Pretty Hurts: 'Colorism in Fashion and Society'—a Discussion

Suzen Baraka, left, Diandra Forrest, Nyakim Gatwech, Yves Mathieu and Karen Francis discuss “Colorism in Fashion and Society” on June 22, 2019.
Photo: Karen J. Francis (@culturebykaren)

On the topic of colorism, model and activist Yves Mathieu summarized its impact like this: “Sometimes it is our own people that make us feel smallest and put us in this mental place that we should not be in.”

And this is how a recent panel discussion, coordinated by event curator Forrest Renaissance and fundraising site Fondae titled “Colorism in Fashion and Society,” began: with poignancy and a commitment to telling the truth.

Alice Walker is among the first people credited with using the term colorism in print, defining it in 1982 as “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color,” according to the Los Angeles Times archives. Author Lori L. Tharps writes in her book, Same Family, Different Colors, that “light-skin preference had been common practice in the black community for generations, but Walker gave it a name and marked it as an evil that must be stopped in order for African Americans to progress as a people.”

I could not agree more. And recently, I had the good fortune to moderate a colorism discussion with a courageous group who spoke with vulnerability about their own brushes with prejudice: Diandra Forrest, an activist and perhaps the world’s most well-known female model with albinism; Nyakim Gatwech, a Sudanese model and activist, affectionately dubbed the “Queen of Dark”; Yves Mathieu, a biracial model, artist, activist and youth mentor; and Suzen Baraka, an actress and lawyer who openly discussed the challenges—and privileges—of being a biracial woman in America.

For Suzen, growing up with a Korean mother and black father was complicated. Her mother is very image-conscious and encouraged Suzen to embrace her Korean attributes, requesting that she straighten her hair, maintain a thin frame and avoid the sun. Suzen’s father, on the other hand, cautioned her that the world would only see her as black, not Korean. And as she grew into her black identity, she struggled to reconcile her father’s encouragement of her blackness with his non-interest in dating black women.

Advertisement

Despite these challenges, Suzen admits that “[in our society], I have always experienced a privilege because of my proximity to whiteness...and I think that biracial individuals need to acknowledge that privilege.” Whether in professional or personal settings, she is aware of the advantages that her biracial identity has afforded her.

Her long, looser curls, for example, have always garnered attention from black men, in particular. She recounts how some of them have grabbed her head— without permission—to check for a weave. And one brother praised her recently, saying he loved that when he ran his hand through her hair, “it didn’t get stuck like with other black girls.”

Advertisement

I asked Suzen if she called these men out for comments and behavior so deeply rooted in the colonizer’s ideal of beauty. For Suzen, it’s complicated. She acknowledges that there is a reluctance to spurn the positive attention. On the other hand, there is an internal conflict because someone’s praise for only certain attributes automatically feels like a rejection of other qualities that she feels are equally integral to her identity.

Advertisement

Yves Mathieu has a zero-tolerance policy for colorist speech and does not hesitate to snuff it out. “We cannot break down the issues of colorism until we confront our own people because it is so evident in our culture, our music, and our media,” he advises. “Until you’re ready to call somebody out and not be friends with them, you’re not ready to confront colorism.”

Yves describes his black father as “beautifully dark” and of West Indian descent. He only met him once as a young child; shortly afterward, his father was sentenced to life in prison for rape and murder. The sins of his father reverberated in young Yves’s life in ways that no one could have anticipated: “It made me resentful towards my blackness. I would think of my blackness in terms of [my father’s] identity because it was the only reference I had—this crime and this person.”

Advertisement

While he struggled to embrace his blackness, he learned early on that some of his white family members were struggling to accept him fully as well. He remembers going fishing with his white grandfather as a young boy. When another white gentleman approached and asked Yves’s grandfather how he knew Yves, his grandfather chose silence. He offered no acknowledgment of their familial relationship; the heaviness of that silence is something Yves can still feel.

Adding to his confusion, Yves was being bullied at school—by other black children. He remembers feeling particularly hurt by their rejection, given that the bullies looked just like him. According to Yves, “that was the only association I had with blackness: either being made fun of, or my birth father, who was in prison. And then, Ludacris videos on MTV. Every example of blackness around me made me feel small and not worthy of being proud of who or what I am. And it carried on this way for a long time.” By his teens, Yves was battling drug addiction, but after losing several close friends, he eventually chose a different path. He started to tattoo his face and body, both as a form of personal expression and also as a physical representation of each year of his sobriety.

Advertisement

Celebrating eight years sober this year, Yves now finds that the journey to self-love starts in the mirror when he first wakes up. “Not only am I black, but I am heavily tattooed. And it sometimes creates even more of a barrier. Because of how people have been conditioned to believe what someone who looks like me would do, they often have something [negative] to say to me.” As a result, there are days when Yves has to give himself a pep talk in preparation for how the world may greet him. And other days, he feels unstoppable, knowing that “my blackness is a superpower.”

Advertisement

Bullying and colorism were two phenomena that Nyakim Gatwech had never experienced before she came to America at the age of 14. Originally from South Sudan, Nyakim grew up in Kenya and Ethiopia. For that reason, she was always around black people of various shades, but with no specific import placed upon one shade versus another. This fostered a sense of belonging and while in Africa, she never felt unworthy because of her deeper shade.

When she moved to the States, however, all of that changed. She recalls that while her white peers would show curiosity, her black peers greeted her with hate and disdain. “[Black Americans] would look at me with disgust and make fun of me, saying I was ‘too dark.’ And I was like, ‘What does that even mean? Because you’re black too.’ I didn’t understand this concept. How they could look down on me or make fun of me when they’re black, as well?”

Advertisement

The sense of community Nyakim had experienced in Africa made it especially hard for her to understand the vitriol that she experienced simply for existing in America. Her mother couldn’t comprehend it either and so, Nyakim found herself with little support. Her black classmates would call her “monkey” and ask her if she had bathed. Some even sat on her on the school bus, feigning as though her color made it impossible to see her. Feeling completely violated and attacked, Nyakim fought back—sometimes physically—getting into many fights at her school.

Despite her ability to fight outwardly, internally, the extreme rejection she experienced was taking a toll. She became depressed and forlorn. Just as some of her family members had done, she started to consider skin bleaching. “Even though I came to this country with so much confidence in how I looked, all of that went away,” Nyakim shares. “I started doubting how I looked. I started looking at myself like ‘You are not beautiful. You are too dark. you don’t fit in this country.’” [Editor’s note: Sadly, skin bleaching is also epidemic throughout African nations.]

Advertisement

Instead of succumbing to the growing skin bleaching trend, Nyakim did the work needed to embrace herself fully—including her skin. She also decided to use her platform to heal other black women struggling on their journey to self-acceptance. A few years ago, she poured all of her pain into a self-love photo shoot that went viral. Since then, the stunning beauty has been featured in countless magazines and her social media following has exploded. Fittingly, it was the very complexion that many wanted Nyakim to hate that has led to her greatest success, and established her as a powerful voice in the global fight against colorism.

Advertisement

Familiar with the pain of being ostracized for her skin color, model Diandra Forrest’s experience bears striking parallels to Nyakim’s—but for a different reason. She was born with albinism, a condition defined as the congenital absence of color from the skin and hair. Diandra was often forced to explain her appearance as a child and teen. “Growing up, I was embarrassed to say I was black because people didn’t believe me,” she recalls. “I would try to explain albinism but it didn’t mean anything to [them]. I was definitely proud of being a black woman but I didn’t know how to get people to understand.”

The people in Diandra’s Bronx, N.Y., neighborhood had no exposure to people with albinism. Despite her insistence that she was black, many assumed that if Diandra wasn’t a shade of black they were familiar with, then she must be Latina. And since her black peers couldn’t understand her blackness, Diandra found greater acceptance among her Hispanic classmates.

Advertisement

While Diandra did not deal with the stigma that our society imposes onto dark skin, she did struggle to accept other attributes of her blackness—most notably her natural hair. Diandra’s mother started relaxing Diandra’s hair at an early age, but touchups came few and far between. After being ridiculed for her new growth, Diandra became self-conscious. This internal struggle continued into adulthood. She admits that at one time she would not leave the house without her $400 weave. “If I didn’t have my hair straight or long, it was wrapped up so nobody could see it. It was not OK for me.”

Diandra’s remarkable beauty eventually led to a successful modeling career, but the industry only complicated her already complex relationship with her hair. While simultaneously embracing her Afrocentric features and pale skin, bookers and stylists consistently rejected Diandra’s tightly curled hair. Her hair was straightened to the point of heat damage and as a result, became shorter and shorter. Eventually, Diandra decided to end this destructive cycle. “Beyond my skin color, I just had to embrace and learn to love my natural hair and really see the beauty in all of me as an adult. Because this started so young.”

Advertisement

Finding Solutions: The Chicken or the Egg Debate

At the conclusion of a powerful discourse in which panelists and audience members alike shared their most personal stories of colorism and intra-racial bias, I posed one final question:

In order to move the colorism needle, which needs to happen first: a change in fashion and entertainment that then reverberates into society? Or a change in society that is then reflected in fashion and entertainment?

Advertisement

The panelists were partially divided in their responses. Diandra, Nyakim and Suzen felt that fashion and entertainment needed to be the catalyst to affect lasting change in society. Diandra expressed, and the others supported, the belief that inclusive imagery in fashion and entertainment would “normalize” a new set of beauty standards, preferences, and ideals. For the women on the panel, the consensus was that our culture sets the trends that our society ultimately tries to emulate.

Yves, on the other hand, lamented society’s love for our culture—but not for our people. He believes that while society may seek to duplicate particular components of our aesthetic and culture as black people, nevertheless, societal ills like colorism and racism still persist. He sees that as proof that it is society that must change first, so that fashion and entertainment can more effortlessly reflect that shift.

Advertisement

Our panel concluded, not necessarily with solutions, but with a commitment to impact this issue on a larger, more sustainable scale. We also closed with a renewed passion for achieving greater awareness and authenticity within our own circles. Whether that means calling out our friends and loved ones for colorist rhetoric, or dealing with the implicit biases we ourselves hold, the marathon continues.

Share This Story

About the author

Karen J. Francis

Karen J. Francis, Esq., www.culturebykaren.com, is a writer + activist. A proud West Indian-American, she is inspired by cultural interconnectedness and explores both in her writing. @culturebykaren