Is The Face Of Young Black Feminism Light Skinned And Biracial?

black activists
Photos: Porter Magazine, EBONY, Teen Vogue

It’s true–The face of the young, celebrated, modern-day black feminist is light skinned, or biracial.  Think Amandla Stenberg, Willow Smith, and Zendaya Coleman.  It’s also true that it’s been the the aesthetic of popular black feminists in the past.  Think Angela Davis and bell hooks.

This point was rehashed on the Son of Baldwin Facebook page.  The post highlighted a series of tweets from Pax Jones, the woman who launched the Unfair and Lovely photo series addressing colorism with her classmates from Sri Lanka.  According to Jones:

First Tweet:

“I love Amandla & Zendaya, but are we going to acknowledge that the face of young black feminism is the light skinned, biracial aesthetic?”

Second Tweet:

“Dark gurls have always spoken up, but don’t get onto vogue & receive praise for being opinionated. If ur dark, ur just ‘mad’.”

Third Tweet:

“Until yall acknowledge ur privilege, I don’t care to hear another light skin black gurl with curly hair talk about how hard being a BW is.”

Fourth Tweet:

“Your experience is not shared w/dark women, yet you’re given the platform to represent all of us. No. Tired.”

As we unpack all of the baggage brought on by colorism, this is clearly an issue that deserves to be dissected.  Let’s start by acknowledging the fact that Stenberg and Coleman are smart and savvy young women doing important work.  They have embraced their blackness and they use their platforms to educate the masses on how black people, particularly black women, are dehumanized, devalued, abused, and discarded by society.  Neither have had to leave the comfort of their homes to do this work.  They raise their voices via social media, then subsequently through larger avenues in the form of Oprah Super Soul Sessions, interviews, and magazine cover stories.

But what we also know to be true is that dark (or darker) skinned women not only exist within this movement, they helped to strengthen it in ways that often go unacknowledged or underreported by the mainstream.  Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors, the founders of Black Lives Matter come to mind.  Yes they have received recognition, and yes, they are older than Coleman and Stenberg, but their level of recognition barely scratches the surface in comparison.  In fact, some seek to discredit their ability to claim that they are founders of the movement they started.  I was slightly shocked when I was at an event recently and I heard someone say, “I wonder who started Black Lives Matter.”  It’s a question that’s become somewhat common despite their televised award show appearances and international travels delivering speeches on the movement.

To be fair, women like Coleman and Stenberg have show biz recognition that supports their popularity as activists.  And as they appear in major films and television shows and walk the most coveted red carpets, the mainstream reminds them of their blackness regardless of the privileges they enjoy.  Amandla got a taste of this after she was cast in the Hunger Games, which upset white fans of the trilogy who felt a black girl wasn’t a fit for the role.  On first discovering her call to activism, she told Teen Vogue:

“It was when I was 12 and I got cast in The Hunger Games, and people called me the N-word and said that the death of my character, Rue, would be less sad because I was black. That was the first moment I realized being black was such a crucial part of my identity in terms of the way that I was perceived and how it would affect any line of work that I wanted to pursue. I often find myself in situations where I am the token black person. It can feel like this enormous weight.”

Ironically, Stenberg’s mainstream recognition as an activist likely comes as a result of her appearance in such a major film project, which is largely a privilege reserved for black women who are biracial or fair skinned.  In other words, they have to fight to defend their blackness within the mainstream, but their level of blackness still affords them the ability to move in spaces many dark skinned women have to work twice as hard to enter into, therefore the popular black feminist aesthetic has become a reflection of the black female position in Hollywood.

For those who wish to brush this issue aside and write it off as yet another way for people to pit black people against one another and overlook the real “enemy,” understand that this is another layer of the human need for representation.  Wouldn’t it be beautiful if snapshots of modern-day black feminists are as colorful as we are as a people?

Where is Keke Palmer’s Teen Vogue cover story discussing the joys and difficulties of coming out as sexually fluid?  Her body of work should be enough to grant her such recognition.  Can we get a Super Soul Session featuring Reagan Gomez on how she’s been successfully using social media for years to discuss feminism, womanism, and LGBTQ rights?

So here’s a question brought on by Pax Jones’ Tweets: should light skinned black women begin to acknowledge their own privileges and how it’s afforded them the ability to become the poster girls of the modern-day black feminist movement?  Wouldn’t that be an important piece in discussing the dehumanization of black women?  Or is celebrating one’s blackness deemed more revolutionary when the message comes from someone with lighter skin?  We sure hope not.




Abi Ishola
Abi Ishola


Abi Ishola is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Beyond Classically Beautiful, the acclaimed photo series turned multimedia platform. On any given day, you can find her tucked away in a perfectly lit Brooklyn coffee shop working for several hours. Then she dashes off to pick up her daughter from daycare. Abi is also a TV Producer, a proud FIT Alum, Nigerian-American, and a soul searcher.

  1. I agree that these women are in the spotlight, especially Amandla (in my opinion, she’s the most worthy of it of the 3), but Franchesca “Chescaleigh” Ramsey, Jessica Williams, and Laverne Cox are all pretty famous as well. Addressing the other part… Not only do I wish that biracial and light skinned women weren’t the standard portrayal of black women on TV, I wish the biracial experience was explored as well. There is no such thing as biracial according to the media.

  2. Well. I mean. This. ?. I always thought this and could never articulate it. Whether it be feminism or black power/pride Kathleen Cleever. Angela Davis. Nikki Giovanni. Beyoncé. bell hooks. Rue from Hunger Games. Never Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This article broke down of things I couldn’t put my finger on. Best article of the year.

  3. Couldn’t read past the tweets. Why are light skinned women being “demonized” simply because God wants their color to be pecan instead of cocoa? Who is “she” (Pax Jones) to delegate who gets to speak on feminism and who doesn’t. I guess that’s just her opinion. This colorism debate has to stop. Light or dark, purple or orange, if an opportunity knocks for someone to tell ‘Their truth” LET T H E M. It almost comes off as petty when dark skin women “get upset” when they don’t get ‘play’ or a chance to talk about their experience. You want play? Start your own movement and continue to impact change for all shades of black. Which many women and done and I hope BCB can rally behind as well.

    1. Thank you for your comment. At BCB our main focus is rallying behind all black women. We do that on a daily basis through our news updates an ongoing photo series. We’ve celebrated the women mentioned in this article on numerous occasions, and we will continue to because we respect the important and necessary work they are doing. We also plan to continue to give space to all black women women who want to discuss how colorism has affected their lives and how they still see it being an issue reflected in how black women are represented in mainstream media, Hollywood, or wherever else. It’s a real issue that has affected black people in different ways. Why dismiss it as something perpetuated by dark skinned women? As a people we want white America to understand how we feel marginalized or discriminated against, meanwhile within our community we’re often hesitant to extend that same sort of understanding among ourselves? We should continue to discuss it from as many angles as possible. Isn’t that a part of allowing people to express “their truth?”

      This is not an attack on our part. This is merely a means to add to the dialogue so that maybe one day there will be some resolve, if not for the masses, for our readers.

      Thanks again and keep shining,

  4. Please STOP … the intra-racial divisiveness & perpetuating colorism of Blacks … by de facto noting color first thus allowing ‘degree of hue’ to supercede the message & activism of these Black persons!

    IF … indeed BCB rallys “behind all black women” … are ‘they’ not such? Why then ask for a ‘privilege disclaimer.’
    We are weighing ourselves down with these effacing tear downs. Granted there is colorism BUT not to the extent of say 50 years ago.

    I am a dark skinned Black woman. I refuse to repeat & echo the mantra(s) that my dark skin is an overarching hindrance to me being seen, heard, regarded and loved … by “everyone” and/ir thise I choose to live amd interact with.
    I am tired of these circular arguments & and intra-racial demonizing. Geez!

    1. Jaysus … lazy spellcheck & fat finger syndrome on iPhone! Sorry?
      “… by “everyone” and/or those I choose to love …”

    2. Thank you for your comment,

      No “privilege disclaimer” necessary. Maybe adding colorism to the issues they discuss? How about using our platforms to shed light on this issue? It may not affect you, but it affects a lot of women and young girls as they enter into crucial life stages that form their identity. We should be sensitive and understanding to that fact, just as we should be sensitive and understanding to the fact that many biracial black people have issues with identity. We should all be willing to HEAR one another and not brush our pain off as if people are just complaining or seeking to demonize any individual. At least, that is our goal.

  5. All of their exposure and popularity happened because black women put them on that pedestal. They are the ones who rallied behind Zendaya about the faux lock incident. Amandla didn’t have a project after starring in The Hunger Games and used the sexuality angle and pro-Black woman angle to receive visibility. The white media promotes anyone who is popular and anyone who black people make popular. We are the ones who don’t promote our vocal and visible darker hued sisters as much as we do the Zendaya’s of the world.

  6. Colorism is an issue only created by White supremacy ideology. Continuing to bring forth this discussion in the light of “light privilege” again gives power to white supremacy. It is sad that our darker skin BW internalizes the beauty ideals of White supremacy and then turns that hatred onto their fellow lighter skin BW as if this privilege was created by us. It is really even a privilege?

    Are we saying that light skin BW have to acknowledge their perceived privilege of being more palpable and acceptable to Whites? What are we really saying here? That because the media accepts and gives credit to lighter skin BW as if that is something to be praised or achieved?
    I understand that our experiences as BW are different depending on classism, colorism, socioeconomic status, education, etc. however to Whites we are all BW, and as a result we are all still marginalized.

    I am a light skin BW (I am not biracial although I look it), with a J.D. who grew up in a White Jewish community. I was told in High school I couldn’t play a Haitian woman by my White theatre teacher because I wasn’t dark enough. I went to a law school where only 9 Blacks graduated out of 143 students. I can assure you that when I spoke up in class, when I was active in our Black Law Student Assoc. and when my fellow BW of various shades of Black did the same; we were still nothing but a bunch of “loud Black nigger Bitches” to our fellow classmates, who uttered those words.

    Whites don’t see our light or dark skin when it comes down to how they treat us, we are all just Black.

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