For me, the most memorable moment of the Oscars was Lupita Nyong’o’s acceptance speech. She was beautiful, successful, and black, very black. The fact that a dark skinned black woman was receiving recognition for her acting role was a big deal in the black community…but why? A few days later, I saw a Facebook post from a friend of mine addressing this question and the issue of colorism. Here’s what Julia had to say:
Colorism: the discrimination in which someone is treated differently based solely upon the color of their skin due to the social meanings and assumptions attached to their complexions.
This “-ism” is one that plagues the media and the Black community. It’s no debate that there is a national preference for light-skinned Black women in the media, if Black women are included at all.
Recently, Pharrell has been heavily criticized for the exclusion of a Black woman on the cover of his new album Girl. But in an interview with TheYBF.com, the (legendary) artist claims that the woman in the middle of the trio is in fact a Black woman. He says she is simply light-skinned and has extremely European features, as some Black women do. However, the issue is not that this woman is light-skinned — the problem is colorism and the systematic exclusion of darker skinned women by the media.
But, before we get into all that, let me provide you with a little background on colorism and the role it has played in the Black community.
Colorism has created a hierarchy that dates back to slavery. Light-skinned slaves received preferential treatment — usually due to them being the offspring of the master’s extramarital affairs with other slaves — and were stationed to work in the house. Dark-skinned slaves, on the other hand, worked in the fields and were treated more sub-human than their lighter peers. Post-slavery, lighter complexioned blacks tended to hold a higher socioeconomic standing and held more access to the resources required to move up the ladder.
This is due to light-skinned Blacks being closer to whiteness. According to this article about colorism in advertising, Ronald Hall, a sociologist at Michigan State University, told The Washington Post that people are less threatened by those whom they perceive as being closer in racial proximity to themselves. This sentiment makes sense if you look at who controls the images that are proliferated in the media and those affected negatively by these images.
Colorism in the media presents itself not by excluding dark-skinned women, but by associating them with negative attributes. For instance, dark-skinned women are painted as less desirable and intelligent then juxtaposed with their lighter skinned counterparts (think Shelia versus Trina in Why Did I Get Married?). Additionally, successful Black women are almost always lighter complexioned (Olivia Pope from Scandal, Dr. Miranda Bailey on Grey’s Anatomy, Jacqueline Broyer in Boomerang, etc.).
But light-skinned women are negatively affected by coloristic stereotyping as well. Olivia Pope is a mistress while Dr. Bailey often comes off as bossy. Leticia (played by Halle Berry) in Monster’s Ball was disgustingly hypersexualized as was Rosario Dawson in Alexander. Stay Trippy — rapper Juicy J’s most recent album — features a nude light-skinned woman holding onto his leg. Kanye West’s Gold Digger video also predominantly featured light-skinned women.
Colorism, essentially, turns light-skinned women into objects of public affection while marginalizing darker complexioned Black women and deeming them undesirable. These sentiments are further reinforced when you have television shows and films that replace dark-skinned characters with light(er)-skinned ones.
Aunt Viv from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
Claire from My Wife and Kids
Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone. Saldana is so light in comparison to Simone that her skin had to be darkened
These beliefs that lighter complexioned Black women are better are engrained —either consciously or subconsciously — into the minds of Black people. Lots of little girls are told that they are inferior or lesser than because they are dark. Equally as many are doted upon simply because they are light with a looser curl pattern. When you throw in the media, you’re left with light-skinned girls who do not feel beautiful enough, brown skinned girls who feel dissociated from the products being advertised, and dark-skinned girls who do not feel beautiful at all.
Our society has to cease inflicting European beauty standards upon women whose beauty is not rooted in European genetics. Lighter skin tones are not inherently more beautiful just as darker complexions are not ugly. Quite frankly, have y’all ever LOOKED at dark skin? It’s damn near flawless and it’s just amazing.
The hierarchy of colorism in the Black community must go as well. Light skinned women should not be viewed as uppity, snooty, bad texters, conceited, hypersexual gold diggers. Dark skinned women should not be called ugly, tar babies, nappy headed, and ratchet.
Recently, Black America has been praising Lupita Nyong’o’s beauty. We need more of this. We need more celebration of dark skin. But that does NOT mean we should tear down light-skinned women in the process (see this article which addresses this concern).
We are all Black. We are all beautiful. We all have color complexes. We all need to work together to rid ourselves and future generations of these complexes. The buck should stop here.
“What up, cuz? It’s all Black. I love US.” – JAY Z
*Liked this post? Check out more of Julia Craven’s infinite wisdom on her blog!*