What Tinashe gets right about sexism and wrong about colorism in controversial 'Guardian' interview

On Tuesday, R&B singer Tinashe did some damage control following comments she made about colorism to The Guardian. In the interview, which was published Monday, she discussed how sexism has hindered her from building on the momentum of her 2014 hit "2 On," saying, "If you’re a black singer, you’re either Beyoncé or Rihanna." The article also suggested that her biracial identity has impacted her career as well. "[Black people] don’t fully accept me," Tinashe said, "even though I see myself as a black woman." The remarks drew plenty of criticism on the internet, but Tinashe argued that the quote on colorism was taken out of context.

Even if they were, Tinashe does make strong points about about sexism and misogynoir — racialized misogyny — in the music industry. "As far as female producers or female engineers … when you’re in these studios, it’s all men," she explained to The Guardian. "It is so rare that they’d not even expect me to have an opinion."

The 24-year-old singer is completely right about this gender disparity. In 2015, the Chicago Tribune reported that women only make up 5% of sound engineers in the music industry. The Recording Academy even drew attention to the issue, with a 2016 Medium post titled "Where Are the Female Music Producers?" after no women were nominated for best producer in the nonclassical category that year. Only six women have been nominated since the award's introduction in 1974, and as of 2017, no woman has ever won.

Tinashe acknowledged in the interview that she receives support from fellow female artists — she's opened shows for Katy Perry, Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj, to name a few — but not really much from her male peers. "Male artists don’t really cosign female artists like that, and if they do it's always like, 'Are they fucking?' It's never, 'Oh, I really like her music'," she lamented.

And Tinashe's correct that the music industry perpetuates the problematic narrative that only one or two black female artists can hold the spotlight at a time. She elaborated on this, saying:

"Recently, my cousin was with a friend of a friend, who was in high school, and she was like: 'I'm a fan of Kehlani,' but in a way that was like, 'So I can't be a fan of Tinashe, too.' Then my friend posed the question, 'Why not be a fan of both?' It’s kind of like sport; people feel like they have to pick a side." 

This issue obviously doesn't just affect Tinashe, either. In May, Top Dawg Entertainment's R&B sensation SZA called out music outlet Revolt for "pitting black women against each other" on Twitter.

As Tinashe sees it, male artists in hip-hop do not face the same sort of sidelining. “There are hundreds of [male] rappers that all look the same, that sound the same, but if you’re a black woman, you’re either Beyoncé or Rihanna," she told The Guardian. "It's very, very strange."

And she's got a point there, as well. On Tuesday, hip-hop magazine XXL released its annual freshman-class cover. It's a yearly roundup that showcases the next batch of up-and-coming hip-hop stars. Of the 10 acts featured in the 2017 edition, there's only one female act: Oakland native Kamaiyah. In 2016, no women were featured. In 2015, two were given shine: Tink and Dej Loaf.

The radio isn't playing many women either. This week's Billboard Hot R&B/hip-hop singles chart features no women in its top 50 — except for Rihanna, who appears as a guest feature on Kendrick Lamar's "Loyalty."

So that's everything she got right in that interview. Her comments on colorism, though, even if they weren't only about her experiences within the music industry, were genuinely unnerving.

The singer, who has a Zimbabwean father and Danish mother, says she began feeling alienation from the "black community" as a student in school. Tinashe explained:

"There's colourism involved in the black community, which is very apparent," she says carefully. 'It's about trying to find a balance where I'm a mixed woman, and sometimes I feel like I don't fully fit into the black community; they don't fully accept me, even though I see myself as a black woman. That disconnect is confusing sometimes.' A shrug. "I am what I am."

Now, Tinashe's feelings on her identity are real and should not be dismissed. But it's important to understand that what she experienced is not colorism. Colorism — like racism, sexism and homophobia — is a systemic issue that oppresses those who are darker-skinned and gives privilege to those who are lighter-skinned.

A person's skin color can mean more resources, power and access for some and less for others, even if they're of the same race. This structural bias manifests in many forms: how one's intelligence is viewed in job interviews, how likely it is a girl may be suspended from school or how the complexions of darker-skinned celebrities are lightened on mainstream magazine covers.

What Tinashe is describing is the common friction and division that occurs within the black community as a result of colorism. Because lighter-skin people have privilege, some darker-skinned people resent them for it. This can turn into teasing, bullying, alienation or violence toward lighter-skinned people. Writer Diamond Durant, a light-skinned black woman, wrote about this issue for the Huffington Post in 2016:

The girls I went to school with growing up didn't like me. I never blamed them though. It wasn’t their fault rather what they were taught, maybe by their parents and then from their grandparents and then their grandparent[s'] parents. They were programmed to believe that my black was beautiful and their's wasn't.

In her talk with The Guardian, Tinashe recalled facing similar situations when she was growing up, saying that her biracial background was "another example of why I was different." But as traumatic as feeling that way can be, it doesn't excuse her for making a generalization that the black community does not accept her.

At the very least, these comments have highlighted two issues that deserve more attention and action. Sexism in the music industry is a problem that many other female artists have spoken out about before, but changes aren't being made quickly enough. And we need to have more honest conversations about the history of privilege for lighter-skinned and mixed-raced people in America, especially since the population is expected to become significantly more mixed race by 2050. These are topics that merit serious thought and discussion and shouldn't fall by the wayside once Tinashe's name stops trending.

Mic has ongoing Tinashe coverage. Please follow our main Tinashe hub here.