Why Skin Color of Fictional Characters are Important
Okay. I’m going on another rant here and forgive me, but I saw something that just irks me so, and I’m feeling the need to grab people and shake them and beg them to just understand please.
So I’m reading various things on tumblr, related to Legend of Korra, the portrayal and representation of dark-skinned characters in fiction, and the question that comes around is: Why is this even important?
Let me answer that for you.
Okay, so I have a boyfriend. He’s black, and like me, he’s into cartoons, anime, tv shows, etc. On his facebook, he keeps an gallery of images of dark-skinned characters. Doesn’t matter if they’re Egyptian, South American, Indian, etc. Just dark-skinned characters in general. A friend once asked him why this gallery exists in the first place, and bf answered how they were all positive portrayals of black/dark characters in anime/video games/cartoons.
That someone, who was Caucasian, was like, oh, and simply though it was a small quirk, little hobby, something my bf does when he’s bored.
For bf and me, who are both persons of color, that gallery means much more than a quirky hobby. I can’t explain it well, but basically, it’s a huge deal for us, particularly him. It’s a collection of the few black/dark characters in fiction, it’s representation, it’s him seeing people who look like him be scientists and geniuses, do martial arts, kick ass, look beautiful, be human; it’s people who are dark-skinned be valued and be deep, developed characters and have their own stories and desires and goals; and it’s so damn rare in fiction that he has a gallery of about only 50 characters and that’s it. Compared to, say, the hundreds of thousands of light-skinned characters.
My bf, he’s a writer. He wants to one day make books and tv shows and movies where the main character will be anything other than a straight white male character. He’s making his life goal to do so.
Because growing up and even now, still, he was loved seeing characters that are black like him. Loved characters that looked like him getting to be heroes, go on adventures, save the day, be cheered on and loved - showing him that little kids like him, black kids, kids of color, can do anything they want and they are just as good as the white kids who are already heroes and adventures and princes and princesses and whatever the hell there is to be. In a society where he eventually grows up to tell me, one day, when we were out for a drive, how to respond if I ever get pulled over by a cop, to be respectful and calm and make no sudden movements - he doesn’t know if it’s different for Asians but still, be safe - and he has to do all this, be extremely careful simply because he’s black…well, it’s something when black/dark characters are portrayed as anything other than dangerous or expandable or a bunch of horrid shit.
And then there’s me, who’s Chinese and tans easily and, along with my dad, is the darkest in the family. And let me tell you how screw-up colorism, light-skin-is-better-than-dark-skin mentality is, because there’s my mom (pale) who looks down on my dad for having olive skin and would hush hush tell me when I was younger how ‘dark’ my dad was and how ‘dark’ his family was, it was such an unfortunate thing, let’s hope that I don’t turn out like them, and made it as if their being ‘dark’ (at most an olive skin tone, geez) had something to do with all their flaws and whatnot. And then she goes through the trouble of wearing gloves when driving just so her arms wouldn’t get tanned and take out an umbrella when going outside on a sunny day. And I grow up in this setting, being told how pretty I would be if only I was pale like her.
I hate it. I hate all that and love it whenever I see somehow who is olived-skinned or dark-skinned and they were beautiful - considered beautiful, are beautiful-, and I would know that I am pretty too. And I hope no kid would ever grow up in a screwed-up environment like that and they can look everywhere and see that their dark skin is beautiful, desirable as well.
So, Korra. Dark-skinned Korra, gorgeous and headstrong and desirable and powerful and Avatar, protector of the whole world - it’s one of the first time a dark-skinned character has been portrayed as so, main character of such a beloved mainstream TV-series. (My bf loves Legend of Korra and its predecessor series before it. I do too.) And if she is in fact getting lighter, even unintentionally. Well. That would be a devastating blow.
And that’s why skin color in fiction is important. Because of formative influences, of subtle stuff in psychology that worms its way into the mind of little kids, telling them this is how the world worked, this is how your life will eventually be, this is the way you should think. Of the simple fact of having positive role models for all types of children.
Please try to understand. And at the very least, please don’t just brush off and scoff these concerns.
“Rapper Kendrick Lamar created quite a sensation when he purposely rejected the prototypical light-skinned video vixen in favor of a coco-coated cutie to feature in his new video “Poetic Justice.” “We had another girl for the lead but I had an idea where I just wanted a little bit of a darker tone [girl] in the video,“ Kendrick told MissInfo.com. “It’s almost like a color-blind industry where there’s only one type of appeal to the camera.“ That’s an understatement, Lamar. Dark-skinned video vixens are not only rare in rap videos, they are extinct, if they ever existed at all. Heck, they haven’t even been brown-skinned since Thriller. Therefore, the fact that he enlisted the services a mahogany-hued beauty as the leading lady in his smash hit single was refreshing and a radical departure from the norm. There are famous rappers who have put up signs on the doors leading to their video shoots that no dark-skinned black woman were invited to audition. Another rapper, Lil Wayne, said he doesn’t want anymore dark-skinned children even though his and Toya’s daughter is dark brown. Bet that boosted his daughter’s self-esteem. Lamar praised this chocolate beauty for allowing her beauty to envelope the screen and dominate the scenes without really trying. “I give [Brittany] the credit, too, for just being there, and being a natural, genuine young lady. She wasn’t all in the open, trying to jump in [front] of the camera. She was cool, just chilling,” he said. “I always kept in the back of my mind like ‘you don’t ever see this tone of a woman in videos.’ ” Kendrick says, “No disrespect, I love all women, period. But at the same time, I still feel like it needs that balance.”—Rolling Out article about Kendrick Lamar choosing a dark-skinned woman for his Poetic Justice video by Terry Shropshire (http://rollingout.com/entertainment/dark-skinned-video-vixen-brittany-skys-hottest-photos/)
Why aren't little brown girls praised as much as little white girls?
So I just watched that documentary on shadeism that I reblogged from espirit-follet, and my head hurts and my heart aches.
Watching that little girl look at her own beautiful skin and hearing her talk about how ugly it was… pointing at the white models and not the black ones, talking about her aunt’s lighter skin and how different it is to her own…
You know, I never once thought of myself as a pretty child. Pretty was my white friends, my black friends and me, we were just there. Not very feminine, not like the white girls. Not desirable, not particularly popular with the boys the way the white girls were. I remember the time my friend Julia told me that she thought I was the prettiest girl she knew, and it floored me. First time anyone had ever told me I was pretty. I was eleven.
I look back on pictures, and I think to myself, why? I was a gorgeous kid. I had these big lovely brown eyes, black hair, golden skin, I was smart as a button, and very, very funny. And I look at the pictures of my white friends, and I don’t see much of a difference, other than our races. So why did they receive praise, and why didn’t I? I vivdly remember one incident at a slumber party: my best friend, a blonde white girl, told me that she was naturally beautiful, that she knew this, and that some people weren’t as lucky as her. And I remember thinking, how does she know that? Where does someone obtain that kind of knowledge? How is she so confident and secure in that knowledge? Someone must have told her. And she believed it? Because by the time I was eleven, I was so used to thinking of myself as the dirty, runty little brown kid, I refused to believe someone when they did praise me.
The other black and brown girls I knew as a child — many of them learned to think of themselves as beautiful later on in life. And yes, I know that this is a universal experience, every girl goes through some kind of ugly duckling stage or another, hopefully emerging in late adolescence with a sudden reserve self-confidence — but no white girl goes through that journey the way we went through it. Because we have to come to terms with our race, not just our awkward bodies. We have to combat what other people can and will say about what certain features of our bodies. Our hair texture, the shape of our eyes, our dark or light skin, the multitude of shades that are painted on our bodies, our hairiness or lack of hair, our size, our breasts, our hips, our lips, our butts.
Its a battle white girls don’t have to go through. There are all sorts of pressures on every woman in our society, but we have many, many more. Childhood and adolescence and womanhood are battlefields for us, and it can be a struggle to continue to think of ourselves as desirable, as female, as pretty.
No wonder so many of us don’t make it.
do people not realize that comparing skin bleaching to tanning products is ridiculous as fuck?
like one of the reasons ‘tanning’ became a thing was because it was a sign of wealth, it meant you could afford to go on vacations and such, so how is that the same thing as women with dark skin being told that they’re not worth as much as their light skinned counter parts?
pale women aren’t being kept from opportunities based on their paleness… I’m pretty sure you can open any magazine and see them, they’re all over the runway, they’re all over tv and movies, like damn just look at hollywood.
Meanwhile women with dark skin not only have to deal with racism but colorism within their own communities, they’re overseen for job offers, there’s a multi million dollar industry that directly markets to them by telling them how undesirable they are, how the only way to find a husband is to lighten your skin, and how much more beautiful light skin is etc. etc. etc.
so just, no.
Dear fellow light skinned POC,
Being rejected for your lightness is not nor will it ever be, the same as being rejected for your darkness or visible Blackness.
It just isn’t ever going to be the same.
I need y’all to understand, and I mean understand, the rejection of whiteness and/or lightness by ethnically and racially marginalized peoples is a reflection of learned fear of our/their oppressors.
The rejection by those same marginalized peoples of darkness and Blackness, in specific, is due to the fact that rejecting, harming, disenfranchising, and challenging claims to mixed/multiple identities of visible Black/African Diaspora peoples will always be viewed as an easy route to authenticity/autonomy under white supremacy.
The rejection of visible racial difference, in which racial difference is largely read as darkness of skin (and there are other elements to it, but having skin color that is not pure-as-the-driven-mayo white is the biggie to traditions of white supremacy), is seen as the Get Out of Jail Free pass.
So when we, light-skinned peoples, talk about our difficulties fitting in, we have to really examine what we’re talking about. We have to acknowledge a world system that continually favors us for “not looking Black” (feel free to replace with [X], if you must).
So yeah, we may have shit to deal with, and internalized issues in regard to our authenticity, depending on our backgrounds, but it will never be the same as the struggle for identity our dark-skinned peoples work under.
Even if you are a POC
Even if your mother bled her brown skin into the land until the sun rose again
Even if you have heard slurs against your people more often than you have heard your own name
If you have white privilege, acknowledge it
If you benefit from colorism, acknowledge it
Know that even if you don’t want it, colonialism birthed its nature in your bones
And rise in this
You cannot hope to help your people, your community, without acknowledging this
Because if you don’t
You will shit on them every single day of your life without even trying.
“You will see dark-skinned women cast on TV when it's an agenda item, when the show wants to be realistic. Like a cop show or a show that wants to deal with the inner city. But if it's a show where the beauty of the black female character is important, where she has to be eye candy, you are more likely to see 'light and bright' than 'dark and lovely'.”—An African-American Film Writer, “Don’t Play In The Sun”
Art and whitewashing
Okay, so, recently, I came across this blog: DAMN, LAY OFF THE BLEACH. It’s a blog dedicating to calling out artwork that has whitewashed characters that are originally darker/dark skinned and generally not white. There was some controversy over a few pieces of artwork, fights over whether or not lighting that’s making the characters look pale, over the forward and blunt tone of the owners of the tumblr, and how sometimes the whitewashing is unintentional/different art style/’look it’s hard coloring and I like it this way so shut up’.
As an artist myself, I just want to say a few things:
I believe when someone draws a character lighter than they really are (and it’s not lighting/stylistic/etc), they aren’t just unintentionally, accidentally choosing a lighter palette. There is a conscious decision, even if just a little bit, that goes on. Because as an artist, I use references when I draw. I get screenshots of the character, I look at official art, I even use the eyedropper tool to see exactly what colors there are. And I’m pretty sure plenty of other people do that too. So if they do, how is it that they can get the skin color several shades lighter/completely wrong? Even if you don’t use references and draw completely from memory, once you’re done, how can you look at the picture and not see where you have gone wrong?
That’s just the technical art aspect. Then there’s just always that colorism, that underlying mentality that lighter skin is preferable and darker skin just isn’t and you just don’t want to draw that character with darker skin than you’re used to. You lighten up the colors a bit, you use the special effects photoshop gives you, you make them as dark as you have too. You think, let’s make them tanned. Like after someone went to the bleach, someone who is outside in the sun a lot. You don’t really think, They are brown. Dark-skinned. Not white.
I know this because I used to do it too. And I still sometimes do so, until I realize what I’m doing and stop myself. I made original characters that were South American/South Asian, but I always stopped myself from giving them ‘too dark’ skin. Just enough so they didn’t look completely white.
I’m Chinese American and I have light-ish olive skin, but I tan easily. All my life, I’ve been told to stay out of the sun by my family because light pale skin was preferable, and darker skin was just not as pretty. I’m always hearing my mom lamenting about how dark I got or how dark I am, even though at most I tan to an olive skin tone (and not even that much). And until a few years ago, I listened and shared the same colorism mentality. It’s not just my family - it’s the whole culture we live in. Just look at the beauty ideal, look at black actresses on covers photoshopped until they look almost white, at the skin whitening cream on sale in stores. It’s a mentality that’s really not easy to break out of. When you start drawing, your characters turn out pale too. Like the ideal you’ve been told to follow your whole life.
I know there are people who think the same way. They won’t say it out loud, they might not realize they’re thinking this way, but they are. It’s not lighting, it’s not wrong palette, it’s not a coloring problem. It’s just racism, pure and simple.
So, everyone, when you’re told you have whitewashed a character: listen. Apologize and change the drawing and/or promise to do better next time. It will help you better as an artist and a person.