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In a Post-'Black Panther' World, Can Skin-Lightening Finally Stop?

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Danai Gurira in (L-R): Bello, Pride and DuJour magazines.

Over the weekend, history was made when, for the very first time, African American directors were responsible for the top two movies in the country. One of them, A Wrinkle in Time, was directed by a woman (Ava DuVernay). The other, Black Panther, just passed the one billion dollar threshold in sales, having accounted for 43% of all movie tickets sold in February. Both of these huge hits were led by a majority-black cast.

For the last year, the box office has become a loud speaker, declaring over and over again that, yes, diversity does sell. Girls Trip was one of the biggest hits of last summer. Worldwide, Hidden Figures took $230.1 million, and Get Out raked in $251.2 million, before turning Jordan Peele into an Oscar winner. None of this should come as a surprise to the movie industry -- in 2014, minorities (37 percent of the population) bought 46 percent of movie tickets.

If money does, in fact, talk, it would make sense for all facets of our popular culture -- TV, fashion, the beauty industry, print media -- to give the nation what it so obviously wants, and diversify at every opportunity. Television has finally started taking steps, giving Issa Rae, DeWanda Wise, and Danai Gurira center stage in InsecureShe's Gotta Have It, and The Walking Dead respectively. We can also thank ABC for Black-ish and its youthful spin-off, Grown-ish. And Sterling K. Brown from This is Us is rapidly turning into one of the hottest actors in the country, thanks to a bumper awards season and a triumphant performance hosting SNL over the weekend.

Changes are definitely afoot. But while painfully overdue progress feels like it's finally being made on the big screen, other facets of our culture aren't doing nearly as well.


In 2014 and 2015, only 19 percent of magazine cover stars were people of color. That went up to 35 percent in 2016, but flatlined in 2017 at 32 percent. In 2017, only 5 percent of lifestyle magazine cover stars were Hispanic, despite 18 percent of the nation identifying as such.

To make matters worse, even when minorities do find themselves on magazine covers, their skin tones don't always match how they look in real life. Of course, issues around lighting, equipment, and make-up come into play (pre-Fenty Beauty, make-up for darker skin tones was notoriously hard to come by), but it cannot be denied that skin color in a final photo can seemingly be influenced by the publication's style and country of origin.

Actress and princess-to-be, Meghan Markle told Allure in March 2017: "For castings, I was labeled ‘ethnically ambiguous'… To this day, my pet peeve is when my skin tone is changed and my freckles are airbrushed out of a photo shoot."

Paris Jackson also recently expressed similar frustrations, tweeting:

And this isn't just a problem for lesser known stars.

The more Rihanna magazine covers you look at, the more her ethnicity seems ambiguous.

The sheer visibility and popularity of A-list artists like Rihanna and Beyoncé does not prevent rampant skin tone alterations from taking place, post-shoot, pre-print.

Beyoncé appearing to be white, black, mixed race and Hispanic, depending on the publication.

Even Kim Kardashian is sometimes subjected to skin-lightening:

In 2009, Complex Magazine's website accidentally posted an untouched photo of Kim Kardashian, then replaced it with a Photoshopped one later, allowing the internet to compare and contrast.

Remarkably, stars do not make a habit of complaining about the changes made to their skin tones. Back in 2015, Zendaya objected to a Photoshop job to make her petite figure appear even slimmer, but did not specifically mention the changing of her skin tone:

This has led to accusations from the public and beauty bloggers alike that some celebrities are actually subjecting themselves to melanin-blocking skin-lightening treatments. Mindy Kaling, Nicki Minaj, Beyonce, and Rihanna have all come under suspicion, as well as Janet Jackson, supermodel Iman, and Jennifer Lopez. With so few famous people willing to broach the subject, even while having accusations leveled at them, it's not terribly surprising that magazines continue Photoshopping skin color unabated, as they have done for decades.

The magazine industry's fear of darker skin tones was ingrained early. It took Vogue 82 years to feature its first black cover star, Beverly Johnson, in 1974. French Vogue didn't do it until Naomi Campbell came along in 1988. Fears around featuring black models back then weren't simply cultural, they were practical: the Kodak film used in cameras until the 1990s was, remarkably, designed only to handle lighter skin tones. The chemistry of this film is best explained by this handy video:

Pair that background with the fact that, over and over again, social research has documented the fact that the darker a person's skin tone, the more racism they are subjected to (a 2011 study of over 12,000 black female inmates by Villanova University found that lighter-skinned women received shorter sentences), and print media continues to labor under the assumption that very black skin won't sell copies.

Stanford University psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt has even found that marriage prospects are affected by skin tone: "We find that the light-skin shade as measured by survey interviewers is associated with about a 15% greater probability of marriage for young black women."

What we're left with is a chicken-egg conundrum. Do magazines feature fewer dark-skinned subjects because of the public's own racism? Or is the public more racist towards people with darker skin because they have been so consistently erased and other-ized by mass media?

Lack of visibility allows racist ideas that were peddled generations ago to stick around in the public subconscious. No wonder then, that Hunger Games actress Amandla Stenberg reportedly bowed out of auditions for Black Panther -- she understands, as a light-skinned person of color, the narrowness of opportunities for darker-skinned actors and actresses.

"These are all dark skin actors playing Africans," Stenberg told CBC Arts about her decision to drop out of the running, "and I feel like it would have just been off to see me as a biracial American with a Nigerian accent just pretending that I'm the same color as everyone else in the movie… That was really challenging, to make that decision, but I have no regrets. I recognize 100 percent that there are spaces that I should not take up.”


As noble as this move by Stenberg was, it should not be the responsibility of black celebrities to actively deny themselves opportunities in order to advance their peers. There needs to be a shift, from the top down, and across the board, to make space for a wider spectrum of skin tones. After the overwhelming success of Black Panther, and a fashion industry that is also trying to move forward (in 2008, models at New York Fashion Week were 87 percent white; that number dropped to 68 percent in 2017), there is no longer any viable excuse for magazines to still be lightening the skin of black celebrities.

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