We Need to Talk About Leslie Jones and Colorism in Our Community
BY LASHA, JULY 22, 2016
A few of weeks ago, a friend tagged me in an article about how Saturday Night Live cast member and comedienne Leslie Jones hadn’t found a designer to dress her for the red carpet premiere of Ghostbusters yet. Though I’m usually relentlessly vocal about such discrimination against Black women, I was unmoved to speak on the matter at all. Over the past two years, Jones’ seeming willingness to do whatever necessary to further her career (most notable is a skit she performed on SNL where she made light of forced breeding of Black women during slavery), including furthering and endorsing racist stereotypes of Black women, had caused me to write her off. I had decided that her performance of Blackness was tailored for the white gaze. For me, that was an unforgivable offense.
Still, earlier this week when Jones announced her exit from Twitter after being the target of hundreds of brutal tweets since the release of Ghostbusters, I was furious. Regardless of the politics she engages in to survive in Hollywood, Jones didn’t deserve to be bombarded with sexually charged, racist tweets in a campaign to humiliate and silence her. Jones’ three white Ghostbusters costars have been notably silent. Mainstream white feminists, predictably, have been too.
I’m unsurprised by white feminists’ deafening silence on the matter, though. Black women have always known that white feminism is more about ensuring white women have the same rights and opportunities as their male counterparts than it is about fighting for the liberation of all women. So I’m completely disinterested in Tina Fey or Lena Dunham feigning solidarity with 140-character messages of support. And while I’m relieved that notorious Twitter troll, Milo Yiannopoulos, was permanently banned from Twitter for inciting the campaign that drove Jones to her breaking point, I’d rather this incident spark an honest conversation in the Black community about misogynoir’s vicious cousin, colorism.
While Black women of all shades can attest to the ruthless harassment that the anonymity of the Internet invites from racists, we have to be honest enough to admit that the brand of harassment Jones received is reserved for Black women who look like her. At 6-feet tall with dark skin, a wide nose, and full lips, Jones wasn’t just targeted because she is a Black woman. She was targeted because she’s fits a particular Black phenotype.
I won’t argue that if producers had opted to cast Maya Rudolph in Ghostbusters instead of Jones that she would have been protected from racist pushback, but I’m willing to bet that the biracial actress wouldn’t have been tweeted pictures of gorillas. The vitriol directed at Jones was strategic. Jones was a safe target because colorism is a phenomenon with the same oppressive value inside and outside the Black community.
This is particularly important in show business. Dark skinned Black women are reserved for comedic value in Hollywood, masculinized, dehumanized and degraded for laughs. Audiences howled for five seasons at Redd Foxx calling Lawanda Page’s Aunt Esther character a gorilla. Martin Lawrence spent just as long calling Tichina Arnold’s character a horse. On Living Single, Erika Alexander’s character Maxine’s perceived masculinity was constant fodder. The character of Dijonay in Disney’s The Proud Family proves that even when animated, the dark skin girl is designated as the ghetto one.
Any critique or confrontation we lob at Jones for always playing the loud, strong, masculine one, must be preceded by indictments of our own community’s embrace of the stereotypes which continue to pigeonhole women like Jones. If we demand Jones remain cognizant of how she represents us at all times, then we need to first interrogate our own bias against her. We do not protect women like Leslie Jones. Too many of us sipped tea and watched Jones endure the punishment we decided she deserved. We were all too ready to sit back and watch as white men decimate her spirit.
We can tell ourselves that the absence of the abundant think pieces, tweets and clapback that follow any critique of Beyoncé from white feminists or threatening tweets to Zendaya are because Jones represents her Blackness in a way which harms the rest of us, but that’s the easy route. Our community must admit that we have been complicit in propping dark skinned women up on the chopping block. We mock and abuse and demean women who like Leslie Jones. We left her unprotected because dark skinned women like her are as expendable to us as they are to white America.
So, I’m not prepared to continue to hold Leslie Jones responsible for embracing stereotypical roles when she’s faced with a world that refuses to allow dark skinned Black women femininity, desirability and vulnerability. I’m unwilling to ignore the fact that our community held the paint while white America drew the target on her back. Until we’re ready to unpack the box of racism, which contains the box of misogynoir which houses our colorism, the conversation is futile.