Shading the Truth: Colorism in our Media World

lupita By Naeemah Clark

Nude pantyhose don’t look good on me. Every woman of color knows that she has to dig through the department store shelf in the hopes of finding the color that is right for her. By doing so, we accept that we are not the norm, not the default. This form of colorism happens all the time, so I should be used to it. But I’m not. Instead, it’s death by 1,000 cuts. Colorism is magnified when we look at media representations of African American women. I was reminded of the hurt that colorism can cause when one of my students, through tears in her eyes, looked at a magazine cover featuring Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o. Nyong’o has rich chocolate brown skin and a closely cropped natural hair. And she is fabulous. My student’s tears were of joy because she too is chocolate brown with short hair and is fabulous. Her tears were mixed with joy and bitterness. Nyong’o’s cover served as a reminder of how rare it is to see a dark skinned actress celebrated as a beauty on the big screen. Cinematographers and photographers explain (in what may be cut 1,001) that it is easier to light a set when the models have fairer skin and are all similar in tone. While this may be based in truth, we have become accustomed to seeing African-American women that have light brown skin and facial features that align with the norms associated with the standards of white beauty. Hollywood has long considered lighter skinned women from Lena Horne to Halle Berry to be commercially acceptable images of African-American beauty. These feelings can be deep and powerful. Nyong’o herself recently admitted to feeling shame about her skin tone as a youth. She wished she would wake up with lighter skin. And mourned when she saw she remained the same in the night. Now she celebrates it. Unfortunately not all women feel the same way about themselves. It is a poorly kept secret that some prominent African American stars have used damaging (even carcinogenic) pills, creams and soaps to lighten their skin. The dangerously emotional drive to be lighter has a dark past. This definition of African-American beauty has a long history stemming from slavery. Lighter skinned slaves—those born of a slave and her master—generally received better treatment on the plantation. This notion of light privilege was extended within members of the same race. Post-slavery, some African American society events would only allow entrance if the party-goer were lighter than the pale brown shade of a paper bag. It is here where the cuts are the deepest. Colorism from the media controlled by African Americans allows the white standards of beauty to dictate how we feel about ourselves. In a more recent example, African American director Lee Daniels was criticized for casting actors with lighter skin (Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz) as being the saviors in the 2009 movie Precious while the darker skinned characters (Gabourey Sidibe and Monique) were put upon and damaged. And just last month, popular radio host Tom Joyner has been promoting a water gun fight between lighter skinned and darker skinned passengers on a cruise he sponsors. Incidentally, this annual cruise serves as a fundraiser to send African-Americans kids to college. This real battle represents the pain and division that colorism has created in the African American community. The divide can be bridged in two ways. First, the media can do better. People of different hues must be hired as models, romantic leads, and heroes. And magazine covers must stop using computerized editing to lighten the skin color of people on the cover. Nyong’o looks sublime on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine’s Hollywood issue that celebrates the Academy Award, but it is clear that her skin tone has been brightened through the magic of the fashion industry. We already know that Photoshop is used to shave off weight or smooth out a wrinkle, but when it is used to alter the rich differences in a racial group it must be critiqued as supporting a systematic racial chasm. Second, and most importantly, African Americans have to dismiss notions of “good hair” and that “light is right.” We have to acknowledge that our American lineage is made up a range of ethnicities that have produced a multi-hued race. For evidence, look through the family photo album. I love looking through photos and seeing the wide ranges of shades that contributed to the beautiful deep walnut color of my father, the golden tones of my mother and the shades of my sisters and me somewhere in between.

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