Suns shed light on facing colorism in basketball culture, Black community
Devin Booker recently admitted something that's motivated him throughout his eight-year career with the Suns.
It's regarding the shade of his complexion.
After the Phoenix beat Minnesota on Nov. 9, the All-Star guard and face of the Suns' franchise was asked about how he aggressively sets the tone for his team in every game.
“I try to, man, I try to. You know, I had a light-skinned reputation coming into the league, so I had to change that. So I just do everything aggressive," Booker said. "I try not to lose sight of it. I try not to be the NBA too-cool guy. I’m not scared to get dirty.”
On another occasion, during the trophy ceremony after the Suns won the 2021 Western Conference title, All-Star guard Chris Paul told ESPN's Rachel Nichols and the fans in the Footprint Center the big reason he wanted to join the Suns at the beginning of that season "was the light-skinned God right here, No. 1, Devin Booker."
Obviously, Paul was paying a major compliment to Booker, whose mother is half-Mexican and half-Puerto Rican and whose immediate family hails from the mostly white-populated Grand Rapids, Michigan. Booker's father is former NBA player Melvin Booker, who's African-American and coached his son at his alma mater Moss Point High School in Mississippi, a town that has 75% Black residents.
But the comments by both NBA stars touched on an issue embedded skin-deep in basketball and the African-American community for generations: colorism, defined as prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a darker skin tone, usually among people of the same ethnic or racial group.
In basketball, lighter-skinned basketball players can face stereotypes that stem from that cultural history, such as being too soft or not as aggressive on the court. In the NBA, a league where the majority of players are Black, references to the issue aren't uncommon even among teammates that love and respect one another's game.
The Suns have four biracial players on their 15-man roster: Booker, Cam Johnson, Landry Shamet and Duane Washington Jr. Shamet, Washington Jr. and Suns coach Monty Williams, who is light-skinned and fully Black, each told The Republic they've been subjected to colorism and used their basketball talent to get past it.
That's not surprising to Grand Valley State professor Lou Moore, who authored the recently published book "We Will Win The Day: The Civil Right Movement, the Black Athlete, and the Quest for Equality." He told The Republic the topic of colorism discounting light-skinned pro athletes was amplified in part by the rise of the Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson-led Golden State Warriors' winning four NBA titles over the past eight seasons.
Curry, known for his excellent ball-handling skills and shooting touch, is fair-skinned; his parents are both African-American. His father is former NBA player Dell Curry. Thompson has a white mother and his father is retired NBA player Mychal Thompson, who's Black and from the Bahamas.
“It’s not really until the rise of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson and those Warriors teams, that it becomes a topic within sports," Moore said. "It wasn’t a topic when Joe Louis was the heavyweight champion of the world and the baddest man on the planet. Nobody was mocking him for being light-skinned, and my guess is he’d be considered light-skinned then. Publicly, he’s The Brown Bomber, he’s not ‘The Black Bomber.’ No one’s bringing that up for any other guys until this new generation.”
Origins of the 'colortocracy'
Arizona State's Global Sport Institute director Scott Brooks explained to The Republic how colortocracy has its roots in slavery in America. Fair-skinned slaves were largely allowed to work and live within the plantation house with their slave masters, whereas dark-skinned ones were kept outside to work tirelessly in the field, he said.
“With a colortocracy as we have in our country, there’s research that shows lighter-skinned folks of color get paid higher wages than darker-skinned folks of color. Phenotypic discrimination is what it’s called,” Brooks said. “This thing is more than abstract. It’s a reality. Even if you’re going back to field negros and house negros, the colortocracy goes back to that.”
That created stereotypes about light-skinned Black people as “bourgie” (short for "bourgeoisie" class status), more educated, emotionally hypersensitive, “acting high yellow” or “too cool,” as Booker said, as he looks to eschew those stereotypes and generalizations by saying he's “not scared to get dirty."
Brooks believes that colorism between light- and dark-skinned African-Americans began to shift in the African American community after the "Loving vs. Virginia" case and the rise of the Black Power movement in the 1960s.
“What started to happen is when the Jim Crow color line got more and more solid, then you had folks and you get into a Black Power movement where there’s this push for everything to be more and more African in terms of culture," Brooks said.
"Now, you have lighter-skinned folks who feel more pressure. How do I show that I’m down? And those struggles, whether you show a (renowned activist and educator) Angela Davis, (late Black Panther Party co-founder) Huey P. Newton, or Malcolm X, in some ways there’s an overcompensation. That’s the chip on the shoulder that I’ve gotta prove my Blackness.”
The groundbreaking 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case of Loving vs. Virginia eliminated the ban on interracial marriage and anti-miscegenation laws across 16 states, mainly in the Jim Crow-segregated South.
Colorism and the NBA
The NBA has the highest percentage of African-American players among the country’s four major men's sports leagues (along with the NFL, MLB and NHL). In 2010, that number was 76.9%, with 0.9% among players who are of two or more races, or ironically marked as “other” for the multiracial category, according to Statista. This year, the latter figure has risen to 8%, and the percentage of African-Americans in the NBA has dropped to 71.8%.
Williams said he used to hear colorist jokes among his Black peers during his days as a player.
“They were just kind of immature and at the time kind of funny, and then when you thought about it you’re like, ‘That wasn’t that funny.’ It’s just locker room talk," Williams said. "I never heard a discussion that dove into the depth of it all. We just kind of put labels on people based on things that no one can control.”
Williams realized later in life that colorism was against the unification of Black people of all shades.
“I’ve always felt that it was a weird way to continue to divide, and it always made me feel not inferior, but it just made me unbelievably confused," Williams said.
"I’ve dealt with it or heard about it because as an African-American we’re already dealing with certain issues based on our color, inequality, systematic racism, whatever the case may be. And then you have this other level of division within your race and it was really confusing me when I was a young kid. It wasn’t until I got older and realized that it was just that. It was just a way to divide and separate.”
In 2016, Jordan Clarkson had a posterizing dunk on former Suns center Alex Len. Clarkson, who's half-Filipino and half-Black, explained to the media that he was inspired by his then-Lakers teammate Kobe Bryant who verbally gave him shade for being too soft on his previous drives in the lane.
"All I remember was Kob' telling me that I've been going to the hole like a light-skinned dude, so I gotta start going like a dark-skinned," Clarkson said.
It didn't matter that darker-skinned Bryant was the son of a former NBA player, and spent much of his privileged childhood in Italy before he spent his high school years in Philadelphia. His stature and leadership on the team gave him the license to pan Clarkson about his lack of aggression in penetration galvanized him to heed his advice.
Being black enough on the court
Booker's teammate and fellow Grand Rapids native Duane Washington Jr, whose African-American father played in the NBA, and who has a white mother, said he initially faced it when he played in the AAU circuit as a kid.
"People look at you and they think that you can’t guard or look at you and think you’re soft," he said. "We just put our hard hats on and prove everybody wrong that we’re not one of them. Not a pigeon, you’re not the dude that they’re just gonna go at you and score on you all the time. …
“We’ve been going at this our whole life. Dudes think you’re light-skinned, you can shoot and that’s all you can do.”
Shamet, who was raised by his white mother and her extended family, said that he experienced a racial identity crisis during his childhood wondering where he fit in. But growing up in Kansas City and playing basketball against other Black kids gave him a sense of belonging.
“I think almost there’s a part of it that you can only be you. I think that’s something I’ve settled into," Shamet said. "Who I am is just who I am. …
"In terms of basketball, that did use to drive me a lot and that's kind of why I ended up here in this situation or whatever. I don’t think I would be here if I didn’t have that extra drive or wasn’t around the group of people who I was around.”
Williams grew up in “colonial Virginia” and dealt with racism in his hometown area.
He moved during his formative years to Maryland’s heavily populated Black enclave Prince George's County and spent extensive time playing basketball and football in the “Chocolate City” Washington D.C.
“I wasn’t dark enough, people would call you things, and it was confusing because I came from one level of racism in Virginia, and then I moved to PG County right outside of D.C. and you’re dealing with this confusion within my own race," Williams said.
He added that schism made him more confident in himself as a person, not his skin tone.
“I never tried to prove myself. I think once I started playing basketball, it’s amazing how once you start excelling at something it erases all of that. You don’t deal with it. But if you’re not good at something and that’s a part of your equation, people can diminish who you are. Once I started getting better at basketball nobody ever talked about it because they were like, ‘Dude can hoop.’” (laughs)