Why the 'Black-ish' Colorism Episode Is So Terrifying (Guest Column)

BLACK-ISH S05E10 Still 2 - Publicity - H 2019
Ron Tom/ABC

In black parlance, the word "company" loosely translates to "white people." So, if a black person is reticent to talk about an issue in front of "company," then it means that particular subject is too sensitive/private/embarrassing to be discussed outside of the community*. That being said, Tuesday's episode of Black-ish, "Black Like Us," tackles the issue of colorism.  

And that is something we never talk about in front of company.

Colorism is best defined as varsity racism — an advanced form of prejudice where people are discriminated against based on their skin tone. Simply put: It's the bigoted notion that lightskin is good and darkskin is bad. It's also typically done among people of the same group, which possibly explains why it's such a taboo topic. You see, even though black people didn't create colorism, the fact that we already endure so much oppression makes it almost shameful to admit we can contribute to our own suffering.  

And hopefully that's enough context to talk about the episode.

Diane (played by series regular Marsai Martin) is one of the darkest-skinned members of the Johnsons**. So when the school improperly lights her for a class photo, the family is triggered. What ensues is a passionate discussion/argument in which the older members of the family make cases for how they have or haven't been respected on the basis of their complexion. There is yelling, there is crying, there is a lightskin lion singing.   

Colorism has been around for generations, but we're only finally addressing it in season five. This is not a coincidence. Where there is shame, there is also heightened sensitivity. We procrastinated in telling this story because we knew we had to get it right or, quite frankly, we would get dragged on Twitter.  

Black-ish stories benefit from having a big room in which we debate different topics. "Lemons," for example, was begat from weeks of heated arguments***. However, due to the complexity of colorism, our room was allowed to expand even larger. A network executive shared an experience in the Latin community. A member of the camera department admitted to feeling "less than." My half-sister reminded me how colorstruck**** our father was.  

The more people we talked to, the more empowered we felt by our collective shame. We also found the injuries caused by colorism actually extend beyond our community, demonstrating the worth of discussing this topic out in the open. Suddenly, we understood the importance of using our platform and became less concerned with getting savaged on the internet.  

But I scrubbed my address and phone number just in case.

In our 100-plus episodes, we've done stories about touchy subjects like police brutality, Trump, guns, sexuality, the N-word, religion, spanking and interracial dating. However, this one terrifies me the most. I'm very proud of the work we did, and director Salli Richardson-Whitfield absolutely outdid herself. Still, we have to prepare ourselves for the fact that, with a topic this emotionally charged, there is no right or wrong way to react to it.  

But while I know a wound that is centuries deep cannot be healed in 22 minutes, I still hope there is some value in addressing this subject in front of company.

* In black parlance, "community" loosely translates to "negroes." For your safety, please don’t repeat that.

** Notice I said, "one of the ..." That’s how mindful we have to be when discussing this issue.

*** Would it be petty of me to say I was on the right side of history?

**** Really? You can’t figure it out from the context?

Peter Saji is an executive producer on Black-ish and under an overall deal at ABC Studios. He wrote "Black Like Us," in addition to other notable episodes including "Juneteenth" and the 100th episode, "Purple Rain." Saji is currently writing a Broadway musical about Juneteenth with Black-ish creator Kenya Barris and Pharrell Williams. Saji is also writing a movie with Barris.