“…don’t worry about the fact that I’m black, I won’t make you feel uncomfortable... I am completely non-threatening, I am brown but safe.”
-Afua Hirsch, (Brit)ish: On Race, Identity and Belonging
I was raised in Zimbabwe by Jamaican grandparents. On Saturday mornings, my grandfather and I would watch cartoons. X-Men was the cartoon I remember being most excited to watch. I know we can all agree the X-Men theme song slaps to this day but I digress. Watching X-Men as a 6 year old dark skin black girl, I wasn’t grateful for the dark hue of Storm’s skin. Storm’s complexion was unremarkable to me because in Harare in the early 90s to be black was to be the default. The President was black. The bus driver was black. Everyone from the teacher to the newsreader was black.
By the release of X-Men’s 2000 live action adaptation I had lived in London for a few years and had come to understand that there, black was most definitely not the default. Aged 11, I didn’t have the language to describe the twisting feeling in the pit of my stomach knowing the Storm I grew up watching shared the same rich, dark tone as my mother but the Storm I saw in that film simply did not. As a child I couldn’t put my finger on what it was but I knew something in the key of Aunt Viv was wrong.
In an interview The Hollywood Reporter, X-Men screenwriter David Hayter explains “Angela Bassett was our first choice for Storm, but her agents wanted more money than we had at the time.” So despite my personal feelings, the casting of Halle Berry as our beloved Ororo Munroe was less a calculated act of colourism and misogynoir perpetuated by the wicked whites and more the result of the Hollywood machine doing what it does. Then in 2016 given the opportunity to reboot the universe, Bryan Singer again cast a light skin mixed race woman. Batten the hatches, allow me to guide you across the high seas of colourism and misogynoir.
The creators of the 2000 X-Men film were more concerned with the bankability of their stars than they were the complexion of one of its actresses. While Angela Bassett was unavailable, they chose to ignore the reality that the positing of a light skin, mixed race woman in a role specifically designed for a dark skin black woman. This sent a message that dark skin black women were not important. A concerted effort to cast Professor X, Jean Grey, Wolverine, Rogue, Sabertooth and Cyclops to accurately reflect the comic and cartoon told white men and white women they were important without saying a word. This same consideration wasn’t extended to Storm. The mere fact of Storm’s existence and inclusion should have been enough to pacify the darkies. Then here comes Alexandra Shipp.
After her turn in Lifetime’s disastrous biopic that butchered late singer Aaliyah’s memory and before the world was swept off to Wakanda, news broke that Shipp was the actress cast by Singer in the role of Storm in X-Men: Apocalypse. Fans were as quick as they were unkind with their criticism of Shipp. “Alexandra Shipp as Storm? Child she couldn’t even play Professor X’s wheelchair” reads one indictment of her casting. We can all agree (witty, yet cruel) comments like this questioning her talent are hard for any actress to withstand, let alone a 23 year old on the verge of the biggest break of her career. However, comments that skip the ruthless pettiness and speak directly to the issue at hand are harder to dismiss. In 2017 following the news Disney had acquired Fox, Shipp and a fan shared an excited exchange about the possibility of Storm and Thor teaming up. “Nope. Disney is re-casting the whole team, boo.” Replied a twitter user unconcerned with Shipp’s feelings. “Sorry. Dark Phoenix will be your last. We getting a dark skinned non-racially Ambiguous Storm like we deserve.” Immediately Shipp delivered her best Sofia. “My whole life I’ve had to defend my skin tone like its controllable, like I’ve ever been treated white. Sorry, your racism doesn’t work on me. I’m a strong black woman & no one will EVER be able to take that from me…” Whether she is genuinely as clueless as this tweet suggests or she does in fact understand colourism and chooses to be this ignorant, is anyone’s guess. However, what is clear as day is Shipp’s kneejerk assumption of the role of victim and her painting of those who criticise the thoughtlessness of her casting as villians, haters and “racists.”
I can hear some of you murmuring “What is colourism? These blacks sure enjoy being oppressed.” Colourism is defined as prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group. What the dictionary won’t tell you is that while men are also targets of colourism when you look at representations of black people on the silver screen, dark skin black women are quantifiably more affected by colourism than dark skin men. Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx and Forrest Whitaker are all actors who’ve won Best Actor Academy Awards. Halle Berry is the only black woman in the history of the Academy to walk away with a Best Actress award. Black men started winning Best Actor Oscars in 1963. Black women started winning Best Actress Oscars in 2001 and haven’t won one since.
I’m not here to debate Halle Berry or Alexandra Shipp’s blackness but to pretend that they do not have a proximity to whiteness because of their complexion is to deny the reality that black women exist in every hue on the spectrum. And because of the intersection between colourism and misogynoir (anti-black woman misogyny) being a light skin woman means societally you do not experience life the same way as dark skin black women. Point. Blank. Period.
These facts do not attempt deny that being mixed race and light skin come with their own specific challenges and trauma, they simply highlight that black women are not a monolith. We are all not the same and therefore in an age where access to information and education are always at your fingertips, it’s impossible to be patient with anyone who continues to defend lazy casting that excludes dark skin black women from one of the few roles literally made to cater to us.
“ I’m not wearing black face, I’m not putting on a prosthetic nose or lips, I’m not trying to kink my hair up so that I can have a fro, I have a fro.” Shipp threw shade at fellow light skinned troublemaker Zoe Saldana and defended her position during 2018 interview with Heroine Magazine. Her defensiveness coupled with her excitement to hear her own voice and read her own words mean she skips straight past the point and straight into the arms of colourism. She doesn’t listen or take the time to learn so conflates racism and colourism. Her insistence all the blacks get off her back cos she didn’t darken her skin or wear a protheses ignore the fact that what Zoe Saldana did with Nina Simone and what Shipp is doing with Storm are both wrong. Shipp must come to the realisation that as a light skin black woman she is occupying a space that should have been reserved for a dark skin black woman. The same way Professor X was reserved for a bald man or the way they waited ‘til Hugh Jackman was cooked all the way through for Wolverine.
“But why go after the actor?” Shipp asked when Black Twitter attempted to educate her about colourism. Being cast in a film is an agreement between the creators and the actor. Actors have a choice about which roles they accept. Let’s look towards Ed Skrein. The actor turned down a role in Hellboy. The character, Major Ben Daimo, was portrayed in the comics as being of mixed Asian heritage and Skrien recognised taking that role would mean participating in whitewashing and occupying a space created for an actor from that community. Skrein does not get a cookie for doing the right thing but in him we have an example of how to maintain your integrity in an industry that asks you to compromise it every day.
Earlier this week rumours surfaced If Beale Street Could Talk’s breakout star Kiki Layne was actively pursuing the role of Storm. Black Twitter rejoiced, me included. I’m so grateful for Black Panther. I finally got to see myself in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Angela Basset, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira and Letitia Wright’s performances. But I grew up watching Storm. It’s Storm I’ve wanted to see accurately portrayed on film. Next year makes 20 years since the release of the first live action film and it’s taken this long to even have viable options for who could play this role. Dark skin black women have to negotiate for our representation in ways other women of colour do not. That fight is made harder by light skin women like Alexandra Shipp who commit themselves to misunderstanding the role she plays in colourism and misogynoir. “Black twitter is so powerful. One second we’re trying to rally and define why our lives matter, the next we’re making each other feel like we’re not worthy of one. I’ll only spread and give love, no matter what tone my skin falls under. Bless up y’all ima go back to work x” Shipp tweeted when celebrations spread across the twittersphere.
“This conversation about Storm is so stupid, I’m out…. If I lose my job to another actress, I hope it’s for her talent and grace, not her skin [color].” Ship told Glamour Magazine And that’s the problem. Shipp can afford to see the debate as stupid because it doesn’t affect her.. Her refusal to engage on a critical level with the criticism she’s received because it’s stupid. Whether she likes it or not, she has had a hand in denying dark skin black girls and women the opportunity to see themselves in these films. Oh, and I understand the machinations of casting in the entertainment industry. It is literally my job but we must be able to hold two thoughts in our minds at the same time. Light skin, mixed raced little girls can look at the movies and see themselves in Zendaya, Amandla Stenberg, Zoe Saldana, Zoe Kravitz and of course, Alexanda Shipp. Light skin black women are touted as the acceptable, palatable face of black womanhood in part due to their proximity to whiteness. This proximity telegraphs to white people that these black women wont make them feel uncomfortable and they, unlike dark skin black women are safe. Without light skin black women in positions of privilege fighting against these societal ills and using their voices and their platforms to redress this inequality they risk perpetuating colourism and misogynoir. By continuing to feign ignorance and clothe herself in victimhood, Alexandra Shipp tells us her ego is more important than our lived experience. Whew chillay. It is exhausting repeating myself.
Click the heart below.
Follow me on Twitter.