Colorism Is a Feminist Issue

My 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.