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Hollywood’s Definition Of A “Pretty Black Girl”

"Oh, she light-skinned" is not an endearing phrase. It also shouldn't be part of the criteria for working in Hollywood, but these stars are speaking up about colorism and it's bleak effects.

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DAMN. Kendrick Lamar is sitting at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 with his latest album released this year, which encapsulated not only rising stardom, but also black masculinity. But the socially cognizant artist once problematically sang about having some type of DNA: “We speeding on the 405 passing Westchester/ You know the light-skin girls in all the little dresses, good Lord.” The song, “Art of Peer Pressure,” references a Los Angeles region dominated by fair-skinned women. But what does their skin tone contribute to the magnification of the beauty of these women? It doesn’t, but that’s what viewers are hearing and seeing.

People magazine names the “World’s Most Beautiful Woman” every year on their cover. Buzzfeed identifies three keys to landing the title:

1. "Be famous."

2. "Be a woman."

3. "Be white."

There are only three exceptions to the the third rule: Halle Berry, Beyoncé Knowles and Lupita Nyong’o. And two of the three women, Berry and Knowles, have skin the complexion of caramel – a seemingly sweet compliment with bitter repercussions to those who aren’t considered the “fairest of the land.”

Classified as racism within the races, colorism emerges as the preference of lighter skinned to darker skinned. This binary overshadows the diligence of darker African American actresses while highlighting the achievements of those with a lighter complexion. But Hollywood already has a problem against black women in general: a study conducted by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism titled “Inclusion or Invisibility? Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment” found that this demographic only makes up 33.9% of characters on screen. But darker actresses have long been thrown to the wayside.

In 2013, English actress Thandie Newton was cast to play Olanna, the main character from the Igbo tribe in Nigeria of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s fictional novel Half of a Yellow Sun. Newton’s selection, as reported by The Guardian, caused an uproar and eventually an online petition:

“Thandie Newton is an accomplished and talented actress. However, she is not Igbo, she is not Nigerian, and she does not physically resemble Igbo women in the slightest. This petition is important because we live in a world where mass media sells us the belief that white, and anything close to white, is right, and black is not only wrong, it is unattractive, and undesirable. The casting of Thandie Newton as an Igbo woman is not only false, it helps promote the idea that light skin and curly hair is the only way a black woman can be represented in the media, because that is the only way they are attractive.”

Hollywood’s vanishing trick of darker African American actresses is as questionable as its whitewashing effect that defines what is attractive to look at and be associated with in a relationship. The article on The Guardian‘s website goes further on to say that even in the romantic sphere, colorism finds its place as lighter woman have a 15% greater chance of getting married. Because they look like a chewy, sticky candy.

Not only does that attribute better guarantee someone a life partner, but also membership into certain organizations. According to BET, one’s skin tone was worth more than a recommendation letter about 50 years ago: “HBCUs, sororities and other civic organizations used what was known as the Paper Bag Test to decide on admission. If you were the same color – or preferably lighter – than a paper bag, you were in. If you were darker than a paper bag, you had to keep it moving.”

If darker skinned African Americans are not already slapped in the face, a double-standard smacks fair-skinned people who have a hard time legitimizing their race. Margaret Hunter, under the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Mills College, wrote light skin has negative traits “with regard to ethnic legitimacy or authenticity. In many ethnic communities, people view darker-skin tones as more ethnically authentic. For example, light-skinned and biracial people often report feeling left out or pushed out of co-ethnic groups. They report other people’s perceptions of their racial identity as a common source of conflict or discomfort.” Additionally, the perception of light skinned people leads to a higher class profile that idealizes them.

The fetish that surrounds women such as Beyoncé and Paula Patton dehumanizes them. Patton, who plays a soon-to-be bride in the nearly all-black cast of Jumping the Broom, is ridiculed by her future mother-in-law for being too white, stemming from not only her physical traits but her family’s economic status. On the other hand, those darker-skinned in the film make satirical commentary on the associated terms of their complexion:

“Okay, don’t be too hasty. I usually don’t talk to dark-skinned girls, but I’m making an exception for you. So, how about we…”

“You don’t like handcuffs.”

“That is not the same thing, Jason.”

“Rude, ghetto, same thing.”

The undisciplined stereotype of darker African Americans in general speaks to a history of mass incarceration, unruly behavior and kinky attractions – all of which treat them as fools. The darker one is lends to the comedy of the Hollywood production at hand. Because once that hand fails the Paper Bag Test, the more likely darker skinned women are to be “either erased altogether or reduced to troublesome stereotypical characters,” according to BET.

The magic tricks the film industry, as well as the music industry, routinely performs accentuate the childishness of the issue – the idea that one’s skin evaluates their worth. A new hashtag, #LeaveColorismtoCrayola, speaks to this child’s play and entitles the popular crayon company to be the only business responsible for fostering the idea of a favorite shade within their audience members. Kindergartners picking between carnation pink and indigo should be of the most important distinction kids should be making, as opposed to the 2010 CNN study where both black and white kids favored lighter-skinned dolls.

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The scariest part? There was minimally no difference between children ages 4 to 5 and ages 9 to 10: “The fact that there were no differences between younger children, who are very spontaneous because of where they are developmentally, versus older children, who are more thoughtful, given where they are in their thinking, I was a little surprised that we did not find differences,” said Margaret Beale Spencer, child psychologist and University of Chicago professor hired by CNN to conduct the study.

Racism is not an inherent trait – it is something taught, a system passed down to future generations from former ones, and Hollywood producers have to hire those, unlike Thandie Newton, that accurately represent the characters being played, but also remove the ideology that there is no spotlight for darker actresses. Every actress, regardless of her skin tone, deserves her time to shine and that can only be brought forth if skin tone binaries are removed.

Dolls and actresses, especially the magazine cover ones, need to produce more positive imagery that is diverse, disciplined and dedicated to the mission of showing all shades of beauty. Hollywood can have their caramels with their dark chocolate, milk chocolate and white chocolate. They’re good in their own ways, but sweet all the same. So leave the colorism to Crayola and now that one’s fed, they can enjoy the show.

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