The Color Line
Stephen Curry’s prominence resurfaces issues of colorism among blacks
NOTE: This is the first of two consecutive commentaries by Michael Eric Dyson on Stephen Curry, his family and their influences on questions of race, color, family and faith.
It was a brisk May night in Oakland, California, when the Golden State Warriors vanquished the Portland Trailblazers to snag a second consecutive berth in the 2016 Western Conference finals.
Before the game, reigning MVP Stephen Curry once again hoisted the Maurice Podoloff Trophy recognizing him as the league’s most-heralded player. As the glee gently took hold in the locker room and spilled into the hallway outside, I spoke to Curry and most of his family — his father, the 16-year NBA veteran Dell, his enchanting mother Sonya, his brother and current NBA player Seth, and his resourceful wife Ayesha. I discussed with them a wide range of issues — faith, fatherhood, feminism, and family values — seeking to gauge how they affect Curry and his loved ones.
Now that the Warriors are entering the NBA Finals to play the Cleveland Cavaliers, Curry’s profile as the league’s best player will be further elevated.
But there is a vexing issue I didn’t raise with Curry and his family — an issue that his celebrity has shined new light on: the difference one’s visibility makes to the race, and to the larger world, if one is light-skinned or dark-skinned.
The politics of shade have shadowed black folk from the time we set foot in North America. Curry’s fame has upped the ante: Suspicion surrounds him because of his light skin, and because he’s been lauded by both the NBA and media establishments. The subliminal message has become explicit: Curry is a brother we may not be able to embrace because the powers that be embrace him too. Curry is not the first black man who makes some black folk uneasy because America loves him as much as we do, but he may be the most popular contemporary figure evoking that dilemma. And Curry’s color is at the heart of that dilemma.
There’s little question that Curry’s skin has inflamed a racial wound that may be invisible to folk outside the culture: the plague of colorism, or skin tone, that has yet to be conquered. Curry’s light skin and its relation to — some would argue the crucial reason for — his broad cultural appeal has not gone unnoticed.
“James Harden doesn’t stand a chance to win the MVP,” a college professor on the West Coast proclaimed in his class when I visited his school in 2015, referring to Curry’s closest competitor for the award. “He’s too dark and ‘too black.’ ”
It should be noted that not all the mentions of Curry’s light skin are as dramatic or negative. Curry appeared on a panel with Harden of the Houston Rockets, Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans and Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2014 to promote the release of the NBA2K video game, where Durant recalled first meeting Curry when they were both 10 years old while playing on the AAU circuit.
“I thought he was white,” Durant said. “He was this yellow kid, right? I’m just being real now, right? Where I come from, in the hood, we don’t see that. We don’t see the light-skinned guys around. It was all guys like me.” As the darker-skinned Durant told the story, Curry was engulfed in guffaws as he rested his left hand on Harden’s back, who was bent over in laughter. There was clearly no offense meant or taken.
Still, there is a premise or two suppressed in the logic of Durant’s remarks. First, “ ‘hood” and “dark” imply an inverse relation to “light” and “suburban,” or somewhere that is definitely not the ghetto. Class distinctions abound in Durant’s observations.
“I thought he was white,” Durant said. “He was this yellow kid, right? I’m just being real now, right? Where I come from, in the hood, we don’t see that. We don’t see the light-skinned guys around. It was all guys like me.”
Second, “ ‘hood” in the coded speech of black identity means “real.” Durant channels what passes for common sense among many blacks: that a “real” black may be the darker one, and the lighter black is suspect and inauthentic because his or her skin reflects symbolic, if not literal, ties to the white world. There would be no light skin if there weren’t white skin in the game — either through the raping of black women on slave plantations, or in less-volatile relations between black men and white women.
The retired Philadelphia 76ers superstar Allen Iverson recently took to the airwaves to laud Curry. “That light-skinned dude,” Iverson said in praising Curry’s skills as the radio host laughed. “I never seen anything like this in my life. I was a certified serial killer. But this dude has it all.” Iverson, like Durant, was clearly displaying affection for Curry. Still, the comments of both stars reveal a third suppressed premise of race: that light-skinned players have different — read lesser — athletic ability, the reason in part that Durant and Iverson were both surprised by Curry’s skills.
Earlier this year, Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant admonished his lighter-skinned teammate Jordan Clarkson for driving to the basket like a “light-skinned dude,” presumably soft and hesitantly, leading Clarkson to comment that “I’ve got to start doing it like a dark-skinned [dude]” — presumably hard and authoritatively.
The retired Philadelphia 76ers superstar Allen Iverson recently took to the airwaves to laud Curry. “That light-skinned dude,” Iverson said in praising Curry’s skills as the radio host laughed. “I never seen anything like this in my life. I was a certified serial killer. But this dude has it all.”
The hidden injuries of race come into view beneath the banter of athletes. Many blacks beyond the sports arena are far less playful about the matter of skin tone.
“I would like to think that Steph Curry’s apparent marketability has nothing to do with it, but if I made that false assumption, that would be as silly as me thinking that Beyoncé is the top woman in music because she actually sings better than Jill Scott or Jennifer Hudson,” TayJordan wrote on the website theBlackJuice.com. “I mean who cannot notice the media’s clear favorability to Stephen Curry? He’s of fair complexion … and his eyes are a pretty cool color, too.”
Stereotypes about color harm blacks in hidden ways
Iverson and Durant’s comments, as well as those on the Internet, nod to a pecking order where lighter-skinned blacks were perched atop the racial hierarchy of rewards. “Light, bright and damned near white” is an expression that captures the superior social appeal of fair-skinned blacks, who were believed to be biologically and culturally closer to white culture. Lighter-skinned blacks were deemed to be smarter and more culturally refined; darker blacks were believed to be dumber and cruder.
Blacks have often internalized in our minds and cultures the vicious stereotypes associated with skin color. We have often circulated harmful beliefs about ourselves that are tied to skin tone: deferring to some blacks because their skin is lighter, demonizing other blacks because their shade is darker.
I remember several years ago speaking at a higher education conference where I was praised by a black attendee for being much lighter in person than I appeared on television. I argued in a CNN documentary on black America that I thought my imprisoned brother Everett, equally as bright as me, but darker-skinned, wasn’t nearly as encouraged in his studies as I was. And I witnessed firsthand how whites, and many blacks, too, disparaged my blue-black father, Everett Sr., for no other reason than his dark skin.
Intraracial politics of color can have an opposite, if not equally punishing, effect. The resentment by darker blacks of the perceived and quite real advantages accorded to lighter blacks has sometimes led to a wholesale repudiation of all fairer-skinned blacks. There is, however, a big difference between asking for racial transparency in light privilege, and the unvarying treatment of fairer-skinned blacks as automatically guilty of exploiting their status.
But let’s be honest: Often, one needs to do no more than be light-skinned to reap the rewards of light privilege in a culture that remains profoundly color-struck. Yet there are many lighter blacks who have sought to unmask the privileges that come their way and to discourage a society built on a pervasive color hierarchy.
Then too, the unconscious correlation of skin tone with mental or physical ability is a bugaboo that cuts both ways. Curry is assumed to be white, or to “play white,” because he lacks commanding physical presence, because he’s more finesse than forceful, and because he’s a towering shooter, a trait some more readily associated with white players such as Atlanta Hawks forward Kyle Korver and Curry’s coach Steve Kerr, than free agent Ray Allen, retired Indiana Pacer Reggie Miller or Curry’s father Dell. Such anecdotal observations about Curry’s nonblack style of play are easily challenged with the argument that Curry’s “handles” are uber-black — as in Curly Neal, Harlem Globetrotter black. There’s no shame, but plenty of “ghetto,” in his game.
There is also a worrisome, knee-jerk reaction to the skin tone issue, a reaction, however, that is certainly not equal to the unconscious preference for lightness-as-whiteness but which roils beneath the surface and occasionally flares. It is the belief that all lighter blacks are willingly and consciously complicit in the color hierarchy that offers undeniable rewards to fair-skinned blacks.
Often, without proof, lighter blacks are indicted for the sin that their skin suggests they’ve committed — the sin of collusion with white society to derive advantage from their elevated status. In such a view, their choices are narrowed to either eagerly embracing light privilege, or disdaining light skin as the mark of racial heresy — a sign of the denial of authentic blackness at the level of the epidermis.
This troubled logic leads us to conclude, for instance, that Beyoncé must want to be white because of the acclaim she wins for her talents — a belief fueled by rumors that her magazine covers are getting lighter and lighter over the years. Given Scandal actress Kerry Washington’s recent complaint about being photo-edited on the cover of Adweek, and the brouhaha over Serena Williams’ photo-edited image in People magazine, darker-skinned female celebrities are prey to the cultural desire to lighten their skin or reshape their bodies.
The recent case of rapper Lil Kim dramatically lightening her skin — and the retired Dominican baseball star Sammy Sosa doing so before her — reminds us of the perils of self-hate in its most common expression among blacks: finding a way to lighten one’s skin, and therefore, lighten one’s load as a human being “damned” to darkness.
Light or dark, Black Skin Matters
There are surely welcome cracks in the edifice of light privilege alongside the demand for a more complicated and nuanced understanding of race and shade.
Beyoncé has emerged as a prominent feminist and a strong advocate for black pride and political freedom — much like other lighter-skinned celebrities of the past, including actress Lena Horne and singer Harry Belafonte. And light-skinned leaders such as New York politician Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Muslim leader Malcolm X in the past, and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and former NAACP president Benjamin Jealous in our day, have not only fought racial injustice, but have provoked reflection on how black folk have been, and too often remain, color-struck.
This recognition doesn’t deny the legitimacy of light-skinned privilege and the need to combat its dangerous premises — and the benefits and advantages it offers to those of us who are lighter. But it also suggests caution in ascribing to lighter blacks complicity with a color regime that in different and unequal fashion has harmed all blacks.
Of course, the reason that such quarrels over the politics of black skin matter is because Curry is arguably the most uniquely gifted and widely celebrated player in the league today. It will undoubtedly not help him win a single game, but he must be credited with perhaps his biggest assist: getting under our skin and forcing us to openly and honestly address an ancient injury to our black psyches. When it comes to blackness, Curry may be light-skinned, but he’s no lightweight.