If you’re Black, get back! If you’re brown, stick around. If you’re white, you’re alright! ~ Big Bill Broonzy
Even though I make a conscious effort to read across genres, cultures, and time periods I still sometimes find myself stuck in thematic patterns. For months I’ll find myself somehow reading books that feature sharks or Chinese calligraphy or clown cars. It’s not that I’m intentionally trying to read around specific ideas, but sometimes it just sort of…happens.
Lately, the theme that has been whopping me over the head repeatedly in books is colorism, or the practice of discrimination/bias due to skin color both within and between racial groups. While I unpacked my personal feelings and experiences of colorism quite a bit in my review of the essay collection Whiter, it seems as though the topic isn’t quite done with me yet. Everything I’ve read in the past few months seems to have at least an underlying current of colorism, if not an overt discussion of the topic. While my personal feelings on the subject tend towards contempt and disgust rather than personal hurt, I’m aware that the subject hits a very tender nerve with a lot of people in a lot of communities, and that many simply comply with the idea without ever really thinking about the ridiculousness of it all.
That’s where the books come in. I’ve curated a (very) shortlist of texts I’ve come across recently on colorism to share with you all. (If you want to see them all in one place, click here.)
As always, this isn’t an expert list, since I am not an expert. It’s also not complete or definitive. It’s simply a few books on colorism that I find helpful, interesting, or entertaining, and hope you will too.
So, without further ado…
- The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison. While I’d argue that the heart of this classic novel beats in a place far deeper than colorism, clearly the topic plays a major role in the story. ( I mean…look at the title!) The story follows three little Black girls in the 1940s realizing that they live in a world that openly dislikes who they are and the way they look, and their coming-of-age in a community of adults living with the resulting self-contempt. It’s a slow, sad, meaty novel with a terribly depressing ending, but it’s a classic for a reason. The writing is peerless, the themes interrogated with a rare level of grace, and the characters deeply human and affecting.
- Coffee Will Make You Black, April Sinclair. On a more hopeful note–this novel, set some 20 years after The Bluest Eye manages to pull together many of the same themes as Morrison’s masterpiece with far different, less depressing results. To be fair, it’s a young adult novel, but the protagonist, Stevie, makes far less devastating choices and has a much more supportive community than the one in Morrison’s novel. The final message is about personally dismantling the power of colorism and other prejudices (sexuality also plays a major part in the story) rather than being destroyed by them. It’s a funny, thoughtful novel with an unusual ending.
- Don’t Play In The Sun, Marita Golden. This one strikes a nice balance between the crushing heartbreak of Morrison and the hopeful growth of Sinclair. As a memoir, this book is of course focused on the author’s personal experiences but still manages to paint a very illuminating picture of how colorism shapes and is shaped by Black American culture and history. There’s a lot of analysis and critical thought included with the anecdotes, making this a very worthwhile read.
- Whiter: Asian American Women On Skin Tone, edited by Nikki Khanna. Being Black myself, I often only think of colorism in terms of African diasporic communities. However, I live in Asia and colorism is a whooolllle other game over here. For a broad, academically grounded, but still very vulnerably human overview of Asian and Asian-American variants of colorism this collection of essays is an excellent start.
- Fairest, Meredith Talusan. Speaking of colorism in Asia, this memoir by a Filipina-American immigrant contains some interesting ideas on the subject. While I gave this book all the side-eyes possible in my final review, I still think it’s interesting to see colorism from the other side, as it were. Talusan has albinism, and it’s clear that her paleness comes with both privilege and othering. How reliably she recounts that is another thing, but if you see this at your local library, peek into it and see what you think.
- Sana, Sana, Ariana Brown. I haven’t read nearly enough of this woman’s work yet. Brown is multiracial(Black and Mexican), and her poems neatly unpack the intersections and levels of colorism as one navigates between different communities and cultures. Her poem “Supremacy”, which she performs in the video above, is an excellent example of that.
- Passing, Nella Larsen. The final entry on this list, first published in 1929, is perhaps the definitive novel on color politics in America, and one of the few that dives deeply into the often taboo practice of “passing”–that is, pretending to be white in order to gain social benefits and acceptance, while being ethnically and culturally connected to non-white communities. While the book itself focuses on Black Americans, this is a common practice across non-white communities in America and beyond (Talusan even does it in the Philippines in Fairest.) The novel manages to explore the subject thoroughly yet still maintains enough of a sense of story and character to keep threads of humanity, sympathy, and intrigue woven through all the social commentary. (TL:DR; it’s a great story.)
As I said before, this list is hardly exhaustive and there are a lot of titles missing, of course. I find that many of the best books on colorism are often academic texts, and you can find several of those included on the complete list, found HERE.
Other than that– be kind to yourselves, fellow readers, no matter what your skin tone is. Share your thoughts on these reads(and your own suggestions) in the comments. Peace!
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