I write about culture from a pro-Black perspective

On the Color Caste, or; Are You Light Enough in Here?

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. Bre22 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.

Bre8 Bre88 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.

Posted by tlewisisdope on January 7th, 2006 :: Filed under Culture,Music
Tags :: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
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7 Responses to “On the Color Caste, or; Are You Light Enough in Here?”

  1. Mikey
    January 9th, 2006

    i understand your argument that we as black people have to always consider the complexties of race, but sometimes we as black people have to trust, and when you say those models who paved the way for other models no matter the color weren’t considered beautiful, frankly pisses me off, because you make them seem like jokes, like picknannies, anchi-mama jungle monkeys and maybe i’m misuderstanding you, but Bre didn’t deserve to win, not every black person deserves to win. I wonder what you would’ve said if Bre did win. and can a dark skinned girl be beautiful? i remember watching an Oprah after the show where this light skinned, green eyed girl told Oprah she was the most beautiful woman she ever met, and then Oprah said she found the comment interesting because being a dark skinned missippi girl, she was never considered beautiful, and that hurt my heart. But Oprah, like a check to her angel network, took the compliment. seriously answer that question, can a dark skinned girl be beautiful and under what circumstances?

  2. Tyler
    January 9th, 2006

    You misread what I was saying. I never said they weren’t considered beautiful. I’m saying very specifically that the way they were represented was racist and upheld white standards of beauty, subversively. So on the surface, yes, we black folks are happy and thing they are beautiful, but that’s not the full story, and certainly not what non-blacks see.
    I wasn’t saying that dark-skinned women aren’t beautiful. What I said is very specific. There is a difference between intention and effect. The INTENT was to exoticize dark skin, not normalize it as beautiful. We, as black people, think of it as beauty, but that was not the intent of integration. It is very subversive when dark-skinned women started modeling, because they were frequently shown distorted, animalistically (one of the reason Grace Jones, who herself is gorgeous and self-aware, was so popular with white folks), and in opposition to whiteness.
    You seem to mistake a critical discussion for my personal opinion. I think Beverly Johnson and them are beautiful. That doesn’t mean the way they integrated the industry wasn’t, on some level, to reestablish the primacy of white beauty.

  3. Nia
    March 2nd, 2007

    I am not dark skinned nor light skinned i am right smack dab in the middle. I am a former model and one of the reasons why i quit is b/c they I only got to be black one time. They were always putting weave in what then was my backlength hair making me look either indian or middle eastern an i hated it . Black is Beautiful. Did it ever occur to anyone why white women are always going out buying lips hips ass titties and tans? B/C they realize how good we look thats why imitate, and attempt to duplicate. I am proud of my white black and native american heritage. And would never deny any aspect of it but the fact is black is beautiful. no if and or buts.

  4. Nia
    March 2nd, 2007

    I am not dark skinned nor light skinned i am right smack dab in the middle. I am a former model and one of the reasons why i quit is b/c they I only got to be black one time. They were always putting weave in what then was my backlength hair making me look either indian or middle eastern an i hated it . Black is Beautiful. Did it ever occur to anyone why white women are always going out buying lips hips ass titties and tans? B/C they realize how good we look thats why imitate, and attempt to duplicate. I am proud of my white black and native american heritage. And would never deny any aspect of it but the fact is black is beautiful. no if and or buts.

  5. EVA
    June 12th, 2007

    black people rock look at bre from antm doing better than the white gurls dat won..brap brap..

  6. shaquita
    April 16th, 2008

    Im a darkskinned women and i recognize all that you say.Thanks for your message. Atleast there is someone out there who see’s it like I see it.

  7. layzieone
    July 13th, 2008

    702 was out way before destiny’s child. so they had plenty of time. to flip the game around but “motown” wouldn’t do that. so what you are trying to say is. “tlc” sold ten millions records & “salt n pepa” sold five millions. because the lead was light skined.

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