Beyonce, skin colour and carrots

Beyonce was crowned most beautiful woman in the world by People Magazine this week and that resurfaced the skin colour topic with many debating whether the light skinned Beyonce is an accurate representation of “Black Beauty”.

The skin colour conversation is important, crucial even, for similar reasons that I think we should upkeep the hair conversation. It’s one we absolutely must keep having until society changes and there is no more need for it. That isn’t the case right now. Colourism is a problem. What we could call “Light-skin Privilege” enables black people of lighter complexions to more easily fit into the rigid boxes that society allows us to be human within. I’m not saying easily. But more easily. Why is that? This simple question should lead the query because it exposes the intention behind these hierarchies.
If we define our human value by the parameters of society, then the darker the woman the less her capacity to self-realize. If she furthermore is queer, or living in financial poverty, then there are even bigger obstacles. Why do we allow this insanity to continue?

However, whilst refusing to stop discussing and exposing the ways in which society works against or for us, we should also actively oppose that a society which we know is skewed defines our parameters of humanness.We should love our skin whether it’s mixed race yellow-brown or Latin American rosy-bronze or African deep brown or white as milk. Or red-black. Or palmoil-brown. Or ivory-blue. And so on. Skin is skin and there are endless shades of it. Some say 3000.

That said there are two things that make the topic of women and skin colour a sensitive one. The first is our collective memory of trauma. Memories that include histories of racism, genocide, shame, humiliation, misogyny, violence and so on. Whether its Swedish politicians laughing at caricature cakes of African women or French ones raping black hotel staff or male rappers saying that they only like women with light skin, these collective memories are often triggered by media, social institutions, everyday racism etc. and they pick on a psychological wound that we have been plastering and renaming and not letting heal.

However, there is a difference between being traumatized by history and being a prisoner of history.
To stop being prisoners of history we must seek to “un”traumatize our minds. To do that requires first of all that we acknowledge that we still need to decolonize our thinking, to stop being the “other” in order to become the “self”. So what if some (white) magazine says that this is what (black) beauty looks like. That does not mean that we must measure ourselves against their choice. As long as we are having these conversations the psychololgical decolonization process that Franz Fanon and Ngugi Wa Thiong’o have written about isn’t complete. We should engage but ask if our contribution to the conversation will help to complete the process or move it backward.

We can talk skin tone politics either emotionally, coming from that place of collective hurt, or we can address it from a desire to turn it up, down and around and understand it with clarity. The two need to exist but in separate spaces. An example of an intellectual dialogue about skin colour is the (1)Drop project. And a seeming example of an emotional dialogue  is “Dark Girls”. Seeming, because I haven’t seen it yet so I’m guessing from the trailer.

In 1934 Ernest Hemingway wrote in a letter to Scott Fitzgerald that the latter needs to forget his personal tragedy to become a better writer. He said:

Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt use it—don’t cheat with it. Be as faithful to it as a scientist—but don’t think anything is of any importance because it happens to you or anyone belonging to you.

When it comes to discussions on skin color and identity, I think those words can guide the conversation. No matter the skin-colour related personal tragedies we all have, we must use the hurt, not let it use us. I hope. Pray.

The second thing that makes skin colour a sensitive topic for women is gender. Making women believe in an idealized type of feminine beauty is a business and it’s supported by copious amount of money. But if we can see the absurdity of this, it becomes impossible to engage in that debate in a way that affects our self-image.

The absurdity is this. At some point in history some of our dear ancestors decided that uniformity was the way forward. The ideal became that we should all look the same, live the same way, marry at the same age in the same format, define success in the same terms and so on.

Take for example carrots. In their original form may take any of the following shapes


But with some help from modern day farming technology most carrots look like this.

Women, who are also human beings, nowadays look something like this in their thirties


Women, as commodities in this same system of endless consumerism and infinite self-improvement, at any age, of any race, strive to look like

Why? Because Barbie-girl sells. She sells music. She sells movies. She sells cars , she sells perfume and she even promotes animal rights. So every year, recession or no recession, plastic surgery stats keep increasing giving more and more clout to the singular comatose feminine ideal.

This may all sound quite obvious but to be honest most of the skin colour debates I read makes me think that we actually need to go back to basics. We need to find a way that we can neither sweep this conversation under the carpet nor attach to it even more trauma for future generations. What do you think? Is there a progressive way to discuss the topic?




  • IyawoWest

    I don’t see white people wasting time over debates like this: “Is Lindsay Lohan TANNED enough? Does Lindsay’s tanned skin point to an intense desire to be BLACK? People Magazine investigates!”



    Whether I’m fixing weaves, or I’m in braids, it’s all CHOICE. The desire to switch things up. Hey! I don’t look good in short hair. My face looks round and ugh! So? I like long hair! Makes my face look slimmer. Vanity. That’s what it is. I want to look in the mirror and smile. It’s not about me wanting to look WHITE? Why? I don’t want to have their poatsy white skin! I like my brown one. But hey, face gets sunburned, looks darker than neck. So what do I do? Dab on some toning cream at night. Voila! Brighter skin. What is this? VANITY. I want to look good. Does it mean I want to look like Beyonce? Nah.

    Vanity. That’s it. Whether you’re Black, White, Hispanic, Latina…. Whatever. Aliens probably get vain too. They want pearly skin instead of dull ashy grey. Who knows?!
    Not everything is about race.
    Not always.
    My 2 cents.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. Choice is always paramount and not everything is about race. Agreed. However, as much as I know many women that prefer long hair, it also seems many attach straight/wavy indian hair and not long african textured hair. So then I’m not always sure whether it’s about length or texture.

      As for face being more tanned than neck, I don’t know what to say. My face and neck aren’t always the same shade but I wouldn’t put anything harmful on it for vanity.
      We have to ask how far we are willing to go for vanity and where the ideal that we are aiming for comes from anyway?

      As for Lindsay Lohan, to be honest with you, I couldn’t care less in this context if white people are debating her skin tan or not. This post is about the colourism issue that women of colour are dealing with for any number of reasons.

  • teachermrw

    Choice, yes. But, what is directing the choice? I”m not always certain that it truly emerges from within.

  • Anna Renee

    Yes to Teachermrw. Indeed who/what is directing the choice? How do we know the difference?

    “…Women, as commodities in this same system of endless consumerism and infinite self-improvement, at any age, of any race, strive to look like [Barbie picture] Why? Because Barbie-girl sells. She sells music. She sells movies. She sells cars , she sells perfume and she even promotes animal rights…”

    My question: WHY does Barbie sell? Because she was chosen to sell. And sell she does. But in the sales world, they know that what sells today wont sell tomorrow.
    Yet women are still talking about these things. I think it has to do with our egos if we would own up and admit it. Though we know something is wrong with these narrow representations, we still desire the ego gratification of someone outside of ourselves saying “YES!” to us. We love to hear “It’s YOU” from those outside of us.

    Once we let go of our feminine egos, it becomes easier to dismiss these conversations and just accept who we are and accept that some will love us for who we are, and some won’t. Point blank and simple as that. That’s natural and we shouldn’t be bothered by it.

    Well if “they” say Beyonce is the most beautiful in the world, then let them. I say I’m the most beautiful. Here’s aother sister who I proclaim as the most beautiful woman in the world: Sister Nubia I [youtube=]

    • MsAfropolitan

      I’d missed this great comment! Thanks sister. I think of Audre Lorde who said “For to survive in the mouth of this dragon we call america, we have to learn this first and most vital lesson – that we were never meant to survive.” Getting upset, and feeling insecure about these things makes me think of that lesson.

  • Anna Renee

    A better link to Sister Nubia I

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks, she is precious!

  • Mike

    Not really following what the color of carrots has to do with Beyonce? Why carrots and not potatoes? Just pick any other fruit and you have an equally compelling argument.

  • Nana Darkoa

    I enjoyed this article. I agree that we should learn to love ourselves and see our inner and outer beauty. Its hard when the outside world constantly perpetuates beauty in a one dimensional way, but this is where we must surround ourselves with loving sisters and communities that affirm us. We must also do those things that make us feel and look beautiful – eat well, laugh, dance, play, wear clothes that suit us…these are the things that make me feel beautiful. And when I feel beautiful it matters little what others think.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Hi Nana! Thanks for your comment. Indeed, it’s about finding those communities and that place within which loves and affirms and rejects one-dimensional beauty ideals. And living a life with quality moments.

      Society will not make us human, even though it ideally shouldn’t impede on this right. Therefore I liked the note from Hemingway about forgetting ones own personal tragedy, and seeing the absurdity and the lie in what we are being sold. Then one realises to stop expecting society to confirm ones humanity.

      When I wrote this I was also thinking of how we hardly ever see old women in popular culture. Not in movies, concerts,mags etc. But old women of all races do of course exist and if they waited for society to validate them, they would be waiting in vain. So they either resort to plastic surgery as many do, or they gracefully decide to take control of their lives and go against the mainstream.

  • Ben

    I’m a white guy so maybe I’m missing the point here, but if People Magazine had, in their infinite wisdom, crowned Alek Wek “the most beautiful woman in the world” would this discussion be any different?
    Surely the problem lies in the commodification of beauty by the media/advertising industry. Their desire to set a bar that defines beauty is driven by the need to perpetuate the multi-billion dollar insecurity industry.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Yeah, you are missing the point…

  • Jeanette’s Daughter

    Well, belatedly as you can see the conversation has continued and in fact become very heated in 2013. One thing: an HBCU business school routinely counsels its graduates to process or cut their hair because corporate America would abhor their natural features and they’d never succeed in business. Similarly, the black female head of a private charter school ejected a seven year old girl from its institution because of her “disruptive’ hair style – locs – and further defended the school policy agains, afros, afro puffs, cornrows, etc. So, I am not sure what you mean by a progressive approach. We have clear examples of the non-progressive approaches and their results. Here is what I know from experience, observation and study about these battles over our bodies: 1) such battles are fought best by fighting first on the home terrain before they ever reach People Magazine and/or the white gaze, Places where black children are traumatized in their families, by their peers and in the major institutions of school, church and media need to be held accountable by the opposition. That would be you MsAfropolitan and others like-minded. Put simply, you/we are the progressive response and it is working. I have been wearing my hair natural: short, long braided whatever since my teen years. It has not kept me from being an academic scholar, attending college, marrying, working at the senior staff level, raising healthy children who do not have these racist ideas about other black and non-white people, and generally claiming and enjoying my life. Let resistance be our motto as instructed by Frederick Douglas on the question of slavery and racism in America, resistance and opposition to any and all who would deny us the opportunity to get ahead in life with our black looks intact. That served us well in the past, and may continue to do so as long as we do not succumb to the inner and external voices that urge or coerce. 2) When black people were engaged in radical thinking and actions to defeat racism under the law and to challenge in a parallel fashion the cultures of white supremacy internal and external, there was less friction between the colours and the textures, more acceptance of the marvelous variety of black looks. The takeaway in the argument about who is beautiful is that who is beautiful is who is helped, who is nurtured, who is advanced. We of the 3000 skin colors need to start helping and nurturing and advancing all children of African DNA ( the genotype AND the phenotype) without regard to their complexion and hair textures, and their gender. That. is. all. Let those adult women who think they are choosing freely to bleach the skin, change/destroy the natural hair texture, ‘correct’ the facial features (nose/eyes/lips) do so. Ignore them! The progressive approach is to accentuate that which you/we want to prevail.