The “Dear White People” syndrome: Why movies are obsessed with light-skinned black characters

The “Dear White People” syndrome: Why movies are obsessed with light-skinned black characters


Morgan Jerkins

This isn’t the first film to relegate dark-skinned actors to the sidelines — but it may be the most frustrating

For Princeton University’s recent Black Alumni Conference, an advance screening of “Dear White People” took place at the town’s Garden Theater, and I was one of many who could not wait to see it. Throughout the film, I could hear many black alums scoff at some of the micro-aggressions that we’ve all experienced and heard about, or laugh at all the things that we’ve all wanted to say in response to white people when these experiences occur but may have never had the gall to do so. The film is a bold attempt. But I could not help wondering why a light-skinned biracial woman was the lead female protagonist, the champion of civil rights on the fictitious Winchester University’s campus.

Frankly, as a light-skinned African-American female, I am tired of seeing women who look like myself presented as the epitome of complexity when it comes to setting forth the many different layers of the black experience for a mainstream audience. Yet we all know why this happens. A lighter-skinned black person is more marketable to an overwhelmingly white-dominated space. Not to mention, white appeal equals more marketability. The brown skin with a yellow undertone is the color “nearest [to] the light,” as Goethe once wrote, or in this case, to whiteness. White moviegoers want to see their reflections. Film is a form of escapism tinged with a dash of possibility from this perspective. A white character can be a villain or a hero while exemplifying a wide variety of emotions, and for a light-skinned black character with a name as equally “safe” as Samantha White, it all makes sense. She was able to show her radical and revolutionary side while effortlessly switching to her vulnerable side, via teary eyes, deliberate hesitations in speech, and even hairstyle changes to reflect her character development…

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