Colorism is a divisive subject across the Black community and communities of color at large. Despite how racism impacts BIPOC folks on systemic levels, it’s almost as if many of us are willfully unable to grasp how intra-racial (or internalized) racism has manifested within us. This has played out in the ways we consume popular culture — our culture — across differing mediums.

On the current season of Love and Hip Hop Atlanta, franchise favorite Erica Mena riled up the cast when calling Caribbean phenom Spice a “monkey” during their heated verbal altercation. Adding more insult to injury, Mena continued to make monkey noises as the two were being separated by producers and security. The incident invoked many sentiments about Mena freely using anti-Black rhetoric and resorting to slurs in the midst of her anger. For those unaware, directing the word “monkey” or “porch monkey” at a Black person is derogatory phrase with historical connotations dating back to the 18th century. 

Although the argument took place during filming months ago, many shifted outrage toward MTV for choosing to air the triggering footage anyway. In the time since the episode aired, Love and Hip Hop Atlanta hosted a roundtable discussion to dive into the harmful impact of colorism and racism. The discussion was hosted by internationally recognized colorism expert and founder of Colorism Healing Dr. Sarah L. Webb while cast members Spice, Yandy Smith, Joc, Scrappy, Sierra Gates, Amy Luciani and Rasheeda shared their reflections on racism and encounters with colorism.

The full roundtable conversation can be seen below:

While Erica Mena’s comments garnered immediate outrage and disdain from cast mates, many on social media have not been convinced that Mena exhibited prejudice. This speaks to a larger concern across the Black community: racist ideologies have become so naturalized and internalized that we cannot even course correct and identify when confronted with it. 

The plot seems to be lost here. 

Across social media and even varying degrees of media, there is a purposeful refusal to see why colorism harms darker-skinned folks primarily and why the term “monkey” is derogatory. By definition, colorism occurs when those of a lighter skin tone — not just white individuals — are shown preferential treatment over those of a darker skin tone. This can happen internal and external to communities of color, namely the Black community. Though it is important to note that folks of color cannot be racist—as there would have to be a specific systemic hierarchal structure of power in place to do so— they can indeed enact prejudice against another. Erica exhibited this in such a subconscious manner by reverting toward this particular set of words. 

Out of all of the insults that could have been used by some one with the dictionary at their disposable, why was the word “monkey” the main go-to not once but multiple times?  As a mother with beautiful Black children under the age of five that she shares with Jamaican artist Safaree, she will, unfortunately, soon learn just how fast the world will be so quick to distribute distasteful remarks as a result of their African ancestry. Remarks that have been hurled at many a Black person as a way to demean, dehumanize and enact violence on. These are not just mean words tossed around during playtime. For us, they are often the difference between life, death and a proper quality of life. 

Aside from the concept of colorism, social media users felt that the Love & Hip Hop team should have taken more immediate and less performative action prior to the airing of the episode, which is valid. Multiple things are true in this regard. Spice is not absolved of Erica’s anger due to comments about her relationship with her son, however Erica’s monkey statements were not warranted in the slightest either. While the panel discussion on the recent episode of the show was likely necessary, a deeper issue of colorism and internalized racism still heavily permeates throughout the franchise and really, throughout reality television.  As generations become more removed from the direct timeline of enslavement with the help of forces seeking to eradicate the truth of America’s history, many are challenged with understanding the root of the words we use to speak to one another. In this vein, it is worth questioning if this beloved community has drifted too far from what is perceived as reclamation. Furthermore, this entire conversation should provoke a deep look into how reality television not only profits off of Black American cultural contributions but forges a deeper divide between how we regard ourselves as a community with a collective shared past. 

In 2023, we have the world at our fingertips and are exercising our creativity more now than ever. It is not hard to us to get a bit more crafty in our speech when sparring with our enemies. Additionally, we must do a far better job at holding pillars of entertainment and grand celebrity accountable for how they articulate themselves on screen and in forums of public opinion. Lastly, we must get so for real about how we understand topics of racism and colorism as a holistic Black diasporic community in order to reach a space of true liberation and freedom.