Mimesis, Performance and Colorism

Mimesis “comes from the Greek verb mimeisthai, «to mimic», and in effect designates the imitation of reality, that is, the recurring mechanism according to which artistic fiction has been structured for more than two millennia,” explain Mireille Losco and Catherine Naugrette. In my opinion, in addition to artistic fiction, reality itself has always been anchored in this mechanism. 

The Brazilian theorist and essayist Edélcio Mostaço, for example, notes that human beings spend their entire lives doing things like fishing, reading, planting, or performing roles such as being a mother, student, or president, without having the real idea of that all of this is linked to the concept of performance. 

“The current notion, although derived from an old English verb, has gone unnoticed as such for most of the time, probably due to the almost naturalness it instills: doing or performing are habits so ingrained in everyday life that we hardly realize how we carry out, according to which perspectives, and following which models”, adds Mostaço. 

Bridgerton, da Netflix Bridgerton, da Netflix

In other words, we are so used to do things that we no longer notice the processes that takes us to do it. However, those who practice present parenting, for example, tend to be reminded of this more frequently. It’s common to notice that children have a tendency of copying adult’s behavior, as a way of creating their own processes. 

In fact, when children are young, it’s us, adults, who encourage this imitation, as a way of passing on knowledge. We sit them as we sit, we talk to them even if they don’t understand and, when they start consuming solids instead of liquids, we exaggerate the sounds and gestures while pretending (mimesis) that we are eating, so that they can repeat the gesture in smaller size. 

When interacting with my daughter, it’s common for moments of mental abstraction to occur, when I question some response or behavior. Most of the time I concluded that she is emulating some response or behavior that she has seen in the adults around her. 

Human beings learn naturally through examples that they observe and later imitate. Every example, the good and the bad. As Nelson Mandela said, “no one is born to hate another person because of the color of their skin, or their past, or their religion. People learn to hate.” 

This is how I understand the issue of colorism, as a behavior learned from racism and also implemented in and by non-Caucasian communities, a direct legacy of colonialism. An ideology that starts from the false premise that there is a superior race and that the closer you are to that race, the better it will be for the person. 

Researcher Alessandra Devulsky defines colorism as “the articulated arm, the technological arm of racism and, like racism, it has nuances in the way it develops, according to the society, the culture to which it adheres, in which it is constructed.” 


“So, colorism is, basically, a concept, a category, a practice, but above all an ideology in which we hierarchize Black people according to the phenotype they have close to or distant from Africanness, close to or distant from Europeanness,” she, who is also a lawyer, adds. 

According to researchers Clara Maiana Neves da Conceição, Perla de Souza Leite, Raira Vieira da Cruz and Caroline Ramos do Carmo, “The term colorism was used for the first time by the American writer Alice Walker (1983) in the essay “If the Present Looks Like the Past, What Does the Future Look Like?”, which was published in the book “In Search of Our Mothers’ Garden” in 1983”. 

The researchers explain that “the author addresses aspects that touch the daily lives of Black women, including the traits that affirm them as more or less black in some realities, such as the United States, but which can be applied in the Brazilian reality,” in Portuguese, in Angola, Cabo Verde and São Tomé. 

Societies that knew the colonization process up close, either enjoying it or suffering from it, deeply internalized the precepts of racism and, when it was not possible to apply it fully, ended up finding ways to reproduce it in other circumstances. 

The miscegenation process, which began violently, with colonizers raping enslaved people, ended up adding more variety to the already vast range of Black skin tones. And the colonizer saw this as yet another opportunity to “divide and rule.” 

Further deepening tensions that already existed between people who had often been enemies and who were now forced to live as compatriots in territories forced upon them by external forces. The colonizers began to give better treatment to those who were “assimilated” and, even better, those who were lighter and had “fine” features. 

And so, in a process of mimesis in relation to the concepts that reward the ideology of racism, the ideology of colorism emerges in which, the lighter and with finer features the Black person is the more easily they ascend socially. They never reach the place of a white person, we should emphasize, but they have more mobility in the social scale. 

Of course, this accentuated rivalries and also led to the other extreme of colorism, which is considering lighter people to be less black than darker people. A noticeably clear reality in colonial times, colorism has survived time and its changes and remains alive to this day. 

Bridgerton from Netflix.

For years I have been witnessing cases, on the African, the European and on the American continents, of children being forbiden to and adults refraining from sunbathing to “not get too dark.” The objective is to distance themselves as much as possible from the darker color and remain as close as possible to the lighter color. 

In Luanda, for example, it was common to see colorism in action at the entrance to clubs and major events. White people came in wearing flip-flops if they wanted, mixed-race people also had it easy, although it would have been better to be dressed a little better. Black people with darker skin had to wait in line for a long time, even if they were wearing a suit and a tie. 

There was a time when the expression “mulata lives” was used to refer to a more sumptuous lifestyle, in a clear reference to the preference that mixed race people had over darker people, within the colonial system and which ended up being seen in greater power purchasing. 

In dramaturgy, this colorism is seen in the way in which Black characters with more positive highlights are always played by actors and actresses with lighter skin, and those with more negative highlights almost always have dark skin. If they have a place at all. 

Even projects that aim to be more inclusive and give more prominence to Black characters seem to suffer from this problem. Launched at the end of 2020, the Netflix series Bridgerton was presented as an inclusive project, which featured a cast with a strong presence of Black actors and actresses and featured a Black actor in the role of the heartthrob. 

For those who had grand expectations after watching Black Panther, a large-scale film with a mostly Black cast, the series was, in some ways, a disappointment. 

Bridgerton is a splendid example of what colorism is and how it can be replicated by people affected by racism. 

Despite being produced by Shondaland, a company owned by a Black woman, the project seems to have been unable to escape the need to cast Black actors with lighter skin and features closer to Europeans, for the prominent roles reserved for Black people, and darker for the viler roles. And so, stereotypes were reinforced again, colorism reproducing and imitating the concepts and precepts of racism that the lighter the better. 

Translation:  Mariana Borges

by Aoaní d'Alva
A ler | 10 May 2024 | Colorism, Mimesis, performance