I’ve often said to folks that the biggest thing holding black folks back was not racism or white supremacist thought, but the degree to which we have collectively internalized racism and white supremacist thought.
There is a difference.
In most circles, internalized racism is known solely as self-hatred. But this is a very amorphous term, self-hatred. In reality, the politics of race, gender, and class are understood to be much more complex. A lot of black people do wonderful things for the community, mentor young blacks, live “upstanding” lives, but still unconsciously uphold white supremacist ideals.
This is most prevalent in the realm of aesthetic beauty. We as black people, far more than white folks it would seem, have bought into white supremacist beauty standards. And it is such a widespread phenomena that entire industries base their decisions on how much we devalue black beauty.
What this means is that black folks who have Eurocentric features are far more likely to be successful, both in the larger culture and the black community, than those who’s features are coded as “African” or “ethnic”.
The success of Beyonce is a well-known testament to this fact. Matthew Knowles studied well from the Berry Gordy school of economics. Destiny’s Child was created so that any of the four (then, three) girls could be a little girl’s favorite. This is why all the girls’ hair color, especially in the beginning, was different. But Matthew Knowles knew that Beyonce, as the lightest, would be the most “captivating” girl — simply because she was lightest. So she was made the front-woman. And she was lightened in magazines and given blonde hair.
This was very purposeful on Matthew Knowles’ part. It was not just some arbitrary decision. It was a conscious choice. He understood the color struck black bourgeoisie and White America. He knew black folks would hail her as a beauty, the way Halle was hailed before her. He also knew little white girls would see a little of themselves in her and “identify.”
Let’s face it, there is a reason that Halle Berry, Beyonce, and Alicia Keys are the only black women to get on the covers of major magazines last year — they are relatively light-skinned women.
Of course, the tragic irony is that all three of these women are darker than they appear in magazines. They are always lightened for magazines, particularly when featured in a high-end magazine.
Now, it’s important to impress upon people that a discussion of the way in which light-skinned women are perceived is not to slight their talent or their skill or their accomplishments. We must begin to understand the reality that the avenues to success are not the same for all black people. Light-skinned women are accepted as beautiful before darker-skinned women.
This was readily apparent in the most recent season of America’s Next Top Model. The last three finalists were Nicole (a white girl with brown hair), Nik (a light-skinned black girl, possibly biracial, with blondish hair), and Bre (a dark-skinned black girl from Harlem).
Bre was always presented as angry and unrelenting. And she was always coded as “street.” Every single time she came before Tyra and the judges, euphemisms for “dark” and “black” were used to describe her. And such descriptions were both good and bad depending, mostly, on how her competitors were judged. So when the white girls were kinda bland or boring or generic, Bre’s “edginess” made her standout. When the other girls were “fierce”, then Bre was “too edgy”.
What this means is that while the other girls were competing against each other, Bre was competing against the other girls and herself — her blackness.
We have to become aware of the way that competition was set up to be much more difficult for Bre. The last competition was a Cover Girl photo shoot. Cover Girl, for decades, didn’t use black models–of any hue. Cover girls are the “all-American girl”, which is nearly always coded as “white.”
Now, the reality that Cover Girl doesn’t even make products for darker complexions should be a well-known fact and should have been a signal to viewers of the show that something was off about the competition.
Of course, Bre wouldn’t win. Not over Nicole and Nik who are the kind of “look” that one normally associates with Cover Girl.
Many responses to this season talked about racism but only because Nik wasn’t picked. The reality that on BET.com and other black websites, black folks were saying Tyra was racist for not picking Nik is a sad testament to the reality that we so narrowly understand the complexity of racism and how we’ve internalized it.
For most black people, Bre’s loss made sense. She wasn’t good enough. She was too “edgy.” She had “too much attitude.” She was too “street.” Nearly every blog or webposting or review talked about Bre as having “too much attitude” as if models are the sweetest girls on the planet.
All this means is that Bre was too black.
A friend of mine, Mikey , told me that there have been more dark-skinned supermodels than light-skinned and that means that Nik should have won. He is right.
But what folks have to understand about skin colors in modeling is that dark-skinned models were always shown to be exotic, not beautiful. Exoticization is not beauty. They are not synonyms. When it comes to beauty, or white supremacist standards of beauty, dark-skinned women are at a disadvantage.
Bre could never have won that contest. It was designed to be unfair to her. Whether or not it was purposeful is irrelevant. That is what internalized racism means; it’s not on purpose.
Tyra, as the executive producer, would probably say that Bre wasn’t “versatile” enough. This is just sidestepping the issue. The reality is that the show was rigged to make the competition harder for Bre. Tyra knows better than anyone how hard it is for darker-skinned models and she played the game well for the last 15 or so years (with the weave and sublimating black vernacular in her speech).
Now that she’s retired, she’s crying on her talk show about how hard it was for her and how she wants to make it easier. But she’s not doing that. She’s playing by the rules of the modeling industry that says if you are non-white you better look a little white or work the weave. And if you are black, you can’t be “too black.”
Darker-skinned women shouldn’t have to be “versatile.” They shouldn’t have to sublimate their blackness and try to look “all-American.” Who they are should be enough. A diversity of beauty should be celebrated. Black beauty should not be acceptable only when it can be exoticized or “enhanced” by a few European features.
With people of color there are only two routes you can go in the modeling world — emphasize European features (in photos or with blonde hair or straight hair of any color) or exoticize non-European features.
This is what happened with the early darker-skinned models like Iman and Beverly Johnson where their blackness was always coded in opposition to white beauty, as exotic because it wasn’t white beauty. Black folks think of it as just beauty, but in reality we did passively understand that the politics of opposition reinstates, reinforces, that whiteness is still the barometer of beauty, the penultimate.
Darker-skinned models’ exoticization only serves to reinscribe the primacy of white beauty.
I say all this not to say that light-skinned women don’t deserve their success. But we must begin to understand how we enable such success to occur by our overvaluing of lighter-skin. We need to understand that we don’t champion our darker-hued women with talent enough. We need to, as my boy Mikey says, “love the spectrum” of blackness.
What that means is we need to have a darker counterpart to Beyonce, to Halle, to Alicia. It shouldn’t be darker-skin = less sexy. But it is.
We need to change that.
There is a reason that 702 didn’t explode, beyond discussions of whether or not their songs were any good. Meelah is a beautiful dark-skinned woman. As such, she doesn’t have the same “appeal” that Beyonce did as lead singer of Destiny’s Child.
The fact that we even have to “choose” is a testament to how the larger culture pits us against one another and only allows one person of color at the top at a time. It is perfectly legitimate to like both 702 and Destiny’s Child, but that needs to occur to a degree that 702’s label would feel obligated to promote 702 as much as Destiny’s Child is promoted. So they would be on “equal” footing.
With black artists, there is usually one star and then a bunch of “lesser talented” “lesser attractive” people pulling up the rear.
Why can’t they all be on the same level, whatever that level may be?
What that means is, we need to show more love for darker-skinned people. This is not unfair. What you are doing is balancing the scale. It’s called equity. By doing so, you are not devaluing lighter-skinned.
Think of it like a seesaw. For centuries light-skin has been getting all the love and reaping the rewards of society. Dark skin has been undervalued. So that means that the end with light skin on it is on the ground with dark in the air. By adding more dark to the side of the seesaw with dark skin on it you start to level the seesaw.
This is equity. You aren’t lessening light skin, you are balancing.