Mathew Knowles is known mostly as our Queen Beyoncé’s Rogue Relative. When no one in Beyoncé’s camp is talking, Mathew talks. Mathew f-cks with Beyonce’s master plans and announces things before they should be announced. He’s also a philanderer who had secret love children while he was married. Mathew Knowles is messy. So, last week when Lainey sent me an Ebony article where Mathew Knowles admits that he only started dating the Queen Mother, Tina Knowles Lawson, because he thought she was white, I groaned out loud.
Mathew cites his “deeply ingrained colorism” as the reason for wanting to date a white woman when he met Tina. This, surprisingly, is not why I groaned. Colorism is an important issue that I have written about extensively (revisit my pieces here and here) and I think it needs to be talked about openly in pop culture a lot more. I’m just annoyed that the person sparking this conversation right now is Mathew Knowles, the man who calls out Beyoncé’s supposed “Jedi mind tricks” and yet still uses her name to stay relevant every chance he gets. While Mathew does bring up extremely valid points about light-skinned privilege and the music industry and does so by calling out his own biases, he also – because he’s Mathew Knowles— makes some of those points clumsily. Also, you know Miss Tina is somewhere like, “Wait—WHAT? Mathew’s gone rogue again!”
I’m going to try to put aside Mathew’s messy ass past for a second and delve into his comments on colorism to Ebony. If you’re wondering why Mathew Knowles was being interviewed by Ebony in the first place, he’s promoting a book called Racism From The Eyes of A Child. The fact that Beyoncé’s father wrote a book on racism may not come as a surprise to anyone who has heard Solange’s album A Seat At The Table. Mathew’s interlude called Dad Was Mad is a rumination on his years growing up in the south during the civil rights movement. He got spit on by the KKK as a kid. He faced outright discrimination from racist white people but he also, as he tells Ebony, dealt with growing up in an environment which fostered self-hatred.
“When I was growing up, my mother used to say, “Don’t ever bring no nappy-head Black girl to my house.” In the deep South in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, the shade of your Blackness was considered important. So I, unfortunately, grew up hearing that message.”
Mathew goes on to describe the “brown paper bag test” at Fisk, a historically black college. Basically, if your skin was darker than a brown paper bag, you wouldn’t get in. This anecdote also alludes to the fact that colorism largely affects black women more than men, considering Mathew Knowles got into Fisk with skin darker than a paper bag and that Mathew felt light-skinned women and/or white women were superior when he wouldn’t even fall into society’s definition of “light-skinned” himself. How often do you see dark-skinned black men with significantly lighter love interests on screen? Or in music videos? Black men can be as dark as Morris Chestnut or Taye Diggs and be sex symbols while their on (and off) screen counterparts have to be the Nia Longs or Sanaa Lathans of the world. Of course, dark-skinned black men face their own heap of stereotypes and prejudices but colorism, especially in the entertainment industry, seems to be targeted more pointedly at black women. According to Mathew, the disparity stems from “eroticized rage.”
“I had been conditioned from childhood. With eroticized rage, there was actual rage in me as a Black man, and I saw the White female as a way, subconsciously, of getting even or getting back. There are a lot of Black men of my era that are not aware of this thing.”
That sounds like some self-hating f-cked up bullsh-t and it definitely is but Mathew is not wrong about black men of his era. The correlation between white women and success is not new. I wrote about it when Jesse Williams allegedly divorced Aryn Drake-Lee for Minka Kelly. The Daily Beast made the parallel between Mathew Knowles’ story and some of Quincy Jones’ comments in that GQ feature we keep yelling at you to read. This is what Quincy Jones told GQ:
“The interracial thing was part of a revolution, too. Because back in the ’40s and stuff, they would say, ‘You can’t mess with a white man’s money.… Don’t mess with his women.’ We weren’t going to take that sh-t. Charlie Parker, everybody there, was married to a white wife.”
Marrying white or “light” was way to get back at The Man. Oh, but that was the 60s and 70s, right? It would be easy to write off Mathew Knowles and Quincy Jones as out-of-touch old men. But, as Stereo Williams for The Daily Beast points out, colorism, “never fully went away. How could it? It had been beaten into the black subconscious since slavery that black was ugly and unlovable.”
Ugly and unlovable. That sh-t does get ingrained. It makes you try to straighten and pinch and conform to the acceptable kind of black. I dealt with this kind of entrenched self-doubt my whole childhood – I’m sure I’m still dealing with it. It’s hard to explain so I’ll defer to Ta-Nehesi Coates, as I do often, who summed up internalized colorism so well in his seminal essay, “Nina Simone’s Face.”
Did we want to be white? I don’t think so… What we wanted was to be on the right end of the paper bag tests. We wanted hazel eyes. We wanted wavy hair.
I produced the segment with Sharon Lewis on The Social yesterday that Lainey mentioned in today’s open. She’s a Canadian director who has directed over 100 hours of television. Her new film, Brown Girl Begins, is a sci-fi coming of age story starring a young Caribbean woman. Sharon made a point to cast a dark-skinned black actress in the lead because she says there are inherent biases that happen in casting rooms all the time. Sharon says casting directors tend to gravitate to the hazel eyes and wavy hair – sometimes even unconsciously. If we think times are changing because Issa Rae, Danai Gurira and Lupita Nyong’o exist, the “voices for a new generation,” as Stereo Williams puts it, are Zendaya, Yara Shihidi, and Amandla Stenberg. I’ll add Zoe Kravitz, Tessa Thompson and Gugu Mbatha-Raw to that list. I love all of these actresses but it can’t go overlooked that they fit a mold of blackness that is palatable, a standard of beauty that is closest to whiteness. It can’t get overlooked that they contribute to a culture that tells certain black women, over and over, that they aren’t worthy or beautiful.
Which brings me to Beyoncé. Mathew’s comments about Beyoncé have people fired up. This is, verbatim, what Mathew says to Ebony:
Mathew: When it comes to Black females, who are the people who get their music played on pop radio? Mariah Carey, Rihanna, the female rapper Nicki Minaj, my kids [Beyoncé and Solange], and what do they all have in common?
Interviewer: They’re all lighter skinned.
Mathew: Do you think that’s an accident?
Interviewer: Of course not!
Mathew: So you get it!
From there, the headlines have turned into BEYONCÉS DAD SAYS SHE WOULDN’T BE FAMOUS WITH DARKER SKIN. Is that really what Mathew says here though? Sure, he could have put it more eloquently and I hate to defend him but he’s making a simple commentary on a very real pattern in the music industry. All of those artists (again, all black women) ARE light-skinned. Is it a coincidence? No. Does that fact belittle Beyoncé’s importance or talent? In my opinion, no. Maybe Destiny’s Child was initially embraced because they had a lead singer with lighter skin but she became BEYONCÉ, QUEEN OF EVERYTHING, ARTIST OF OUR GENERATION, because of her hard work and talent. Light skin won’t give you longevity. Just ask Maya (no disrespect to Maya).
We often write about the lack of representation in film and TV but the music industry is far from perfect. Calling out privileges, even the confusing and uncomfortable advantages that exist within marginalized communities, doesn’t have to negate the contributions of the people with those opportunities. What we should be doing – instead of debating about Beyoncé in an alternate reality—is putting pressure on systems and industries that uphold the oppression of dark-skinned black people to do better.
Colorism is repulsive, frustrating and downright unfair but pretending it doesn’t exist isn’t going to make it go away. I’ve been trying to pretend Mathew Knowles doesn’t exist and here he is.