On Blood, Sweat & Heels, the Bravo TV series I star in, I was confronted by colorism for the first time in my life. The comment in episode five (airing tonight), and featured on our trailer that hit the Web last year, was the joke heard around the world. “You will always look like Wesley Snipes.”
The comment meant to be comedic was a clear insult on my dark skin, and also perhaps, because in the summer months, it just so happens that I often adorn my dark skin with bright colors–and on that occasion while filming in the Hamptons on Memorial Day weekend, I was wearing a silk crimson red. And like many fashionable brown girls, you can often see me on the show proudly rocking a fierce matte red on my full lips.
Seemingly for my cast mate, Mica Hughes, who made the comment, and for the kind of antiquated skin tone prejudices that continue to exist, a dark skinned Black woman so bold must be so far out of her mind that she deserves to be called a man. That man being the notably dark skinned Wesley Snipes, who wore drag in the cult classic To Wong Foo.
I didn’t hear when Mica made the comment. It came to my attention after we wrapped that scene. My first reaction was shock. “Whoa! She went there?” This later turned into disgust and eventually seeped into extreme embarrassment. Not embarrassment for me but what “Blood, Sweat and Heels” brings to the reality world, which arguably for the first time, is a group of successful, beautiful and progressive Black women rising to the top in ultra-competitive New York City. We’re the kind of Black women who might throw shade, not a bottle. We’re the kind of educated, self-made Black women who handle conflict like adults, not adolescents. But we’re certainly not the kind who are struck by colorism. Or so I thought.
It was clearly a low-blow. In my mind, our show would stick to the modern, sophisticated issues we’ve tackled like dealing with student loans, men who cheat, and the struggle to reinvent yourself from an unfavorable past. As I unpacked the issue with trusted friends, I discovered, I, a dark skinned Black woman have never been truly confronted by colorism. In all of my 29 years walking and twirling about Black America, my dark skin was a non-issue. Even as I watched Bill Duke’s Dark Girls and Oprah and Iylana Vanzant’s “Lifeclass” on colorism, I, like actress Tika Sumpter revealed, simply couldn’t relate. Because my dark skin was never a source of pain for me, it was a celebration.
But dark skin for many Black women in America is nothing to celebrate. Colorism as we clearly know, is a very real and present issue, and here I am, for the first time, right in the thick of it.
As a journalist, I’ve written fluently on issues dark skinned Black women deal with, like say, at beauty counters when asking makeup artists for advice on a new lipstick. I’ve also written about how our Latina sisters are often shut out of Black girl cultural commentary. I went back and forth on whether I should even write about this. I said to myself, should I address this on a personal level in an article? My reservation was that perhaps viewers won’t understand that the comment was an insult. Would my cast mate sling the jab at a dark skinned beauty like Naomi Campbell? I said to myself, maybe I’m taking this all too personally. All insults are fair in the polarizing world of reality, right?
No. Not ever skin tone.
What makes Mica’s comment insulting and derogatory is first, to ever call a woman a man is a way below the belt. But more urgently, for a seemingly racially ambiguous, light skinned woman to call a dark skinned Black woman Wesley Snipes is an explicit dance on colorism. Moreover, this comment coming from a woman whose own skin color has not only been unclear and confusing to many viewers (not to her own fault, Mica has stated both of her parents are African-American) but whose light skin has been a source of personal trauma and angst her entire life. It’s evident Mica deals with skin color issues on a deep, and drastic level. Mica has been vocal on the show about her experiences not feeling Black enough. In our own conversations, she shared the times she received mean stares from Black women when she’s out with her boyfriend, whose skin is dark. More recently, in an interview, she recalls when white woman told her she was too beautiful to be Black. Bottom line, in her anger and frustration, Mica projected her own skin color issues on to me. Hurt people can hurt people, and confused people dwell in confusion. And while I was shocked, and disappointed, I get it. It’s for these reasons that it became immediately critical for me to write openly about this experience.
I would be remiss to entirely play victim here. I’ve thrown my own kind of plentiful shade at some of my cast mates on the show. Some that many might find insensitive. Thus is reality TV, and I make no excuses for my comments.
But to throw shade at our shades (pun intended), is a nadir far too tragic for anyone to make a punch-line.
After I got past all of my feelings about the comment, I called my father to thank him for how he and my mother worked tirelessly to create an environment that wasn’t merely about acceptance, but a standard, and the expectation that our dark skin was to be unapologetically celebrated. It was an effortless confidence level I carried about as a youth. So much so that even that one time, when my ballet instructor decided it was a good idea to tell 6-year-old me I was pretty for a dark skinned girl, it was the heartiest of chuckles I gave that she couldn’t fathom. Add that to my audaciousness and sass. It was all too much for my dark skinned instructor to grasp. And when the guy in high school wasn’t into me, it wasn’t my first thought it was because I had dark skin. I thought, well, maybe I’m just not his type.
I’m not so caught up in my own dark-skin party to think all dark skinned Black girls grow up with the kind of love my family gave me. We all know colorism has been an internal issue in our community dating back to slavery; that thing we just don’t talk about, but exercise. Is colorism here to stay? Will it continue to be okay for us to go there with each other?
Let’s do more than hope not. Let’s make it our business to teach little Black girls that whatever shade they may be, they are to be celebrated.
Catch Geneva S. Thomas on Bravo’s Blood, Sweat & Heels, Sundays at 9/8C on Bravo