Now Reading: Love, Colourism: An Open Letter to Alexandra Shipp


Love, Colourism: An Open Letter to Alexandra Shipp

March 19, 20187 min read

In an interview with Heroine Magazine, actress Alexandra Shipp, who starred in “Love, Simon” and “X-Men: Apocalypse,” discussed issues revolving around colorism–again.

The actress first received backlash for her response to a Twitter comment about being cast as X-Men’s Storm. In the comics, Storm is depicted as a darker colored character but was played by Shipp, a light-skinned woman.

During her interview, Shipp expressed anger towards people who try to address the abundance of light skin women in Hollywood to the detriment of darker skinned women. She claims her portrayal of the historically dark colored character was not problematic because she’s “not wearing blackface,” “not putting on a prosthetic nose or lips” and not trying to kink [her] hair up so that [she] can have a fro.” So the frequent erasure of dark skin existence must not be an issue for the actress.

Shipp essentially argued that since she is half black and identifies as such, her role as a fully black woman is not a problem. As a woman of color, Shipp has every right to identify as black. However, an ethical issue appears when her identity begins to infringe on the opportunities for darker women. Shipp believes the shade or tone of a black person has no importance in today’s society. She goes so far as to grossly over-simplify the existence of Storm as a darker toned woman.

…you can’t tell me that I can’t play a woman of color because I don’t match the Crayola marker from 1975 when they drew the comic, that makes no sense. 

Her ignorance on colorism deters many from sympathizing Shipp and her need to defend her skin tone. The actress’s experience was very real, and one many mixed-race people can relate to, but Shipp seems to believe this makes her exempt from any sort of criticism.

Criticism of Shipp’s casting stems from the white supremacist climate present in media and cultural history.

There is a long history, specifically in America, of celebrity whiteness and proximity to whiteness. This dates back to the Atlantic Slave Trade when black women were often raped by white men and led to lighter children being born. These children/people sometimes received better treatment than the darker-colored slaves.

Today, there is still a focus on light-skin, especially in how the media fails to fully and equally represent both light and dark skin. Makeup brands still disregard the needs of darker-toned people. Hollywood continues to “champion” diversity, even though mostly light-skin black women are cast as the only ethnic character in a show/movie.

The problem is especially harsh on the black women who are pushed into a constant competition to reach unattainable Eurocentric beauty standards. Darker and lighter women are pitted against each other. However, light-skin people often come out on top due to their close proximity to whiteness.

Alexandra Shipp fails to recognize her casting as part of the Eurocentric framework in media representation. In fact, she tries to ignore the relevance of her blackness altogether.

I’m not playing a black woman, I’m playing a woman.

Her color blindness as a reaction to what is clearly a continuation of colorism only pushes the myth of meritocracy–the idea we are all equal–within a society constructed by white supremacy. Shipp’s comment also stigmatizes those who want and value representation.

What Shipp appears to be arguing is that it’s better to have a light-skin, mixed woman rather than no black woman at all.

If all of us banned together in a perfect world and say no, this is meant for a dark-skinned actress, the studio would say you’ve lost your damn mind and hire a younger, light-skinned actress.

My intentions are not to “drag” Alexandra Shipp or call out her acting abilities, but it’s clear she has taken the criticism of her role as Storm. Shipp does not realize how the social constructs helping her obtain a role, are the very same ones preventing darker-colored actors from succeeding.

The truth is, light-skin actors have the privilege of existing without some of the negative labels applied to their darker-toned counterparts.

They simply do not experience the same stigmatization in the film and television industry or in wider society for that matter. Light skin is viewed as marketable while dark skin is seen as less appealing because of the negative, social labels attached to their darker tone. This is an experience Alexandra Shipp could never fully understand.

The actress has no desire to listen to any criticisms and prefers her fantasy, where people are free of any typifications based on their skin color. Shipp should acknowledge the differences between herself and dark-skinned people.

In taking the role of Storm, Shipp has denied a darker-skinned woman the opportunity to be represented in society. She’s erased the existence of a dark-skin character and helped the film industry continue to ignore dark-skinned people’s existence without pushback.

One can only hope that Shipp and other light-skinned black people will realize the importance of conversations on colorism. Discussions on colorism are not an attack on the validity of someone’s blackness, but instead an acknowledgment of the Eurocentric standards and cultural, white preferences in society. How it can give lighter people a privilege. Recognizing privilege is the first step to ending a culture that places people at a disadvantage based on their skin tone.

Ignoring privilege makes you complicit.

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Christiana Ajai

Hi, I'm a student from London that loves music, writing and fashion.