I want to preface this response to Ebony’s 70th anniversary cover featuring Harry Belafonte, Jesse Williams and Zendaya Coleman #EBONYPower100 (actors who #StandForSomething according to the magazine) by saying, unequivocally, that all “Black is Beautiful” and those who are willing to stand and fight for equality should be lauded. The opinions expressed in this piece are not meant to detract from the powerful words spoken by the stars featured on the cover, or their very necessary activism.
However, I must critique the cover with a scathing honesty that fundamentally pains me. Mainly, because the problem with it is an issue of color among people of color and such issues always make me uncomfortable. I do not care to drive further wedges between Black people — or to reinforce colorism — but I do believe the fact that the honorees on Ebony’s front page are all lighter-skinned, biracial Black people should not go without scrutiny. The politics of skin color has significance and it strikes me as odd that Ebony would not understand the implications of such a decision in today’s racially charged political climate.
Especially, when we consider the pushback Zendaya Coleman was subjected to after being cast for the Aaliyah biopic, that eventually was squelched for unrelated reasons. Aaliyah fans questioned the decision to cast a bi-racial actress as a brown-skinned girl, when there are so few roles for Black actresses in the first place. In response to these criticisms, Coleman responded:
“Well a lot of people say that I’m not Black, but this gentleman is my father,” Zendaya said, before putting her arm around her dad, who is African-American.
“Half-Black is just enough. It doesn’t matter what color you are, it’s about how you portray the character.”
These responses are far from revolutionary. Matter of fact, such a response literally co-opts white colorblind ideology that makes it practically impossible to discuss the ramifications of racism without being labeled “stuck in the past” by many whites. To then place this young woman on the cover of a magazine edition that celebrates Black people who #StandForSomething, mainly because she responded to racist criticisms of her hair is simply daft. In case you didn’t hear about it, after rocking faux-dreadlocks to the Oscars, E! hosts declared that the Disney star probably “smells like patchouli” or “weed.” Coleman fired back with these words:
Selective outrage is expected from a young, perhaps, naive woman, but it also speaks volumes about her inability to represent Black people in any truly wholesome way– which then makes it problematic to place her on the Black magazine’s cover. She may have addressed the blatant racism displayed by that E! host, but why wasn’t she equally fired up about the inequality brown-skinned women face in the media that constantly tries to whitewash Black contribution?
Jessie Williams, on the other hand, has been far more vocal on varying issues that affect African-Americans which is most certainly commendable. He penned various CNN pieces over the years criticizing racism in the media, police brutality, the protests that have erupted across the nation and the double standards created by white supremacy. Nevertheless, the Grey’s Anatomy actor is half-Swedish and that admixture certainly has its benefits. His, and Zendaya Coleman’s, proximity to whiteness make them “more acceptable Blacks” and thus an easy target to be used as pawns of those who seek to maintain the status quo. Williams did address this matter– albeit perfunctorily– in an acceptance speech for the 2015 Drum Major for Justice Award which honors individuals who continue to do the work inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Here’s what he had to say:
“European beauty standards have given me a better seat at the table and a bigger microphone than my darker brothers and sisters my entire life. That’s not me. I didn’t have anything to do with that. Because I understand the history of white supremacy and the construction of Black civilization, I had to, really had to give these presentations in my living room in my house if I wanted to play sports. That wasn’t me. That’s parenthood.”
The actor credits his parents and community for his social awareness and even acknowledges that European standards have given him a bigger platform, but nowhere does he address how he is now implicated in the colorism social hierarchy because he uses that platform to his benefit. Now that Jesse Williams finds himself on the cover of a Black magazine, alongside two other biracial stars, not any of his “darker brothers or sisters”, one could only hope this could provide a moment of reflection for the actor. Perhaps, maybe, this may be an opportunity for him to speak out on the colorism battle within the Black community that pushes many darker-skinned people to the fringes?
When we consider that The Black Lives Matter Movement — spearheaded by three courageous, brown-skinned women — is probably the most significant modern Black Liberation Movement and somehow its founders did not make their way onto the magazine’s cover, despite being awarded a position on the list, it really makes me wonder how much more darker Black women must #StandForSomething before they are awarded with visibility by their own community? We must beg this question, not because the Black community needs a “who is Black enough” discussion, but because in a system of racism and colorism, even Black people can be complicit in perpetuating white supremacy.
A magazine cover made to celebrate the achievements of Black people, while primarily presenting the images of biracial honorees, sadly, does just that.