Fifth Harmony and Colorism

by Nicole Chávez

Fifth Harmony singer Normani Kordei has recently taken a break from all social media due to racist harassment from the public. During an interview in August, Kordei characterized fellow bandmate and light-skinned Latina Camila Cabello as “quirky” and “cute”. Fans responded to the wording and her slight hesitation by calling Kordei’s remarks insincere and malicious.

The drama that has emerged out of this incident reflects preferential treatment for light-skinned over dark-skinned POC – a consistent theme in fandom culture. This preference is one product of colorism, a system of oppression that creates a hierarchy based on skin tone and is rooted in anti-Blackness.

Following the interview, fans sent an onslaught of racist tweets on social media – calling Kordei n***** and other derogatory slurs, and even comparing her to monkeys and other animals. One supposed fan photoshopped a picture of Kordei onto the lynched body of a Black woman and circulated it online.

Kordei responded with grace, tweeting that she has “nothing but love for everyone” and that “I’m not the first black female celebrity to deal with this and I’m sure I won’t be the last.” Her bandmate Cabello tweeted a series of vague appeals for “love only,” failing to acknowledge the anti-Black sentiment and colorism at the root of the harassment.

Colorism perpetuates the illusion that all members of an ethnic group encounter identical types and degrees of oppression, regardless of differences in physical appearance. These dynamics ultimately enable light-skinned POC to be racist towards dark-skinned POC, and relieve light-skinned folks of the moral obligation to combat anti-Blackness.

In the case of Fifth Harmony, colorism unjustifiably excused Cabello’s role as a catalyst in this clash with fans. Shifting public focus from Kordei onto herself, Cabello questioned her fans’ loyalty to her, but not to Normani or the group as a whole.

Colorism also skews public perceptions of Cabello and Kordei. Although Kordei responded gracefully, her identity as a Black woman prompted fans to imagine anger. On the other hand, Cabello’s messy and self-centered attempt to escape the situation was publically lauded as peacemaking. Cabello, given her white-passing privilege, was shielded from the hate. Her identity as a Latina was rarely acknowledged or perceived in a negative light.  

Together, Fifth Harmony embodies the multicultural, multiracial representation younger generations have been asking for – but when these wants materialize, they quickly curdle. A Black woman performing in a world-renowned girl group is a bittersweet victory against normative whiteness when she’s perceived as a threat under society’s colorist gaze.