by Cheli English-Figaro, Esq.
The month after Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, I had the opportunity to eavesdrop on the discussion of several middle-class African-American high school students. In truth, I did not intend to eavesdrop as I was actually trying to ignore their chatter in order to get some reading done. But when I heard one young lady assert that “dark skin is back in style now” I had to put my work down and take note.
Skin color is a mine field for African-Americans. It is the proverbial pink elephant in the middle of the room. When I was young, skin color was discussed in either hush tones or not at all in polite company.
I am a brown-skinned African-American female attorney with two Ivy League degrees. So, from that standpoint, Michelle Obama and I have a great deal in common. Mrs. Obama and I were born within a few months of each other so we were in college at about the same time as well. I can’t speak for Mrs. Obama, but I can speak for myself and for many of my friends, when I say that being a brown-skinned black woman at an Ivy League university in the 1980’s was no bed of roses.
Notwithstanding the brief interludes when Americans were encouraged to appreciate the beauty of Iman, Beverly Johnson and Naomi Campbell, we have all been fed a steady and very healthy diet of “light is right” when it comes to the standard of beauty for African-American women. One only needs to think of the most popular African-American actresses, models, singers and even TV news correspondents to know what I am talking about.
But after maneuvering through the land mines of my youth, sprinkled with generous portions of “you sound light-skinned” and “you are pretty for a dark girl”, the issue of skin color took a back seat in my psyche. I met and married my devoted physician husband while still in my mid-20’s, who, like Barack Obama, is tan-skinned. We have three lovely children who dodged the “color bullet” and more closely resemble their father (and my mother) than me, as they each, whether easily or by a slim margin, pass the proverbial “brown paper bag” test. The majority of my friends with whom I most frequently talk to and socialize with are happily married African-American women of all complexions and hues. Skin color is a non-issue in my life.
So when I heard my friends’ children, who ranged in skin color from light to dark, trying to decide if “dark skin was back in style”, I almost fell out of my seat. We haven’t come such a long way after all. I wanted to jump into their conversation, but I knew that if I joined in, the discussion would be over. I also knew that my intrusion would seem completely out of line since my own teenager was not even part of the conversation.
Even if we, as the 40-something year-old parents of these teens, have managed to reach adulthood relatively unscathed by societal color consciousness, it is clear that given the way media images now inescapably pervade our lives, our children may not be so lucky.
It is good that our teens are discussing the issue openly. That signals to me that they may be cognizant, at least on some level, of how their attitudes have been influenced by the media. But there is no doubt the media has taught them that if you are a dark-skinned African-American woman, you start out with a major strike against you in the “beauty” category.
Being the spokesperson for a “Brown Women Are Beautiful Too” campaign was likely the last thing on Mrs. Obama’s mind when her husband was elected President of the United States. But our children have taken note of her complexion and they are actively trying to digest and reconcile this new information with the previous information life in America has taught them. It is sad, that in 2009, our children have to use their mental energy going through that exercise.
African-Americans need to demand that the full spectrum of our beauty be utilized and promoted in the media. We should rise up and start a campaign of our own that embraces the beauty of African-American women of all shades and hues similar to the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. That type of campaign is long overdue and is desperately needed to eradicate the last bastion of racism and self-hatred that exists in the psyche of our people. Perhaps the mere presence of Michelle Obama will jumpstart the movement. For the sake of our children, I certainly hope so.
Listen as NPR's Allison Samuels talks with Cheli English-Figaro in "Age-Old Complexion Debate Takes New Turn "
Cheli English-Figaro is a cofounder and President Emerita of Mocha Moms, Inc . She graduated from Yale University and Columbia University School of Law. Prior to leaving full-time employment outside the home, she practiced law in New York and Washington, D.C. She currently works part-time from home. She has been featured in Ebony Magazine, The Washington Post, The Washington Post Magazine, The Prince George's Post, the Washington Afro-American and The Gazette. She has written articles for numerous Mocha Moms, Inc. publications and is a featured writer for the Proctor and Gamble website, HomeMadeSimple.com . She was also a regular guest on National Public Radio's Tell Me More with Michel Martin. Cheli lives in Bowie, MD with her husband and their three children.