Friday, February 28, 2014

Colorism and Skin Lightening

A few years ago, the cosmetics company L'Oreal came under fire for lightening Beyoncé's skin in a print ad, and the controversy brought the issue of colorism to the forefront of public discourse.  Colorism is "the stigma associated with skin complexion" or, practically speaking, the widespread privileging of light skin over dark skin.  This privileging occurs within and among many different ethnic groups; and in the United States, it goes back to slavery and the resulting skin color hierarchy within the African-American community.  In other words, black men and (especially) women with lighter skin are often seen as more attractive than people with darker skin.

Sadly, children's literature is not exempt from colorism.  I recently received a copy of Beauty and the Beast, a picture book written by H. Chuku Lee, illustrated by Pat Cummings, and published by Harper Collins earlier this month.

As you can see, the young woman on the cover has light skin.  When I opened the book, I couldn't find this woman in the pages -- everyone I saw had darker skin.  (You can see the illustrations inside the book on its page.)  According to the publisher's description, the book is inspired by the Dogon people in Mali.  Here are some pictures of Dogon people:

To make sure I wasn't crazy, I asked some friends what they thought about the cover.  They agreed.  I assume that Lee and Cummings' desire in creating this book was to challenge the assumption that fairy tale heroines should be white and to affirm that brown skin and African heritage are beautiful -- extremely important messages.  What lesson are we therefore teaching our children when we read them a book in which that brown skin is needlessly lightened?

Later, I showed Beauty and the Beast to one of my professors, and she asked me if I'd heard of a book called Liar.

Written by Australian author Justine Larbalestier, Liar is a young adult novel whose protagonist, Micah, is a biracial teenage girl.  However, the original cover of the American version of the book depicted a white girl.  

Many readers (and the author herself) were understandably confused about the cover art and began debating the issue and expressing their concern.  Finally, the publisher Bloomsbury responded to public pressure and Larbalestier's requests and changed the cover to portray Micah as she is described.

This incident points out the power that publishing companies have and the belief that books with people of color on the covers won't sell.  Is this the explanation for the skin lightening on the cover of Beauty and the Beast?  I'm not sure, but I'm going to write to Harper Collins and ask them.  I'm also going to request that they change the cover art to reflect what is in the pages.  As we can see in the case of Liar, readers can use their voices to reach publishing companies and elicit change.  I urge you to take a look at Beauty and the Beast and join me -- colorism in children's literature publishing (and in general) needs to end.

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