By Naeemah Clark
Every woman of color knows she has to dig through the department store shelf in hopes of finding hosiery that matches her skin tone. Nude pantyhose aren’t made for her. This form of colorism happens all the time, so I should be used to it. But I’m not. Instead, it’s death by a thousand cuts.
The pain of colorism is magnified when we look at media representations of African-American women.
I was reminded of the hurt colorism can cause when one of my students cried when she saw a magazine cover featuring Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o. Nyong’o, like my student, is fabulous with her rich chocolate-brown skin and her short natural hair.
For her, Nyong’o’s appearance was a reminder of how rare it is to see a dark-skinned actress as a beauty on the big screen.
Hollywood has long considered lighter-skinned women, from Lena Horne to Halle Berry, to be acceptable images of African-American beauty. Nyong’o recently admitted that as a child, she wished that she would wake up with lighter skin and mourned when she saw she remained the same in the morning.
These feelings can be powerful. It is a poorly kept secret that some prominent African-American stars use damaging pills and creams to lighten their skin. The drive to be lighter has a heartbreaking past. 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 allow entrance only if the guest was lighter than the pale brown shade of a paper bag.
And it is here where the cuts are the deepest. Colorism from media controlled by African-Americans allows the white standards of beauty to dictate how we feel about ourselves.
For instance, African-American director Lee Daniels was criticized for casting lighter-skinned Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz as being the saviors in the 2009 movie “Precious,” while darker characters portrayed by Gabourey Sidibe and Monique were damaged.
This real battle represents the pain that colorism has created in the African-American community. The divide can be bridged in two ways.
First, the media can do better. Performers of different hues must be hired. Computer software is used to erase wrinkles and weight, but when it is used to alter differences in a racial group, it must be critiqued as supporting a systematic racial chasm.
Second, African-Americans must dismiss notions that “light is right.” We must acknowledge that our American lineage is made up a range of ethnicities that have produced a multi-hued race. For evidence, flip through family photos.
I love seeing the wide range of shades that contributed to the beautiful walnut color of my father, the golden tones of my mother and the shades of my sisters and me somewhere in between.
Naeemah Clark is an associate professor of communications at Elon University in North Carolina. She is co-author “Diversity in U.S. Mass Media” and edited “African-Americans in the History of Mass Communication.”