Colorism in Literature

Color Eye

Photo: Andreas Levers via Flickr

Over the past year I’ve been thinking more about the ways that colorism (or the valuing of lighter skinned people over darker skinned people) comes into play in literature just as much as in film, modeling, and other more visual industries. Amit Singh, in a recent Media Diversified article does a great job of highlighting examples of colorism for the latter and why it is such a big problem. As he notes, “there is one set type of attractiveness that is sold to us and resold to us on a daily basis through popular culture and advertising.” He discusses how even the actors and models “of color” that are allowed to succeed are the lighter-skinned ones and the ones with more Caucasian features.

It’s not just on screen and in magazines though that we experience colorism — it happens in literature too, even though we might not get shown a literal image. In reading science fiction and fantasy, so often the darker-skinned characters are the ones with the evil magic or the worst intentions — the assassins and kingdom-takers. And in less-fantastical books the darker characters are still often looked upon with suspicion and fear, or at the very least set apart as different because of their dark and/or non-Caucasian features. How many times have we read “The Asian nurse did such and such” or “The guy with dreadlocks told me blah blah blah?” In each of those situations an author is choosing to define his or her characters by how far they deviate from whiteness, rather than choosing a more complex way to describe them.

I’m the first one out there to jump up and down cheerleading for authors that write diverse characters. If authors do intend a character to be a person of color I’d love to know. But it’s very important when we call those characters onto the field not to be using whiteness as the standard of beauty or the gatekeeper of “normal.” Authors have just as much responsibility as magazine editors and television producers to not be recreating the color value spectrum for consumers.

I think we are getting better in a lot of ways, but authors need to push harder on the work of diversifying their cast of characters in nuanced and meaningful ways. Likewise, we readers need to keep ourselves open to all the characters in the books we read, not just the ones that are seem the most like us.

2 thoughts on “Colorism in Literature

  1. Sarah Laurence

    I’ve seen that countless times, especially these days with Arab bad guys and white heroes in movies. My YA manuscript on submission has a Chinese American MC and her foils are blue-eyed and blond, but race doesn’t factor into their antagonism. The bigger issue for them is that she’s American and new to their school in the UK. I’d like to see more racially diverse characters without stereotyping.

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