Social media has been abuzz with Thandiwe Newton’s apology to dark-skinned actresses, and it's put light-skinned privilege and colorism in the Black community in the spotlight.
While promoting her upcoming film, God's Country in a press interview with Sky News, Newton spoke about her role, where she plays a grieving professor who confronts two white hunters she catches on her property, noting that she almost didn't take the role because she didn’t feel dark-skinned enough for it.
"My internalized prejudice was stopping me from feeling like I could play this role when it's precisely that prejudice that I've received," she told Sky News.
While the apology was generally ill-phrased and poorly-received, it's highlighted the fact that the world needs to focus on the way colorism in Hollywood and indeed in film industries across the world — behind the scenes and on our screens — has perpetuated and contributed to the off-screen social hierarchy for Black and brown people.
Colorism is essentially discrimination against people with a darker skin tone, most commonly experienced within a community of the same ethnicity or race.
“I’ve wanted to apologize every day to darker-skinned actresses to say I’m sorry that I’m the one chosen,” Newton said.
Thandiwe Newton has said she wants to "apologise every day to darker-skinned actresses" for not representing them.— Sky News (@SkyNews) February 3, 2022
Read more: https://t.co/f7RIlkRw40pic.twitter.com/t8rE9ysoAA
While she may have meant well, the issue goes much deeper than the fact that she has been able to profit from roles that were not written for her. The real problem is the fact that she was offered them in the first place, which says so much about how accepting the film industry truly is of women who are dark-skinned. In an ideal world, Newton would not need to apologize. In an ideal world, dark-skinned women would have been recognized and selected for the roles she’s played from the very beginning.
The biggest cause for conversation with Newton’s apology, however, was the delivery and the phrasing, which came off as condescending to dark-skinned people — a characteristic of colorism. This is something that entertainment writer, Shanelle Genai, picked up and highlighted in her article for the Root.
“I [...] know what it feels like when somebody is lowkey playing in my face with an “apology” that comes across as more patronizing than it does uplifting,” Genai writes. “I’m sure Newton really felt like what she was saying was coming from the right place, but the delivery of this was, frankly, all wrong.”
Newton’s phrasing and delivery is what really caught social media’s attention, as it came off as a biracial light-skinned woman who was apologizing to the dark-skinned community for always being the chosen one.
“My mama looks like you,” the actress said. “...it’s been very painful to have women that look like my mom feel like I’m not representing them.”
Her intention might have been good, but her words perpetuated the idea of colorism, with some users noting that her delivery was cringeworthy and others parodying how she phrased her apology through the use of videos and memes.
Critics also took to social media to question whether, in apologizing, she knew what the real problem was. For instance, Twitter user @_KayRie stated: “We never asked you to feel guilty for being light skinned.” The problem is not the fact that she’s light skinned, the problem is that light skin comes with an unfair privilege, and it's dismantling this inherent privilege that is at the heart of racial equity discourse around the world.
Light-skinned privilege and colorism are issues that have been plaguing the global Black community for centuries. It’s why we sat in the playground as pre-schoolers, arms stacked on top of each other, comparing skin tones. It’s why light-skinned people have moved quicker up the ranks and been referred to as "the better Black" or "not your kind of Black". It’s the reason that skin bleaching and photo editing apps that lighten skin still exist and are damaging the mentalities of Black and brown people the world over.
Thandie Newton… girl, what was that? 😭 We never asked you to feel guilty for being light skinned. We just wanted you to acknowledge that taking a role meant for a dark skin woman was unacceptable.— ☃️ (@_KayRie) February 4, 2022
And we never said you were taking “our” men either… that was random 🥴😂
Historically, oppressive white people never cared for Black people, but they decided to tolerate those with “lighter skin” because at least they were closer to what looked like white. This in turn has internalized within Black and brown people the entirely inaccurate idea that those with lighter skin are better, or smarter, or more worthy of access and success for their proximity to whiteness.
It’s ironic meanwhile that Newton brought her apology to our screens in February — Black History Month in the US and Canada — the one month that puts the spotlight on the importance of racial equity, and that Black people in North America are given to celebrate their Blackness in all the shades, textures, and cultures that it comes in.
If Newton truly, seriously wanted to apologize, she would not be doing so over the internet or in an interview designed to promote her upcoming movie. She would speak the names of deserving Black people in the rooms she sits in. She would point casting directors and producers in the right direction when they approach her to play someone of a different hue. She would support the equality of payment and access for dark-skinned women whose opportunities are slimmer than hers, in the discussions that she has with the suits who draw up contracts and sign the cheques.
Saying that her mother looks like all dark-skinned woman does nothing for the dark-skinned women who have worked incredibly hard to step out of the prejudices that the world has placed on them.
User @Kelechi on Twitter pointed it out perfectly, when she did the work of rephrasing Newton’s apology to make more sense to the situation. Her tweet reads:
“Rather than framing it as ‘you feel like I’m taking from you,’ how about ‘The industry and society we exist in has made me unaware and unwilling to acknowledge my privilege and it has been at your expense. I am responsible for my unlearning. I apologize.’”
Rather than framing it as “you feel like I’m taking from you”— Kelechi (@kelechnekoff) February 3, 2022
The industry and society we exist in has made me unaware and unwilling to acknowledge my privilege and it has been at your expense. I am responsible for my unlearning. I apologise.
The same user and several others on social media pointed out that all her apology did was reinforce harmful tropes and stereotypes that have stuck to dark-skinned people since the beginning. Newton’s apology pointed out that this internalized prejudice is still a large issue that Black people need to deal with, an issue that continues to divide us. And while it is of no fault of our own that it exists, unfortunately, white people don’t care enough to clean up the messes that they make.
The apology shows that we (again) need to do the necessary work to change systematic views that continue to hurt the opportunities of people who are just trying to go about their days, make a living, and be respected.
In the meantime though, let’s continue to celebrate Blackness this month, and every month, as a reminder that no matter how the world tries to divide us and hurt us, we remain resilient, remarkable, gorgeous, and worthy.