Chika Okoro : How colorism shapes our standards of beauty


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, Beyoncé's the prototype hit 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 toned." 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, and see 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 shoved 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 feeling of betrayal slipped away for the more familiar feeling 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 Anglo features, and were given preferential treatment and allowed to work inside the house, doing less strenuous work, as opposed to the darker skinned slaves that had to work out in the fields, doing more laborious work.

Even after slavery was abolished, whites still gave more preferential treatment to blacks that had more Anglo-type features, giving them better access to jobs, housing and education. The thing is, though, even within the black community, black people used skin tone and facial features to discriminate against each other. They would only allow entrance into sororities, fraternities or elite social clubs to blacks that were able to display Anglo-type features. They'd go through a series of tests to see if you fit the bill.

One well-known test was the "brown paper bag" test. Where if you were lighter than a brown paper bag, you're in! But if you were 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 so 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 matched 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 skinned girl." And it doesn't help that the media continues to place a premium on 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 to come 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. (Laughter) Studies have shown that these messages that we see at a young age have a profound effect on us.

In 2010, CNN did a study where they interviewed young children, just five, six, seven years old, and asked them to place values and attributes to people based on their skin tone. Here's a clip from that study. (Video starts) Interviewer: And why is she the smart child? Girl: Because she is white. Interviewer: OK. Show me the dumb child. And why is she the dumb child? Girl: Because she's black. Interviewer: Well, show me the ugly child. And why is she the ugly child? Girl: Because she's black.

Interviewer: Show me the good-looking child. And why is she the good-looking child? Girl: Because she's light-skinned.

Chika Okoro: These messages that we see at such a young age and these messages that we internalize, they stay with us. They stayed with me. And though I denied it and blocked it out and I say I'm strong, I'm smart, I'm accomplished, I'm beautiful, I'm here at Stanford and I'm not a D girl, this stuff, these messages, they stayed with me. And they manifest in this voice that makes me question, makes me doubt and makes me think: "But wait ..." "Am I a D girl?" It stays with me. And so now, whenever someone gives me compliment or says, "Oh! You look nice, you look pretty," the voice fills in the rest of the sentence with: "for a dark skinned girl." It stays with me. And it makes me question my intentions because even though I say that I have these extensions just for fun and that I like them, that voice says "No!" "You got them because you're trying to reach a beauty standard you can actually never obtain."

It stays with me. Even as I go to send a simple text message, that voice in my head tells me that I should be embarrassed or ashamed when I scroll all the way to the end, to the last, darkest emoji. It stays with me. But I don't want it to stay with me. And the good thing is it doesn't have to. Because these beauty preferences that we have, they're not something we are born with, they're learned. And if they're learned, they can be unlearned.

Among us are CEOs and co-founders, directors of marketing, you all are the arbiters of what society considers beautiful by deciding who you chose to put in your advertising or who you chose to be the face of you brand. So you have the opportunity to make the unconventional choice. And those of us that consume these messages, we play our role too. Because the first step to change is awareness.

And now everyone in this room is a little more aware and will see the world just a little bit differently. And you don't have to passively accept what society tells us to think is beautiful. We can question it, and we can challenge the status quo. Because when we do, we get one step closer to broadening the standard of beauty and creating a society where the world can see that D girls are beautiful too.

Thank you.