It happens in modeling, advertising, the big screen and the small stage. The industry is making progress, but challenges still exist.
We talked to six dark-skinned black women about the issues they’ve encountered in the entertainment industry and how they’ve moved past them. Here’s the experiences of Ashley Blaine Featherson, Charnele Brown, Danielle Brooks, Diamond White, Dimma Umeh, and Hanna Lashay.
Dimma Umeh, Nigerian beauty & fashion blogger
“I review beauty products and often get emails from people saying, “Oh, Dimma, can you please recommend something to make my skin glow?” Or, “Dimma, can you recommend something to make my skin fresh?” Or, “Dimma, can you recommend something to make my skin clean?”
Glow, fresh, clean: these are words that people use when they want someone to recommend bleaching products to them.
In all honesty, up until recently – really recently – skin bleaching was considered to be normal in Nigeria. Normal. I grew up around aunties that bleached; a lot of us grew up around extended family members that did.
It’s this whole thing of them wanting to look more beautiful – wanting to look, I guess, the way they feel men want women to look, because a lot of Nigerian men tend to prefer light-skinned women. Growing up, someone who was light-skinned was automatically considered better looking.
But then again, I feel like a lot of people were also consuming bleaching products not necessarily because they wanted to bleach, but out of ignorance. Black people are prone to hyperpigmentation. We’re out in the sun, it makes our spots darker. It leads to dark patches. If you’re trying to fix it, that’s not necessarily a bad thing – but for a long time, we did not have lot of healthy, safe options for tackling such minor issues.
You go to the market and the only things people are shoving at you have hydroquinone and steroids, and nothing with plant-based ingredients or harmless active ingredients. So you buy products, and it bleaches you. Growing up, someone who was light-skinned was automatically considered better looking
My mom had seven children, and I’m a lot darker in complexion than my sisters. When I was a child I would hear adults say, “Well, why did you come out dark-skinned? You should have been light like your mom or your sister. Why did you take after your dad?” My mom was very, very quick to not turn it into a big theme. She always made a conscious decision to come and tell you personally to not mind that person. But for a lot of people, that’s not the case.
It’s that type of talk that leads to bleaching. It’s that type of talk that dictates the way that some banks hire people, or would hire people for certain positions because, for example, in marketing, you engage and interact with customers.
Fortunately, the newer skin-care campaigns I see now try to be inclusive. You now see billboards with very dark-skinned women. So if companies are trying to do a campaign that shows that it works for everybody, then they have a good range of people.”
Ashley Blaine Featherson, Actor, Dear White People
“I'll never forget this time I was in college, I was probably 19, and my best friend – who’s lighter – and I were sitting around with two of our guy friends. One said, “Ashley, you’re the only dark-skinned girl I think is pretty.” I said, “Wait, what?” He replied, “Yeah, I don’t really find dark-skinned girls attractive. I don’t know, it’s just something about being darker that just makes me feel like y’all gotta be dirtier. But I don’t feel that about you.”
“Look at the women around you,” I said. “Look at your mom. Look at your grandma. Look at your sisters. Why is it that you would automatically think that a woman of the same race as you, that just because she’s darker she’s not practicing proper hygiene?”
I think he expected me to be flattered by him saying that I was the exception, but I was so deeply hurt and offended. If this man feels this way and is outwardly saying this to me, how many other men feel this way and look me and my friends in my face everyday?
Throughout my life, being dark has often been associated with being less desirable. And if we are more desired, we can be festishized. That is tough, too. I don’t want someone to be into me because they’re fascinated by the darkness of my skin. Throughout my life, being dark has often been associated with being less desirable.
The show I am on, Dear White People, constantly tackles colorism in an authentic, organic, and extremely candid way. So much so that I think it’s hard for people to digest because they want to act like it doesn’t exist. There are celebrities or people of cultural influence speaking out, but it’s not enough. There’s still so many of us who are suffering in silence and don’t feel comfortable enough talking about it. It’s easier to not deal with it or act like it doesn’t exist. But for me, I made a choice to not close my eyes to it.
Part of what makes me feel beautiful is that I know where I came from. I know our ancestors’ history. I know the type of lineage I come from. I know what kind of people I come from. I know how strong we are, how strong they were in order for me to even be here. That gives me so much strength and perseverance to keep going, and to continue being unapologetically me.”
Diamond White, Singer The Color Purple
“Colorism is not an easy thing to get through, especially because it’s so embedded in society. We glaze over that, but it’s recycled information from other people.
Even though it is changing now, I still think that people tend to gravitate towards not-dark-skinned women. People like me are trying to change that, and I think it’s very possible. I just feel like if I could change the world, colorism wouldn’t be a thing. You’d look at a dark skinned woman and be like, “Oh, yeah, she’s just a girl. She’s a woman,” and not, “Oh, she’s dark skinned.”
It’s hard, and it’s a cliché, but it does get better as you age and learn about yourself. You get to learn just not to care as much. There’s a freedom that comes with that. It takes what feels like forever, but it is progress – even making baby steps can take time. You might get pushed back a little bit, but the feeling better about yourself and slowly achieving a place where you can live and not think about what anyone thinks about you is amazing and worth all the struggles, the breakdowns and the tears.”
Danielle Brooks, Actor and singer, Orange is the New Black
“I don’t remember someone directly telling me, “Danielle, because you’re dark-skinned, I don’t like you,” but I think I’ve always been affected by what I’ve seen: in middle school, as you play tag, most of the boys would chase after the light-skinned girls and not the dark-skinned girls. Those are the things that make you realize, maybe they don’t like me because I’m dark-skinned.
I’ve seen what not seeing someone does. People like me were not on TV, not in magazines, not leading shows or plays. You end up thinking, “Well, I see this woman, she’s light skinned, she has straight hair. I see that’s what they like, so I must not be enough.”
Instead of soaking in that – that feeling of not doing enough – I fight that by changing my mindset. You have the opportunity to show them something different. The reason I write songs like Black Woman is for the next generation of young girls to have examples of people saying, “You are enough, just the way you are.”
I’ve definitely had my struggles being dark-skinned, but I also have had beautiful, beautiful memories and moments. If I wasn’t who I was, who’s to say? I wouldn’t have been on Orange Is The New Black, or got to model for Christian Siriano, or been in The Color Purple. I’ve definitely had my struggles being dark-skinned, but I also have had beautiful, beautiful memories and moments
Ultimately, I’m glad I got into this industry, and that I’ve developed the support I need here. There needs to be some change in Hollywood and what it really comes down to, to state the obvious, is hiring women of color. The good thing is that you have people like Lena Waithe, Janet Mock and Jenji Kohan and you know there are some other people coming up. There is a sense that people are really shifting things.
So I want to say – not just to dark skin girls, but all women of different shades – to love on each other and talk to one another. Have conversations. We have to verbalize it. Tell each other that you’re beautiful. Don’t get caught up in putting each other down. Just know that we are all sisters and we all have struggles.
It’s healthier to stay on that positive side than to dwell on “such and such don’t like me ‘cause I’m too dark skinned’”. It’s limiting. I don’t allow people or the world to tell me that my skin is my limitation. I don’t look at my skin as a limitation. I look at it as a gift and it’s truly beautiful.”
Hanna Lashay, Singer and model
“I feel like the modeling industry is definitely improving. I think there’s a lot of other ways and avenues that we can open a bigger discussion for it. I can definitely say it’s evolved more over the past three to five years, but there’s always room for expansion. I see more people of color in our daily network, in magazines, campaigns and commercials. I just see more opportunities being created for us. I also see us being able to speak our voices and be more honest about how we feel and not being always silenced. We’re putting our foot down a little more.
I would encourage aspiring models to create their own path and their own identity. Individuality is so important when you’re creating any kind of art so finding something that makes you, that separates you, is so important – especially in the fashion industry. There are hundreds of models popping up everyday and bringing new things to the table. Finding what is your strength and honing it is my advice.
That, and continue the conversation. Continue to have the conversations about it and not take no for an answer. The industry can be somewhat harder for us girls of color so you will naturally have to put a little more work but know that it’s worth it and it will pay off long term.”
Charnele Brown, Actress, A Different World
“Back in the 1970s and 1980s, Hollywood and theater dealt mostly with a lot of fair-skin black people. I was acting in New York, and I had these two managers, lovely ladies. I wanted to sign up with them, and they liked me. It was really great. But they told me, “Well, your color is not in this season.”
I was like, “Excuse me?”
Those things don’t register with me, because that’s not how I was taught to think of myself. Growing up, I was always taught to love me. So I replied, “What are you talking about?”
She said, “Well, they’re not looking for dark-skinned women. If you notice, every woman is really light-skinned in the industry.”
“Well, what do we do? Are you not going to sign me or what?”
“No, we’re gonna sign you, but just hold tight.”
I came in on Broadway and they called me and said, “You’re not gonna believe this, but they’re looking for a call for Sarafina.” When I got the job, I realized I was the darkest one in the cast. The other black actors were all light-skinned.
When I was on A Different World, we had black American makeup artists. They made us look great and beautiful, but I’ve had experiences where I did come in and they didn’t really know how to apply makeup for me. I didn’t get mad because if you don’t know, you don’t know.
Right now, we’re fighting to have more people in the union so we can have more black Americans and people of color doing our makeup.
I always knew that on all-white sets, they’re not gonna know how to do my makeup. They’re not gonna know how to do my hair. I’m going to do it myself.
Right now, I believe that Broadway, even though we still have our challenges, is changing. It’s not all peachy keen. It’s not a perfect environment, but it’s progress. It’s better than it was 10 years ago.”
Source: The Guardian