for the atrocities committed against and the separation of black families to black women by implying they were inherently hostile and drive people away. Colorism and racism both impacted the opportunties available to black women as entertainers and the stereotypes they were typecast under.

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