The Brown Girl’s Dilemma: Beauty Standards, Media, and Colorism


It is 2011.  Colorism should be a relic of  America’s ugly racist past. Yet one look at Twitter or a BET video countdown and you will see that Black America’s internal struggle with complexion is still alive  and thriving today.  Hash tags of #teamlightskin and #teamdarkskin abound in online social networks and this is sad.  Media conceptions of Black beauty all to often fail to show its remarkable and brilliant diversity; this should change.

We all know that divisions around complexion were created  during slavery to further manipulate and conquer a stolen people.   However, I wonder why we continue to internalize such divisions to collective our detriment.

Today, I  can say without any reluctance or shred of dishonesty that I for one love the brown skin I’m in.  Yet complexion has informed my conception of myself for as long as I can remember.   Whether it was growing up and questioning if my brown skin was really beautiful, or wishing for long silky hair; the issue of colorism crystallized for me well before I could intellectualize it in a useful way.

At five-years-old I did not know about America’s tradition of slavery and legalized discrimination. Then “Jim Crow” would have sounded like a  funny name for a Sesame Street character.  However, I could observe and it was made clear to me through film, television, and even family dynamics that light-skin was preferable.

My father’s family were very dark-skinned people, and in contrast my maternal grandfather could have passed for white.  This led to an interesting color politic between the various households I moved through.   I grew up hearing pejoratives and stereotypes associated with both light and dark skin that definitely colored my self-perception and how I perceived others. Some of the malarkey I heard growing up included stereotypes like: “dark-skinned” women are naturally mean and could not be trusted.  In contrast, “light-skinned” or “yella” women—though beautiful—were highfalutin.   Children were embraced and doted on for their beauty  based on their complexion. Light eyes and soft hair were rewarded, and dark skin and kinky hair were resultantly penalized.

My grandma checked my ears at birth to either confirm or deny what my complexion was going to be.  However, to be fair she was born in 1916 and a lot of her ideas around race were a product of being raised in a segregated South.  My father once told me he wished I had his soft curly hair instead of my mother’s less than soft and curly hair.  As a little girl, I can even remember asking my mother why I was so much darker than her, and expressing that I wished I was her complexion.  It is memories like these that formed the foundation for my  self-conception as a dark skinned Black woman.

School reinforced this original conception.  When I played pretend with my schoolmates, we would imagine we were light-skinned with long hair.   In the 80’s and I would argue even now, fair-skinned beauties were the dominant representation of  which Black was beautiful.  We wanted to look like Vanessa L. Williams, Tracey Spencer, Pebbles, or The Good Girls. From where I stood, the girls in school who were considered the most beautiful and popular were those with fairer skin and long hair.  I am positive that this experience was felt entirely differently from the girls who embodied these traits.  In fact, since my adolescent travails around color, I have talked to my girlfriends who have the light skin, the green eyes, the soft hair.  Guess what?  They experienced just has much hurt and color confusion from being ostracized, stereotyped, and otherwise harassed.

Dating  in the DMV is always an interesting experiment in color politics.  This area is probably more susceptible to this kind of nonsense because of the transient nature of the residents and  the area’s historic ties to Black Bourgeoisie or African-American elite.   As a very brown girl, I have had the experience of being told I was beautiful–with the caveat.  Those who have this experience know exactly what I mean.  You know the whole “your pretty for a brown-skinned girl” or “I don’t usually date dark girls” spiel.  I frankly cannot stomach this kind of talk and it is an immediate turn off. It is fine to have a preference around what you find attractive; however, I would challenge those with these kinds of ideas about complexion to look at their own experience. I’d ask you to consider how much of what you deem attractive has been informed by the media, hip-hop, the beauty industry?   Similarly, I say to the women who say they want their kids to be light-skinned or have good hair, you are simply fueling a disgusting cycle of self-hate.  Please stop.

You may have seen the trailer for the soon to be released documentary film “Dark Girls”.  The film—produced by Bill Duke for Duke Media and D. Channsin Berry for Urban Winter Entertainment— documents dark-skinned African-American women recounting their painful experiences around their color. The amount of sadness, self-loathing, pain, and denial in this brief preview is demoralizing.  Yet the film has ignited  a long overdue public conversation around colorism and intra-racism.

Ultimately, we need get away from these toxic and misinformed conceptions born of a racist past.  We should not let this ugly tradition fuel what and who we are today.   Beauty is socially constructed and hence can be deconstructed.  Accordingly, we need to start embracing various representations of Black beauty.   However, if we look critically at this issue, I think more than diverse representations we will find the need for a catharsis.  The hurt caused around this issue is what troubles me more than anything.  I hope that “Dark Girls”  will be a platform for this.

So where do you stand on this complexion thing?   How has colorism affected your self-conception?  How does it affect your dating choices and options? Where do you see historic remnants of colorism playing out in our modern time?  Do you subscribe to the Team Light Skin and Team Dark Skin parodies? Do such attempts to make light of this obviously complex issue help or hurt the matter?

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What Happened to Ciara?: R&B and the New Sex Entrepreneur


It seems like it was just yesterday when little Ciara was singing an ode to the benefits of keeping one’s cookies in the jar.  Six years later,  her now delicately cultivated sexual Lolita image has been either co-opted or manipulated into outright hedonistic vixen.  I for one am not happy about it.  With  her recently slumping album sales, this new level of sexuality reeked of desperation and was bad form for a clearly talented young woman.

I was extremely disappointed with the video for her gym friendly single “Gimme Dat”.  The single has her once again leveraging the southern fried hip-hop laced stylings that put her on the map, except this time around the audience is distracted from the intricate choreography and gravity defying dance moves that made her famous.  Instead, we find her in a full sexual spectacle popping it on a handstand, gyrating, and clad in her underwear dancing in the rain.  Her dancing is amazing, but the imagery makes her come off like a glorified pole dancer; she even performs much of the dancing in the ubiquitious stipper shoe—the glass heel.

Make no mistake that this exotic dancer/stripper imagery is by design. It is not an accident.   With the recent popularity of Amber Rose, Maliah—others, it makes sense that the largely patriarchal music industry sees an economic opportunity in co-opting the images of its female R&B starlets to  evoke a similar aesthetic.

I do not want to get all judgmental big sister on Ciara because sexuality has always had its place in R&B and soul, but there is a thin line between sexy and trashy.  Take for instance, Christina Milian.  She was carefully managing the naughty good girl image—up and until—her video for “Dip It Low” found her sliding across the floor and gyrating in pools of oil.  Her singing career tanked soon there after.  Even Janet Jackson—the master of the naughty good girl image—couldn’t survive the nipple slip seen round the world.  She blurred the line between trashy and classy for a good run, but one near fatal move finds her musical career barely gasping for life.

With Rihanna giving us a lot of manufactured S&M imagery and both Keri Hilson and Kelly Rowland  following much of the same path, it seems to succeed the modern R&B star must become a sex entrepreneur.  She must balance equal parts talent, sexuality and purity−so as not to appear “deflowered” to their male fans (see inside image of Rihanna’s Loud CD). This seemingly impossible challenge has been mastered by few.  Remarkably, Beyonce has managed to walk this tightrope for over a decade—balancing sex kitten, with empowered feminist, diva, and business woman.

I would hate to prematurely morn the loss of Ciara, as I believe she has the time and talent to rebrand and redeem her image.  I am not suggesting she take the sex out, but instead she remember the importance of artistic integrity to her fan base.  She is certainly not a strong vocalist like a Melanie Fiona or a Jennifer Hudson, but she was well positioned to inherit a Jacksoneque like role as a consummate entertainer.

So what do you think?  Are the sexualized images of R&B stars like Ciara, Rihanna, Rowland and Hilson simply the norm now for a music industry plagued by poor album sells?  Does legitimate talent allow artists to avoid the trappings of the over-sexualized image?  Does the male consumer drive this trend or are women—as consumers—equally responsible for our representations?

Falling Like The Rain: We Ain’t Running Out!


Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking around the idea of “scarcity”.  In psychology and economics, the Scarcity Principle describes our urge to obtain something that we believes we may not be able to get in the future.

In the economy of human relationships, the media treats single Black men as a “scare commodity”.  Within this paradigm, Black women are conditioned to believe that the quality partners they are looking for are a rare and limited resource.  However, I would  like to offer a bit of critique of this now widely held and statistically backed perspective.  I am concerned that this narrative only amplifies the problems for men and women in the dating pool.

News Flash:  Men are falling like the rain.  We are in no danger of running out, despite what any number of blogpost, news reports, and articles in women’s magazines will tell you.  They will cite numerous measures around the number of Black men who are in prison, exclusively dating outside the race, or homosexual.  For instance, this article on mybrotha.com states there only 27 available Black men available for 100 Black women. The statistical soundness of this dataset is more than questionable, but for all the barriers to finding a partner; I am not readily convinced that it boils down to a sheer numbers game.

I believe what is required is a paradigm shift by Black women en masse. If we continue to treat the identification of a quality partner as a desperate endeavor—grounded in jealousy and competition—we are only fueling the spiral of scarcity.  In this environment, Black men who do not even have the characteristic or desire to build genuine or profitable relationships with quality Black women are reaping the benefits of being a valued commodity–without actually being one.

Accordingly, our dating marketplace has become Canal Street.  Canal Street is a notorious bastion of fake designer goods.  The public flocks here to purchase cheap facsimiles of exclusive items—like the elusive Birkin Bag.  The Birkin is a handmade purse by Hermès.  It is the ultimate symbol of wealth and privilege.  Birkins are released on unpredictable schedules and in limited quality creating scarcity in the marketplace.  Now Canal Street is full of knock-off Birkins.  These bags are not unique, handmade, or otherwise special.  My point: LADIES STOP TREATING THE KNOCK-OFF LIKE THE REAL THING.

In any situation where you have scarcity you have panic and acts of desperation.  Ladies we have to stop selling ourselves short, in order to obtain any kind of man.   Compromising your real desires for connection, authentic relationships, love, and good treatment only fuels the cycle of scarcity.  We have to be wise consumers to get what we really want: genuine relationships and authentic love.

Scarcity is tied to our survival instinct, but there are lots of good guys out here.  They may not be the Alpha male, or fly, or otherwise jiggy—but they do exist.  However, the marketplace will react to the way we interact with  it.  If as a collective, Black women decided to  diversify our markets, and more importantly set our own price to align to the real value we bring, we might get better outcomes.  If we treat ourselves cheaply, we are no better than the knock-off Birkin we so detest. I am making a call for us to stop competing with each other for minimal treatment, hurt feelings, and disappointment.  Let’s raise up our standard to get what we TRULY deserve: the kind of love that will hold us for a lifetime.

Redemption Song: Why Chris Brown’s Man in the Mirror Performance Will Save His Career


Chris Brown has had a rough year: 1,400 hours of community service and a dropped endorsement with Wrigley;  banned from the UK and blasted by Oprah; the nation was turned against this guy. A platinum selling artist out the gate, his last project Grafitti sold fewer than 100,000 units.  So now, a little over a year after pleading guilty to assaulting pop princess Rihanna, he has done the impossible.  He has redeemed his career.

Browns’ performance did what an appearance on Larry King and a scripted video apology could not do.  It showed the frailness of humanity and how our moments of greatest weakness can be the dawning of our greatest days to come.

To me Brown’s performance was a purely redemptive moment that sent chills up my spine and I was as mad at Chris as anyone. Prior to the BET awards, he was in R. Kelly territory for me.  And there was little to nothing he could do to get out because I just could not wrap my mind around how he could batter this girl in this way. Young, gifted, and Black, he was throwing it all away. I’ve had friends tell me various versions of the “he didn’t beat her, they were fighting” line, but I just could not get past it.

Brown’s tribute to Michael Jackson at the BET Awards was nothing less than transformative.  An insanely talented dancer, Brown mimicked the late superstars moves with the perfect combination of pinpoint accuracy and breathtaking artistic freedom.   As Brown tried hopelessly to croak out vocals to Jackson’s Man in the Mirror, he was overwhelmed with absolutely genuine emotion. I mean I can’t listen to that song without crying, much less trying to sing it live in front of a audience, perhaps less hostile to you than the general public, but still skeptical.

Yet watching him  stammer across the stage lost in emotion, I can say without the slightest doubt that we were watching a humbled and talented man emote in a way that is so rare in our culture, but particularly within Black community.  The collective experience those who watched performance had was transformative in many ways. It showed “black maleness” in all its strength and frailties to a Nation.  Therefore, this moment means  more than just forgiveness for Chris, it will represent seminal moment in the re-launch of a career destined for superstardom.

In our community, it is often said that Men Cry in the Dark.  Yet Brown cried in the light.  No doubt his tears were for the pain he caused his mother, the disappointment he brought to his fans, his personal foibles and failings, challenges throughout year—and for the loss of one of his mentors—Michael Jackson.

His performance left me asking, how often do we see Black men cry in our lives, much less in the media? Last Year, in an article for Black America Web, Tonya Pendleton asks: Can a Black Man Cry Openly Without Ridicule? She names D.L. Hughley, Ne-Yo, and Stephon Marbury as notable Black male celebs who turned on the tears, only to be mocked and scorned by the public:

“Since black men in particular are encouraged from childhood to show a stoic face to the world, is it possible that their pain is viewed as unimportant? Could that be why black men tend to die earlier than white ones, and are often disproportionately violent towards women and others? Is the inability to express pain keeping black men from healing from various wounds” (Black America Web 2009).

The cynics will say that Brown’s tearful and broken effort was a ploy for the nation’s forgiveness and regain his career.  This conclusion marginalizes Black male pain and illustrates a disdain for any kind of weakness shown on their part.  But let it not go unsaid that he was entirely wrong for beating Rihanna.  He was more than wrong.  What he did was absolutely unconscionable.  His behavior showed an immature spirit carrying demons that one will hope were released with this cathartic performance.  I don’t doubt that this man carried and continues to bear a lot of anger and pain from childhood and beyond; ironically having expressed this pain in a  wholly different way than the Rihanna beating, he is now being questioned and doubted.  I’m am convinced this is unfair.

Ironically, the same folks questioning the Brown’s authenticity, condemn President Obama for not showing enough emotion for the Gulf Oil spill.  When it comes to emotional expression, Black men face a difficult catch 22.  Show too much emotion and you are angry or somehow damaged, and too little you are haughty, professorial, and unfeeling.  Go figure.

Americans want to forgive talented people: Kobe Bryant, Robert Downey Jr., Bill Clinton, Ron “I want to thank my psychiatrist and hood” Artest, and any number of celebs and politicians have, through the continued execution of their genius, overcome the darkest of moments.  Tiger you’re up next if you can win another green jacket.

This is Chris Brown’s moment to say: “America, let me transform you; I’m about to do genius.  Watch”.

The Happily Ever After Myth – Comparative Analysis of the Speidi and Gore Marital Separations


Last week, the nation was collectively stunned when news broke that the Al and Tipper Gore were separating after 40 years of marriage.  Media commentary and the response on the blogosphere largely focused on the changing nature of marriage in society, and especially within the baby boomer set.  Apparently, till death do us part takes on a whole different connotation when Americans are living longer more complex lives.  Accordingly, pundits are interrogating the institution of marriage with renewed vigor.  When the culture is dominated by messages of personal fulfillment and happiness as an end game, can traditional conventions of marriage still work and what does “work” really mean?

While news of the Gore’s break-up dominated headlines, they were not the only famous couple announcing a marital separation last week.  Perhaps more infamous than famous, Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt collectively and nauseatingly known as Speidi announced their separation, after only one year of marriage.  Unlike the news of the Gore break-up, the imminent demise of the reality couple was first met with delight and then immediate skepticism.  With the fame hungry couples’ reality show—The Hills— slated to end,  much of the entertainment media is reporting the separation as a hoax.  While it may very well be a publicity stunt for Montag’s upcoming  reality show, the Gore and the Speidi separations represent why this is a unique cultural moment for the institution of marriage.

The Gores lived as man and wife for forty years.  While the public face suggested they were the quintessential happy couple, there is no way for us to know the extent of the joys and pains,  dreams fulfilled and promises broken that this couple would have no doubt experienced.  Unlike Speidi, the Gores  private lives were not being documented for a reality TV show.  Accordingly, we can only conjecture that after raising children and pursing individual ambitions, they simply grew apart.   I believe that there is authenticity and dignity in the way they handled this very  private matter and I’m sure they are shocked that their personal choice has resulted in a public outcry on the state of baby boomer marriage.

In contrast, Heidi and Spencer, who bear a striking resemblance to The Flowers in the Attic, have after one year  separated in a calculated move to remain relevant in this cultural moment.  Blogs are calling the split as fake as Heidi’s surgically enhanced mammaries.  Yet, I would argue the couple is doing “marriage as spectacle”.  It is a uniquely American proposition that marriage and love go hand and hand.   Marriage is an economic contract, as much as it is a partnership based on myths of often fleeting emotions.  Therefore, what Heidi and Spencer are doing, as they play with the conception of marriage, may be more representative of marriage throughout most of history: an economic partnership about survival, more than any kind of romantic notion.  As they seek to enrich themselves by being obnoxious, blithely stupid, and most importantly ubiquitously present, their marriage simply becomes another means of production.  We can only hope these two don’t decide to procreate, in an effort to commodify parenthood ala the Octomom and the Gosselins.

I was only married for a little less than five years, before I cried uncle—but I can tell you unequivocally that it is probably the most challenging and selfless endeavors one can make next to parenthood and say monasticism.  And despite the brevity of my first marriage, I still believe in the convention and I consider my “failed” marriage successful because it taught me the beauty of resilience.

Marriage is a religious, civil, and yes economic arrangement between a couple that will become characteristics of which will evolve  in our increasingly complex world.  How we “do marriage” is representative of our time in history and the larger culture? So what represents a successful marriage to you? Is longevity the only metric?  It is a civil or religious arrangement, or could it be both?

Discuss.

Black Barbie Dressed in Bulgari: Cleavage Baring Doll Draws Ire


As a child, I was an avid Barbie collector. Apart from my collection, Barbie dominated my everyday play. My friends and I would create fantastical scenarios for Barbie and her gal pals to act out.  A sanitized, multi-racial Sex in the City, the dolls became the celluloid extension of our imaginary adult selves; they dated, partied, shopped, and kicked it with the girls.  Perhaps this is why a recent story on the evening news about a collector Barbie drawing criticism from parents caught my attention.  The African-American Barbie is part of the Barbie Basic collection.  The doll is clad in a tight black sheath dress that features a plunging V-neckline, displaying plenty-o-cleavage.  While according to the Mattel website, the doll is intended for the adult collector, parents our outraged with the sexy figurine.   For her part, the designer—Stacy McBride—defends the look and says the dolls she designs are intended to be a positive influence on young African-American girls.  Criticism of Barbie’s anatomically—if not proportionally—realistic frame and oft sexy wardrobe is not new.  However, I would suggest this Black Barbie is uniquely problematic at this cultural moment and for that reason deserves critique.

Michelle Obama, our sophisticated, elegant and graceful First Lady, was recently criticized for displaying too much décolletage at the White House State Dinner for Mexico’s president Felipe Calderon.  The criticism—mounted by Glenn Beck and others—was unwarranted.  Lady Obama was stylish, modern, and fashion forward. I suspect much of this criticism reflects a general distaste in certain circles for the Obama’s, but also reeks of an attempt to marginalize Black female sexual agency.  

In the same way, I wonder does the uproar over the Black Barbie purport a general distaste for Black female beauty and sexuality.  Such a critique could be found within and outside the Black community.  The Black feminine in the American narrative either highly sexualized or rampantly sexually negated; she is often subjected and without power or agency over her body or prostituting herself for money, cars, and clothes—See For the Love of Ray-J.  The lack of a realistic portrayal of Black female sexuality in the mainstream makes this Barbie issue more complex. For example, the modern black feminine is highly sexualized in hip-hop culture, as Black video vixens are surgically manipulating their bodies to become Black Barbies.  Nicki Minaj—self-proclaimed— Harajuku Barbie is an immediate example of this ironic trend. 

The blonde-haired, blue-eyed Barbie represents the idealized standard of American beauty.  Her buxom proportions and cinched waist line have informed and reflected what America considers beautiful.  Yet, Barbie has evolved over the years to be more ethnically diverse and inclusive.  Vogue Black from Italian Vogue features a lovely online pictorial and printed a catalogue of Black Barbies, in celebration of Barbie’s 50th anniversary.  However, the incarnation of the first African-American Barbie is storied:

 “Colored Francie”, first issued in 1967, was the first doll in the Mattel line with a truly dark complexion. However, the doll did not have genuinely African American features, since it was made with the same head molds as the Caucasian Francie doll. Because of this, a doll named Christie, first issued in 1968, is often considered the first true African American doll in the Barbie line.[1]

-Wikepedia Francie (Barbie) – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francie_(Barbie_doll

Black Barbie was launched in 1980 but still had white features. In September 2009, Mattel introduced the So In Style range, which was intended to create a more realistic depiction of black people than previous dolls.[21]

-Wikepedia Barbie – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbie

All of the dolls in the Basic Barbie Collection are sexy.  They look like a cast of America’s Next Top Model.  They are racially diverse with an Asian, Latina, and two dolls of African descent. 

One of the Black dolls even sports a textured short ‘do—very uncharacteristic for Barbie who is known for long, flowing, straight locks.  The same doll is very darked-skinned, a nod to Mattel’s efforts to include more diverse skin tones for African-American dolls.  They are more expensive than a traditional Barbie, but remain accessible at a retail price of about $20 each.  If the dolls are being sold in the toy section of the local Wal-Mart, I would argue that perhaps the cleavage is a bit extreme.  However, I have noticed that the press photo of the doll is far more exposed than the one on the Mattel website.

With the preference for white beauty standards still being illustrated in doll test today, some 60 years after Jim Crow, one can see the value of beautifully diverse Black dolls.  If the dolls can indeed help a little Black girl feel more beautiful about herself than they can be useful teaching tools.   For instance, the Barbie So in Style line features African-American dolls with broad noses and full lips, more characteristic of African-American phenotypes.

In March, a Walmart store in Louisiana caused a stir for selling a Black Barbie at half the price of White Barbie. The Black Barbie was $3 and the White, $5.93. Walmart representatives said the dolls weren’t selling well, thus the price cut.  This suggests to me a devaluating of Black beauty that has long been the tradition of this nation. It is the problem that lies at the heart of this Barbie cleavage debacle.  “Black is Beautiful” has been decidedly up for interrogation from within and outside the Black community.  Therefore, expressions of Black beauty are uniquely exposed to critique and bound by a tortured historic context. 

The cleavage baring Barbie is absolutely “sexy”, but is she a “jezebel because she is Black?  Or can a sexy, beautiful Black doll be a change agent for American beauty conceptions?   Is such a such a doll marketable to the mainstream or does it remain the doll of last resort.

Discuss.

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