Black Actresses Speak Out About Colorism

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Gabrielle Union, Tika Sumpter, and Lupita Nyong’o have all been praised for their good looks. Because they are dark-skinned, however, they have all been asked to discuss how colorism, or skin color discrimination, affected their self-esteem. These women and other actresses, such as Keke Palmer and Vanessa Williams, have all had unique experiences in and out of the entertainment industry based on their skin color. Hearing them discuss their encounters, or lack thereof, with colorism, sheds light on the hurdles that have yet to be overcome in race relations.

Pretty For a Dark-Skinned Girl

Actress Keke Palmer of “Akeelah and the Bee” fame discussed her desire to be lighter-skinned while sitting on the Hollywood Confidential Panel in 2013.

“When I was like 5 years old I used to pray to have light skin because I would always hear how pretty that little light skin girl was, or I would hear I was pretty ‘to be dark skinned,’” Palmer revealed. “It wasn’t until I was 13 that I really learned to appreciate my skin color and know that I was beautiful.” The actress went on to say that African Americans need “to stop separating ourselves by how dark or how light we are.”

Praying For Light Skin

Palmer’s prayer for lighter skin sounds eerily similar to Lupita Nyong’o’s prayers as a youth. The Oscar winner revealed in early 2014 that she, too, begged God for lighter skin. Teased and bullied for her dark skin, Nyong’o desperately believed that God would answer her prayer.

“The morning would come and I would be so excited about seeing my new skin that I would refuse to look down at myself until I was in front of a mirror because I wanted to see my fair face first,” she said. “And every day I experienced the same disappointment of being just as dark as I was the day before.”

The success of dark-skinned model Alek Wek helped Nyong’o to appreciate her skin color.

“A celebrated model, she was dark as night, she was on all of the runways and in every magazine and everyone was talking about how beautiful she was.”
“Even Oprah called her beautiful and that made it a fact. I couldn’t believe that people were embracing a woman who looked so much like me as beautiful. My complexion had always been an obstacle to overcome and all of a sudden Oprah was telling me it wasn’t.”

Colorism Still Affects Gabrielle Union

Actress Gabrielle Union has no shortage of admirers but she revealed in 2010 that growing up in an all-white town led to her developing low self-esteem, particularly about her skin color. Her white classmates did not pursue her romantically and she did not meet Black boys until she, an athlete, headed off to basketball camp.

“When I got to go to basketball camp and I got to be around Black boys, I was like cool…until I got dumped…for a light skinned girl,” she said. “And then that whole thing started. My hair isn’t straight enough. My nose isn’t pointy enough. My lips are too big. My boobs aren’t big enough. And you start going through all of that. And I realize as I’ve gotten older a lot of issues that I was dealing with at 15, I am still dealing with today.”

Union said that she’s also witnessed her teenaged niece confront the same issues with skin color and hair texture, leading her to believe “that there is a lot more work to do be done.”

In Hollywood, where there’s a high premium on looks, Union said that she continues to grapple with insecurities.

“In the business that I am in now, it is incredibly tough, and to be honest, sometimes it is hard to keep my head above the water, sometimes I feel like I’m drowning,” she said. “…You don’t get a job, and you immediately want to blame it on, if my hair was different, or maybe if my nose…or they just want to go with light-skin girls, and you start to doubt yourself, and the self-doubts and the low self-esteem starts to creep in.”

Tika Sumpter Never Felt Less Than

Actress Tika Sumpter remarked in 2014 that being dark-skinned never made her feel less than her five siblings, all of whom are lighter than she is. She said that her mother, who is lighter than her, and her father, who is also dark-skinned, always appreciated her complexion.

“I never felt less than, so even growing up and getting into this business I always felt like well yeah of course you’re going to like me,” she told Oprah Winfrey. “…I never felt like, wow, the light-skinned girl—she’s going to get all the boys. Growing up I was like, yeah, of course I’m cute. …Of course I’m going to be the president of my class three years in a row. I was never made to feel less than, and it starts at home. It really does.”

Hollywood Poses Challenges For All Black Women

Actress Vanessa Williams, who has light skin and eyes, was asked in 2014 to discuss the success of Lupita Nyong’o and whether skin color poses a barrier for dark-skinned women.

“Getting a good role is hard no matter what you look like, and Lupita did a phenomenal job,” Williams said. “She went to Yale School of Drama and this was the first thing she did out of her tutelage there and she’s a brilliant actress… She’s amazing because she embodied that role and made you feel.
“It’s hard to get good roles anyway, no matter how fair your skin is…no matter how brown your skin is. It’s up to you to make the best out of each opportunity that you’re given.”
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Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "Black Actresses Speak Out About Colorism." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Nittle, Nadra Kareem. (2021, February 16). Black Actresses Speak Out About Colorism. Retrieved from Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "Black Actresses Speak Out About Colorism." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 18, 2021).