c o l • or or•• i s m
LARRY PONCHO BROWN
LARRY PONCHO BROWN
COMME N TA RY
he funny thing is, the word colorism doesn’t even exist. Not officially. It typically autocorrects on one’s computer screen. It only recently began to appear in the most dictionaries. Still, the author and activist Alice Walker is the person most often credited with first using the word colorism, out loud and in print. Discrimination based on skin color, also known as colorism or shadeism, is a form of prejudice or discrimination in which people are treated differently based on the social meanings attached to skin color. Colorism, a term coined by Alice Walker in 1982, is not a synonym for racism. In an essay that appeared in her 1983 book, In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens, Walker defined colorism as “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same race people based solely on their color.” Light-skin preference had been common practice in the black community for generations, but Walker gave it a name and marked it as an evil that must be stopped in order for African Americans to progress as a people. Numerous factors can contribute to “race” (including ancestry); therefore, racial categorization does not solely rely on skin color. Skin color is only one mechanism used to assign individuals to a racial category, but race is the set of beliefs and assumptions assigned to that category. Racism is the dependence of social status on the social meaning attached to race; colorism is the dependence of social status on skin color alone. In order for a form of discrimination to be considered colorism, differential treatment must not
result from racial categorization, but from the social values associated with skin color. Research has found extensive evidence of discrimination based on skin color in criminal justice, business, labor market, housing, health care, media and politics in the United States and Europe. Lighter skin tones are seen as preferable in many countries in Africa and Asia. Many studies report lower private sector earnings for racial minorities, although it is often difficult to determine the extent to which this is the result of racial discrimination. Skin color matters because we are a visual species and we respond to one another based on the way we physically present. Add to that the “like belongs with like” beliefs most people harbor, and the race-based prejudices human beings have attached to certain skin colors, and we come to present-day society, where skin color becomes a loaded signifier of identity and value. In the U.S. in particular, where we have an extremely diverse population, race still matters, but color matters, too. In the 21st century, as America becomes less white and the multiracial community—formed by interracial unions and immigration—continues to expand, color will be even more significant than race in both public and private interactions. Why? Because a person’s skin color is an irrefutable visual fact that is impossible to hide, whereas race is a constructed, quasi-scientific classification that is often only visible on a government form.
The fact is, our limited official racial categories in the U.S.—black, white, Latinos, American Indian, and Asian —are already straining under the weight of our multi-hued, ethnically diverse, phenotypically ambiguous population. Colorism is a societal ill felt in many places all around the world, including Latin America, East and Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and Africa. Here in the U.S., because we are such a diverse population with citizens hailing from all corners of the earth, our brand of colorism is both homegrown and imported. And make no mistake, white Americans are just as “colorist” as their brown brothers and sisters. A conversation about “race” is no longer sufficient when our first black president has a white mother, and golfer Tiger Woods is a “Cablinasian,” and a white woman named Rachel Dolezal feels justified in claiming a black identity without having any African ancestry. The discussion has to get more nuanced and categories beyond black and white must be introduced. In the meantime, skin color will continue to serve as the most obvious criterion in determining how a person will be evaluated and judged. In this country, because of deeply entrenched racism, we already know that dark skin is demonized and light skin wins the prize. And that occurs precisely because this country was built on principles of racism. It cannot be overstated that if racism didn’t exist, a discussion about varying skin hues would simply be a conversation about aesthetics. But that’s not the case. The privileging of light skin over dark is at the root of an ill known as colorism. But black Americans are not the only people obsessed with how light or dark a person’s skin is. In the U.S., it has been repeatedly proven that skin tone plays a role in who gets ahead and who does not. Despite the fact that the word colorism doesn’t exist, researchers and scholars are now systematically tracking its existence. A 2006 University of Georgia study found that employers of any race prefer light-skinned black men to dark skinned men regardless of their qualifications.
Sociologist Margaret Hunter writes in her book, Race, Gender and the Politics of Skin Tone that Mexican Americans with light skin “earn more money, complete more years of education, live in more integrated neighborhoods and have better mental health than do darker skinned …Mexican Americans.” In 2013, researchers Lance Hannon, Robert DeFina and Sarah Bruch found that black female students with dark skin were three times more likely to be suspended at school than their light-skinned African-American counterparts. Suffice it to say, one’s health, wealth and opportunity for success in this country will be impacted by the color of one’s skin, sometimes irrespective of one’s racial background. Even darker-hued white people have different experiences than their lighter-hued Caucasian counterparts when it comes to access and resources. Colorism is so deeply ingrained in the fabric of this nation that we are all implicated and infected by its presence. And the sad thing is, for many people the lessons of color bias begin in the home. In black families, Latino families, Asian-American families and obviously interracial ones, too, skin colors can vary in microscopic gradients or in obvious shades of difference. Luckily many parents are able to create a safe-space in the home where skin color differences only matter when it is time to buy sunscreen for the beach. But too often, the pervasiveness of a color hierarchy in the outside world seeps into the household and becomes part of the implicit and explicit teachings of parenting. That is not to say that the solution to solving our color problem as a country lies in the home, but that is precisely where the conversation should begin. From day one, parents of every color should begin to celebrate color differences in the human spectrum instead of praising one over the other or even worse, pretending we’re all the same. Then, we could have a more public facing, cross-cultural dialogue about the more global problem of colorism and plot its necessary demise.
A R T IS T S TAT E ME N T
n the early 1980’s, I had a huge interest in science fiction and fantasy. This oddly facinating subject dominated my work. Around that time that I also fell in love with the airbrush. I had just graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art. Soon after graduation, I began to have an urge to produce works that were a reflection of me, and some of the visions, and issues in my head, which my earlier works never accomplished. For awhile the prospect had me staring into blank canvas. It was as if I had nothing to say. I recalled a discussion I had with a much lighter skinned lady friend, where we debated who had the toughest childhood with regard to skin tone in the 70’s. I remember that conversation getting a little heated at times, but for the sake of our friendship, we both
The Sun People Acrylic on Watercolor Paper 19” x 52” 2011
shifted into neutral. Soon after, I did a few sketches exploring that concept, with our conversation echoing deep into my spirit. It begged the question; How do we deal with the subject of racism and prejudice, when we practice it within our own group? It was 30 years ago that I attempted to open dialogue about a subject of much family debate and conversation. The result was a piece I entited “Black Is Black.” As a note of trivia the first piece I created in 1987, was not the one that became popular in 1988. It had a dark face in the front, and lightest face in the background. I call it the lost “Black Is Black” piece, because it was inexpensively purchased by a collector, before I actually had a chance to document it.
So, I created a second version, switching the face order, as to not confuse it with the first version. To this day that collector has never been heard from, as if they disappeared from planet earth. In 1992, I would create a male version to complete the series. In the female version, the figures were from my imagination, but I utilized models for the male version, and would become my only published self portrait. The entire colorism series was created with airbrushing. Artists never know in advance, which of their works will become their best seller. In fact, when I first presented “Black Is Black” to Things Graphics and Fine Art, who historically became the largest African American owned art publisher, I was first told that the piece would never sell, because it was not rendered in a traditional medium. In frustration, I took a gamble and decided to self publish the image. The piece would quickly become one of the top 5 best selling black art prints in the nation. Things Graphics and Fine Art would later reconsider and publish a poster of the image 1992. The subject of colorism hadn’t been depicted in art. The “Black Is Black” series would become the first reproductions of its kind to visually and dynamically address the subject of colorism, while garnering huge commercial success, and a fan following. Released as open editions, the series were designed to be accessible, affordable works of art. It also became one of my most licensed images to date having been produced in book covers, calendars, puzzles, watches, tee shirts, and several other product lines. The rest, they say, is history. Soon thereafter television shows like “A Different World” would include it on the set of the show. Overnight it became mainstream, with a huge HBCU following. The message resonated with folks of all skin tones. I felt a sense redemption that the piece had been received so well. I had once again proved my naysayers wrong.
Black Is Black Poster Offset Lithography 18” x 26” 1992
“The melaninated people add beauty to the world with their various tones and hues, and without them, life would be a bland visual experience.” -Larry Poncho Brown
Black Is Black (F) Acrylic on Illustration Board 17” x 22” 1988
Black Is Black (M) Acrylic on Illustration Board 17” x 22” 1992
Interdependence Acrylic on Watercolor Paper 30” x 30” 1995
Opposite Forces Acrylic on Watercolor Paper 36” x 50” 1994
Gradations I Acrylic on Illustration Board 22.5” x 30” 1998
Gradations II Acrylic on Illustration Board 22.5” x 30” 1998
Peace of Mind Acrylic on Watercolor Paper 25” x 36” 1998
Indivisible Acrylic on Watercolor Paper 22.5” x 30” 2005
Spectrums Acrylic on Illustration Board 12” x 12” 1994
Diversities Mixed Media Collage on Illustration Board 24” x 26” 1996
BIOGR A P H Y
arry Poncho Brown is a native of Baltimore, MD. Poncho received his Bachelors of Fine Arts degree in graphic design and photography from the Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore, MD. His art, both fine and commercial, has been published nationally in Upscale, Ebony, Ebony Man, Essence, and Jet magazines. His art is featured in the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History book entitled “Wrapped In Pride” and “Connecting People With Art”. His popular works have been prominently featured on several TV shows including “A Different World”, “In The House”, “The Wire”, “The Carmichael Show”, “Star”, and “Greenleaf”. Movies featuring his art include “Avalon”, “He Said, She Said”, and “Soulfood”. His work adorns the walls of the likes of Camille Cosby, Dick Gregory, Anita Baker, Susan Taylor, Ed Gordon and Bernard Bronner just to name a few. His original works are in the corporate and institutional collections of Coppin State University, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, the District of Columbia Superior Courts, the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at Virginia Commonwealth University, and Yale New Haven Health Park Avenue Medical Center. He was one of many artists often referenced as “The Popular Artists” who gained national recognition during “The Cosby Show” era, and found commercial success between 1985-2000 during a period known as “The Golden Age of African American Art”, by making their art accessible to the masses through
direct participation in community art and cultural festivals, foregoing the traditional artist arrangement of artist representation, gallery representation, and art publisher distribution. At the height of this era his works were sold in 3000 galleries across the country, and on the walls of nearly 500,000 homes. His art, both fine and commercial, has been published nationally in Art Trends, U.S. Art Gallery, Images, Upscale, Ebony, Ebony Man, Essence, and Jet Magazines. In pursuing his philanthropic goals, he founded “Raising The Arts” which provides fundraising opportunities for non-profit organizations. He has created over 70 images for such organizations over the past three decades. Poncho was awarded “Artist of the Year” by the African American Visual Arts Association in 2000, the “Heritage Arts Festival Palette Award” in 2003, and the “Save the Arts Award” as Museum’s Choice in 2010, and “The Jan Spivey Gilchrist Visual Arts Award” in 2013.
“The African American art realm has been pressing onward because of the positive images that have become a narrative of our perseverance. My works attempt to capture SOUL while purposely depicting positive representations of African American culture. Art and imagery are the strongest forms to challenge the perceptions of African Americans in our society.” — Larry Poncho Brown