Introduction to Colorism and Black Female Stereotypes

by Thomeka Watkins

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“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.

Racism
Women of different races but the same skin tone; discrimination based on race would be racism
Colorism
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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Hattie McDaniel

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”I’d rather make $700 a week playing a maid than earn $7 a day being a maid.” ~ Hattie McDaniel

Introduction

A prime example of a black entertainer whose career was shaped and limited by colorism is wildly popular actress of the 1940s and first black Oscar winner, Hattie McDaniel.

Pidgeonholed Into Subsurvient Acting Roles

Despite her success, McDaniel was always pidgeonholed into playing the stereotypical “Mammy” figure and other subservient roles because of her race and the dark color of her skin. Nearly 80% (74/94) of the roles she played were subservient ones, including maid, powder room attendant, cook, and house servant. The most notable example is her character, a slave respectively named Mammy, in the 1939 film Gone with the Wind, a clip from which is hyperlinked below.

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McDaniel in Gone with the Wind (1939)

Starring in Her Own Show as a Maid

Because the roles available to her were so limited and he company saw limited use for her, her contract was bought out by the Warner Bros. not long after Gone with the Wind. She played a maid in Song of the South (1946), and starred in the radio show and sitcom Beulah, one of the first shows starring an African American woman as the lead, in which she also played a maid (video clip hyperlinked below).

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McDaniel as Beulah

Racism and Lack of Respect

Although she won an Oscar, because the ceremony was held in a segregated hotel, her management had to call in a special favor just so she could be let in. Once inside, she was made to sit at a back table on a far wall instead of alongside her co-stars. When she passed in 1952, her dying wish to be buried in the Hollywood cemetery was not honored because of the color of her skin. Her Oscar trophy was appraised as valueless and went missing from the University it was donated to. It was never located, and has been missing for over 40 years.

The Intersection of Colorism and Racism

The primary issue was not that McDaniel portrayed maids and Mammies; McDaniel indeed enjoyed acting and was able to make a living off of it. The problem was that because of her dark skin color, society could not envision her in a role above the “Mammy” stereotype and never offered her one. While she saw her postion as an actress as one of power, financial independence, and accomplishment–as it was– her roles themselves helped maintain the social perception of black women as subservient.

This created another issue– the negative perception of McDaniel by fellow blacks. Many blacks, particularly in the NAACP, rejected her because of her portrayal of stereotypes in her film roles. This is problematic because with the roles available to her as a black woman with a deep skin tone, she would essentially have to stop working as an actress to avoid portraying stereotypes. Limited types of acting roles combined with limited available jobs for black people in general meant that a black actress with a darker skin tone would have to choose portraying stereotypical roles and making a living but losing the respect of the black community, or working at a lower paying job full-time, such as an actual maid, and risking not making a living, also a far less than ideal option.

Black women with darker skin tones were held at the intersection of both rampant racism and colorism as, in addition to race-related discrimination, they were held to an even lower degree of respect than their lighter-skinned black counterparts who, while still held to a much lower degree than whites, had much more privilege and influence comparatively. To better put this concept into perspective, in the next blog post, I will discuss the career of McDaniel’s Beulah co-star Ruby Dandridge’s daughter, Dorothy Dandridge.

Dorothy Dandridge

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“If you have a part of white America in your soul, and a part of black America in your spirit, and they are pulling against each other, your values, if any clear ones exist to begin with, can get lost or unsettled. Add to that, if you take a girl like me, intended by our environment to be a housemaid, then make a star out of her, don’t look for simplicity of personality– look for complexity.” 

~ Dorothy Dandridge

Introduction

An example of a famous black entertainer whose career was ultimately shaped by colorism and ended by racism was world famous actress, singer, and popular sex symbol of the 1950s, Dorothy Dandridge.

The Positive Impact of Colorism on Dandridge’s Social Perception

Dandridge possessed features that Margo Jefferson and many others at the time viewed as ideal in African American women and tried to imitate– a very light, beige complexion, glossy hair, and somewhat small, cupid’s bow lips. Her lighter skin made her more acceptable to facets of the black community and the white community, and as a result, she had a somewhat greater breadth of film roles available to portray and a greater deal of influence in fighting for integration than her darker counterparts.

For example, she was able to become a world famous singer after starting out at night clubs. In addition to her talent, her perceived beauty within the beauty standards of the time contributed to her success. The quote below describes her feelings about her first big perfromance at the Macambo Hollywood Club.

“I had no material and no confidence, and to top it off, I was shy. But the people just seemed to like to look at me.”

~ Dorothy Dandridge, on her performance at the Macambo

Because paler skin was considered more beautiful at the time, this is an example of how colorism may have worked in her favor. She was able to get a spot performing by her own means, while other talented singers, like famous jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald for example, were deemed not visually appealing enough and had to rely on support from celebrities like Marilyn Monroe to get their foot in the door. Once Dandridge gained in popularity, she was also able to help integrate many previous white-only clubs, including the world-famous Waldorf-Astoria in New York. She only performed if a table would be sat aside up front for NAACP members, and she broke attendance records.

In some of her most popular films, such as Carmen Jones (1954) and Island in the Sun (1957), she often played a bombshell or femme fatale role, and she was idolized for her beauty. Additionally, she played the role of a schoolteacher who reached out to a troubled student in Bright Road (1953), which is notable because of the humanity of the role–rather than being portrayed in a negative, demeaning, or subservient light, her character was portrayed simply as a benevolent human being. It was not representative of all her roles, but it definitely diversified the perception of black women in media. While her acting role types certainly were not limitless, even from a brief summary of her roles and singing venues, it is evident that many more options were available to her than women of darker complexions. Nonetheless, she was still not free from the confines of neither racism nor stereotypes in her personal life or her many film roles.

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Stereotypes and the Effect of Racism on Dandridge’s Career

Despite being described as one of the most beautiful women to be booked to sing at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, breaking attendance records at said hotel and many others, and her myriad of other accomplishments, her treatment at some establishments were undeniably the antithesis of beautiful. One prominent example of racism against Dandridge was when she was performing at a Las Vegas hotel. While she was good enough to perform, she was not permitted to use restrooms or the hotel pool. Instead, they gave her a cup to use as a bathroom, and when she just dipped her toe into the pool, they drained and scrubbed it. Even these two examples alone display that while black women with lighter skin were held to a higher regard, to many establishments they were still second-rate. Some of the roles offered to her and subtleties of the scripts reflect this notion as well.

An example of stereotypes in Dandridge’s career is her portrayal of Carmen in the film that propelled her into worldwide fame, Carmen Jones. While Carmen is depicted as more desirable, clever, independent, and in control of her fate than many black female acting roles, throughout the film, she also embodies many stereotypes.

In the beginning, she arrives late for work and is arrested for fighting with the co-worker that turns her in. This bears an eerie semblance to the notorious “colored people time” stereotype, which displays black people as unable to handle the responsibility of showing up on time, and the “angry, violent black woman,” or “Sapphire” stereotype, which displays black women as overbearing and agressive. Her character then seduces Joe, the betrothed sargeant assigned to deliver her to authorities following her arrest and her eyes continue to wander to other men throughout the film, a not so subtle ode to the “Jezebel” figure. At the conclusion of the film, she is strangled to death in a fit of rage by Joe for her unfaithfulness when she strays throughout the movie. While the movie helped launch her into world fame, in actuality it did not allow her to stray very far from common stereotypes of African American women, namely the “Jezebel.”

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Another peculiar example of how racism impacted the portryal of black people in film was Dandridge’s interracial relationship with actor John Justin in Island in the Sun. At the end of the clip from the movie, hyperlinked below, when they are slow-dancing together and it appears as if they will kiss, instead they awkwardly rub cheeks. One could argue perhaps that they did not know each other well yet. However, the two were dating throughout the film and Justin even explicitly says that he is in love with her, yet the two do not once they show any type of affection at any part of the film. In the context of American culture, especially in film, a loving relationship with no affection whatsoever is highly unusual. It is not because this particular film is extra conservative either– at 1:26:00 in the full film (hyperlinked to the left), another couple, both individuals white, kiss like in any other movie. The lack of interracial affection in this movie is not an anomaly for Dandridge either. In just about every onscreen interracial relationship she had, any sign of affection was rewritten or cut. Dandridge herself quotes a possible reason for this.

“America was not geared to make me into a Liz Taylor, a Monroe, a Gardner. My sex symbolism was as a wanton, a prostitute, not as a woman seeking love and a husband, the same as other women.” ~ Dorothy Dandridge

Although onscreen Dandridge was in some interracial relationships, off screen interracial relationships were essentially taboo in the 1950s, and interracial affection between white men and black women was only displayed in media in the context of poverty, servitude, and worse yet–rape. The lack of a status quo for positive interracial relationships translated on screen. This lack of a status quo would also contribute to the spiraling downfall of her fluorishing career.

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Dandridge and Justin as Margot and Archer in Island in the Sun (1957)

A Tragic End to a Beautiful Tale

            Later in her career, Dandridge started running out of films to act in. The fact that she did many dramas and romantic films, that interracial relationships were taboo, and that there were very few black actors in this area (and the main ones that were had already co-starred with her) reduced her opportunities as well. She did not receive many offers, and although in honesty she preferred scripts with social significance to the immoral, sultry roles she was more commonly offered, the primary roles available were more demeaning ones, like the roles in her last two films. In Porgy and Bess (1959), she plays a drug-addicted prostitute. In Tamango (1959), she plays an enslaved mistress to the Dutch captain of a slave ship. The conclusion of Tamango is like a microcosm of the wavering progession and regression of the perception of blacks in the media and the struggle for civil rights– first, she grew to fame largely in the “Jezebel” archetype, and was portrayed as a relatable human being in Bright Road as a caring schoolteacher and performed at glamourous venues and integrated some of them. But in the end, she was relegated back down to the roles of a drug-addicted prostitute, and to an enslaved mistress, whose life is tragically ended along with several other enslaved individuals by a literal cannon ball of racism and greed at the conclusion of the film. To better illustrate the intersection of colorism and racism, in the next blog I will juxtapose the legacies of Dandridge and McDaniel with the legacy of a famous woman with striking similarities to Dandridge– Marilyn Monroe.

The Legacy of Marilyn Monroe vs. Dorothy Dandridge

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“I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt … she personally called the owner of the Mocambo, and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night.” ~ Ella Fitzgerald

Marilyn Monroe and Dorothy Dandridge have several striking similarities. Both women were world-famous actresses and sex symbols of the 1950s, known widely for their looks and described as some of the most beautiful women of their time. Both had similar styles– an iconic short wavy hair and red lipstick. Both often had acting roles as bombshells, although some roles may have been stereotypical in nature (Ex. The “Jezebel” in Dandridge’s case or the “dumb blonde” in Monroe’s). One of the more eerie similarities is that both had tragic love lives, never able to have the loving family and husband they wanted, and died of drug overdose in their mid-30s to early 40s in their Californian homes. With similar popularity and status and almost equal duration of their careers, one would think their legacies and influence should be comparable to each other.

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Similar Fame, Vastly Diferent Influence

The stark contrast in Dandridge’s legacy and influence and Monroe’s legacy and influence illustrates just how limiting racism is on one’s career and influence. When it came to fighting for civil rights, Monroe hands down had the most power. McDaniel was able to request the removal of the n-word from the Gone with the Wind script after several years of experience in the acting industry. Dandridge was able to start integrating significant places like the Waldorf-Astoria and various clubs by getting a table up front for NAACP members and breaking attendance records. Monroe managed to get famous Jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald a spot at the Macambo, the same club that helped launch Dandridge’s fame, just by promising to sit in the front seat every night. Club managers overlooked Fitzgerald because of her race and appearance, but Monroe, who had already recognized Fitzgerald’s talent and studyed her singing to learn from it, offering to appear at the club immediately got her into the door.

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Despite both women being born around the same time and living around the same length of time (Monroe 1926-1962, lived to be 36; Dandridge 1922-1965, lived to be 42), Monroe made nearly 30 movies compared to Dandridge’s 15, and starred in advertisements and other media, garnering a net worth of over $2 million. Over 50 years after their deaths, Dandridge is not very well remembered– I had never heard of her before reading Negroland, not even from my baby boomer parents. Upon closer research, a few black actresses have paid homage to her, imitating her style. Monroe, on the other hand, is not only remembered, but she still makes several millions of dollars annually via the spa named in her honor, merchandise with her photo on it ranging from movies, books, puzzles, and pillows to a variety of other merchandise. Even in very recent years, both white and black celebrities and civilians alike have imitated her style, and she has been referenced in music, such as Nicki Minaj’s Marilyn Monroe (2012) and Rihanna’s Sex with Me (2016).

The Bottom Line

Dandridge’s quote about the late decline of her career illustrates why despite her popularity and being described as one of the most beautiful women of her time, she likely never had a chance at garnering the widespread popularity that Monroe maintained for over half a century.

“I wasn’t fully accepted in either world, black or white. I was too light to satisfy Negroes, not light enough to secure the screen work, the roles, the marriage status available to a white woman.” ~ Dorothy Dandridge

In the 1950s, the American superstar mold simply just did not have room for African Americans, much like the rest of society. However, women like McDaniel and Dandridge chipped away at it, getting the n-word removed from scripts, integrating famous nightspots and fighting for equality and respect despite racism, colorism, sexism, and disadvantageous circumstances.

Looking to the future, we can continue the work of McDaniel, Dandridge, Monroe, and several others by chipping away at the mold together in unity, and rebuilding it into something that we can be proud to pass on to our children, something that will include everyone. No one knows if it may take decades, centuries, or even be an endless cycle of growth, but sometimes things must fall apart before they can come together and become stronger.

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Bibliography

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Frank, Priscilla. “How Art Fights Back Against Stale Stereotypes About Black Women.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 08 Dec. 2016. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.

Kniestedt, Kevin. “How Marilyn Monroe Changed Ella Fitzgerald’s Life.” KNKX. KNKX, 22 Mar. 2012. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.

Leavy, Walter. “The Real-Life Tragedy of Dorothy Dandridge.” Ebony 41.11 (1986): 136. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.

Lenker, Maureen Lee. “Dame in the Game: Introducing Dorothy Dandridge.” The Retro Set. N.p., 19 Dec. 2016. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.

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Webb, Sarah L. “Colorism and Racism: What Is the Difference?” Colorism Healing. N.p., 10 Mar. 2017. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.

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