The movie “Straight Outta Compton” comes out. I’m so excited. I’m from LA so this movie is particularly close to my heart. I saw it in theaters three times. So I’m cruising the Internet devouring everything I can about this movie. I come across the casting call. This movie has already come out and I’m no actress, so I wouldn’t actually audition, but I just wondered, hypothetically, if I did, what role would I get?
I look at the casting call. I’m going down the categories and I start at the top: the A girls. The casting call reads: “These are the hottest of the hottest, models, must have real hair, no extensions.” Well, since I have 20 inches of Brazilian hair extensions on my head, doesn’t quite apply to me. But that’s fine.
I go to the next category: the B girls. The casting call reads: “These are fine girls, long natural hair, must have light skin beyond to the prototype here.” Light skin? Also not me. And might I add: not even Beyoncé made the cut to be an A girl. But that’s fine.
I go to the next category: the C girls. The casting call reads: “These are African American girls, can have extensions, must be medium to light skin tone.” Now, maybe back when I lived in Boston in the middle of the winter can I get away with being “medium skin toned”, but since I’ve come back to sunny California where I spend all my free time baking in the sun, not so much.
So I scroll all the way down to the last category: the D girls. The casting call reads: “These are African American girls, poor, not in good shape, must have a darker skin tone.” A darker skin tone. Well, I guess that’s me: a D girl. When I first read this I felt betrayed. Any given year, there are just a handful of movies starring black actors and actresses, just a handful of opportunities when people can see actresses that look like me on the big screen as if that we are fierce and beautiful and desirable. So I felt betrayed. Not even in these small circles I’m allowed to feel beautiful?
I felt set aside for those of more favorable features: Light skin, light eyes, long soft real hair. But the more I thought about it, the more the felling of betrayal slipped away for the more familiar felling of “that’s just the way it is” because in my world this phenomenon is all too familiar. Something just as sinister and subtle as racism: Colorism, the discrimination of those with a darker skin tone, typically among individuals within the same racial or ethnic group.
The story of colorism in the US begins with slavery. The mass rape of African slave females by white male slave masters gave birth to a cohort of mixed-race slave children. These mixed-race slaves are related to the slave masters and had more angled features, and were given preferential treatment and allowed to work inside the house doing less strenuous work, as opposed to the darker skin slaves that had to work out in the fields doing more laborious work.
Even after slavery was abolished, white still gave more preferential treatment to black that had more angled type features, giving them better access to jobs, housing and education. The thing is, though, even within the black community, black people use skin tone and facial features to discriminate against each other. Then you’re only allowed entrance to sororities, fraternities or elite social clubs to black that are able to display angled type features. They’d go through a series of tests to see if you fit the belt.
One well-known test was the brown paper bag test. Where if you are lighter than a brown paper bag you’re in! But if you are darker than a brown paper bag you’re out. Another well-known test was the pencil test, where they would take a pencil and run it through your hair to make sure that it’s straight enough that the pencil wouldn’t get stuck.
The last test was called the shadow test, where they would take a flashlight and shine it against your profile and look at the shadow that your profile made against the wall. And if it matches that of a white person’s profile, you’re fine. But if it didn’t, you’re out.
Now, though these practices are no longer in effect today the effects of them are still very much so present. I remember a common “compliment” I would often get in middle and high school, often told to me by other black males; it went to the effect of: “Oh! You’re so pretty for a dark skin girl.” And it doesn’t help that the media continuously place a premium lighter skin by retouching and photoshopping the skin of actresses of color before putting them on the cover of magazines, as can be seen here, here, here and even here.
Now, colorism is not just isolated to the US, its effects are global, as best illustrated by the skin lightening and skin bleaching creams all over the world. In India and Asia alone skin lightening and skin bleaching is a multi-billion dollar business. Despite the harmful toxins that are present in these products, people are still willing to take the risk and use them in order to achieve what they are led to believe is beautiful. And beauty products have flocked on this insight. One known brand, “Vaseline”, even partnered with Facebook; came up with an app that would lighten the skin of you profile picture in order to promote their skin lightening cream. And you can’t travel throughout Asia without being inundated by advertising and commercials that promise happiness and success if you could just be a little bit lighter.