I didn’t watch “Empire” much when it first came out. I had read about co-creator Lee Daniels and the cultural dysfunction that clings to his work. It seems that typically the black women of his work are stereotyped into poverty, subservience, abrasiveness, or hypersexuality, with an additional amount of internalized misogyny. On “Empire,” the poverty is now excessive materialism. However, Taraji P. Henson’s performance manages to save her character Cookie from being a comfortable stereotype. Sometimes, all it takes is a single character to save a show, and Cookie is that character for me. “Empire” is basically The Taraji Show. The humanity that she pours into Cookie’s character won me over. Otherwise, the show is a bit trashy and flashy, but serves up memorable music. It’s entertaining and soapy like most good nighttime dramas should be. But that does not change the fact that as it keeps rising to the top of TV ratings, the skin-color dynamics continue to contribute to the psychological damage of many people of color.
With old school, brutal racism (not the “microaggression” kind) allowing consequence-free murders to plague this country, it may seem petty to be concerned about colorism. But all the excitement and success that surrounds “Empire” cannot erase the reality that it’s a glossy showcase for internalized racism. Just look at the publicity photos of the lead characters, all flashing lightly tawny skin. After Emancipation, a hierarchy of light-skinned black people developed into community leaders with access to jobs and education that were closed to darker-skinned black people. At black colleges, the paper bag test—wherein only African-Americans with skin lighter than a brown paper bag were admitted—further established the separation between skin tones. This separation between lighter and darker skin tones continues today. People of color that can “pass” as white are given more advantages over darker-skinned black people. Being lighter is still considered to be better, which is why darker-skinned celebrities typically are white washed in photo shoots. “Empire” has been called out for playing into this stereotype with a cast that features only lighter-skinned people in the significant, powerful roles and relegating dark-skinned people to subservient, minor roles.
Skin color dynamics continue today, not just on-screen and in ads, but in everyday life. These vicious practices of internalized hatred, created over a century of exclusion, have bred low self-esteem and resentment. Research shows that dark-skinned black people suffer more discrimination when it comes to opportunities for income, jobs, housing, education, and marriage. And “Empire” reinforces the ugly system with roles that don’t reflect a diversity of colors and experiences. The show highlights the privileges of light skin and devalues darker skin. I’m not suggesting that a campy TV show like “Empire” is responsible for the white supremacy that spawned centuries of racism and colorism. But as a show filled with African-American directors, writers, and actors, it has the power to re-shape the color narrative. Just as Lee Daniels tackles homophobia on “Empire” and boldly shows Jussie Smollet’s character Jamal as a thoughtful, multidimensional African-American man in loving gay relationships (a rare reflection on any screen) he has the power to slam colorism.