Colorism Is a Feminist Issue

5482589522_7a28951ef3_zMy 6-year-old black daughter adores makeup tutorials. She can rock any MAC lipstick harder than I can, and gently corrects my makeup choices that she calls too “mama-style.” So my stomach fell to my knees when I read about the comments recently posted by top African American beauty vloggers Ravyn Elyse and Vicky Logan.

Elyse, 22, proclaims she loves “all things beauty and fashion related,” but apparently doesn’t love blackness: “I don’t really wanna be called black … I don’t really wanna be called African American… because really, I am neither. How ’bout caramel?”

Logan pushed the envelope further by posting: “Without Asians 75 percent of black women would be walking around with ratchet hair, chipped nails, mustaches and bushy eyebrows. Be grateful.”

How, I wondered, am I going to raise a daughter who wants to experiment with and believe in her beauty and femininity, when even black women insist that “light is right” and natural hair is ratchet?

Colorism is a black feminist issue. If we want to raise an empowered next generation of black girls who can love themselves, love one another and change the world, we need to start calling out colorism and addressing it.

I am a café con (lots of) leche color myself, and my daughter is richly cinnamon-colored. Coming from a family where generations of lightening the race fueled self-hatred, depression and anxiety, I consciously chose to have a recognizably black child. But even though my husband and I disavow colorism and extoll black women’s beauty and power, my daughter is coming of age in a media culture where, before her third birthday, Disney princesses became her standard of beauty—and the only black princess is a waitress.

Now, you might tell me beauty standards are superficial and unimportant. But, as the “Black is beautiful” slogan suggested long ago, beauty is political. Anthropologist Gloria Wekker writes that in the holds of the slave ships, African women braided each others’ hair and carved designs into their hairstyles with broken glass. Creating beauty for and with one another was an act of resistance, a way to keep alive the souls that enslavement was attempting to crush.

Zendaya and Amandla Stenberg are two black actors and fashion icons who share this understanding of beauty as a black feminist concern. Zendaya responded to Giuliana Rancic’s rant against her dreadlocks on Fashion Police with graceful pride and protested photoshopped images of herself that appeared in Modeliste.

“From her pro-tall girl messages to standing up for the girls who like to experiment with makeup, Zendaya is a bright, shining beacon of positivity in a culture that loves to scrutinize the way women—of all ages—look,” writes Gaby Wilson of MTV News.

Stenberg, a self-identified black bisexual feminist, garnered media attention when she publicly attacked beauty double standards for black and white women. On white celebrities’ cornrows, she wrote: “While white women are praised for altering their bodies, plumping their lips and tanning their skin, black women are shamed although the same features exist on them naturally.”

BET named these two young women Most Likely to Run the World in its Celebrity Yearbook of 2015, and it’s hard not to want to live in the world these women would run. But it would still be a world where the only women who represent blackness are light-skinned. Both actors are mixed-race beauties who look more like me than my daughter.

Social media offers an important platform for critiquing mainstream media’s colorism, but many times these critiques come at the expense of feminist analysis. Nathan Zed posted a picture on Twitter with the caption, “Amandla Stenberg, Willow Smith and Zendaya for the next generation Powerpuff Girls,” with the girls wearing bright colors. Twitter users responded positively to his clever critique of Hollywood’s pastel colorism, but painting these actors as the next generation of black women renders darker-skinned girls invisible. On the other hand, terming them “Powerpuff Girls” undercuts their girl power: It mocks the empowerment of young black women as cartoonish and outlandish. We need to find ways to honor dark-skinned women without dishonoring black women’s power.

Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie told us in her TED Talk: “We should all be feminists.” But did we listen?

Adichie jokes about calling herself an African feminist “who likes lip gloss and who wears high heels for herself but not for men,” but her point is real. All black women should be able to be feminists and demand that black beauty reflect us, and if we don’t wear red lipstick it should be because we don’t want to and not because someone told us we were too dark.

My daughter is right to take every lipstick out of my makeup bag: Every shade of beauty is for her and her generation.

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Opening photo via Flickr user AfroDad licensed under Creative Commons 2.0. Author’s headshot by Mariana Munoz.


Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley, a public voices fellow at The OpEdProject, is associate professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.




  1. Colorism is very problematic. Sadly, colorism today seems to be more excepted within the African American (AA) community than ever before. We know it’s roots lay in slavery where owners gave privilege (including at times that of life itself) to their, or other owners, lighter skinned enslaved offspring in order to divide the enslaved people. This continued right through the Jim crow era into today (AA who are lighter are hired more often and at higher pay rates than their darker skinned counter parts, and receive shorter prison sentences in court). However, back then AA seemed aware of the roots of colorism and tried to use it to help each other in some instances by sharing resources gained. Today younger AA have internalized the hate they experience. They hate the treatment and subconsciously connect it with their color without consciously recognizing the source: racism.

    You mentioned youtube beauty videos. I’m not a big fan for the reason you cited. Often the person giving the tutorial no matter their color is coming from the perspective that make up is a necessity. That a woman is not fixed up, at her best, or even presentable without it. This message comes through loud and clear in the language used. When you bring in hair you are almost guaranteed to go down hill. When women first come in to womens studies they often stop all forms of traditional beautification seeing it as oppressive in view of their new consciousness. As we grow we learn not to reject what is traditionally female because male is not our standard of good or bad. However, it does pay to take a close look at not only what we like, but why we like it or do it. Personally, I love womens rights and makeup, shocker. But I don’t wear make up everyday. People started to expect it and comment on it, as if I am less than without it. Now I go back and forth and use comments to start conversations.

    On an youtube video I recently watched a natural hair panel discussion, the full makeup issue was brought up. One point was that respectability politics make some women who wear their natural hair feel like they have to go all out on their makeup. Natural hair often is like an alarm for White people, it sounds like this “I didn’t drink the kool-aid, I don’t save space for you to define me, your mental chains of oppression are starting to fail” oh no. White people then force us to pay black tax for wearing it, if not banning it altogether. Telling us it’s unkempt and unprofessional, but basically not White. How dare we do/be something they cannot, how dare we decide for ourselves what we find attractive. AA internalizing these messages about the tax start to reject themselves. Thus the comments you quoted about being grateful. In that young woman’s mind of course she is grateful, without her fake hair,fake nails, and makeup she wouldn’t be worth anything but the White racist treatment she has been taught is her African American Black due.

    I believe this self hate is also brought about by changes in our society. It is harder for younger people, especially those that live around White people, to recognize every day racism or micro-aggressions. It is like trying to explain to water what wet is. Today Whites are less likely to call you the N word to your face, but equally likely to call the police on an AA kindergartner or choose not to prosecute a cop who brutally attacks an AA high school girl on camera for texting in class. Without an accurate understanding of our countries real and very sexist&racist history these young people internalize the hateful message that they are being treated this way because they as people of color (the color they are rejecting) deserve it. This, as opposed to the truth greed+ a guilty conscious often cause people to dig in and try to justify their own wickedness by continuing to do more of the same.

    The only solution is to educate, educate, educate. People have to know their history including racism&sexism. No matter how a woman is trying to beautify herself, unfortunately, in our society 70% of the time it is based in to desire to attract male attention. Nothing wrong with that in and of itself, every society needs courtship rituals. However, if that desire to attract is based in the idea that male attention makes you better, safer, or more secure financially then it is rooted in sexism. When you sprinkle on the idea that attractive equals lighter with white as the ideal, you get colorism. For this reason that education has to start early for both girls and BOYS at home. Have the talk with your kids, the one about colorism. Tell them to not allow room for self hate or the color based judgment of others in their own heart and mind. Follow this up with discussions about who is deemed attractive or not and ,why they think that is.

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