The Netflix mini-series Self Made tells the life story and legacy of Madam C.J. Walker, and the extraordinary journey that led her to become the first female self-made millionaire from her work in the black hair care industry. While the series is powerful, moving, and informative, it also reveals the competitive nature of being a woman in business and highlights the painful history of colorism in the black community. In episode one of the series, we learn that Sarah, also known as Madam C.J. Walker (Octavia Spencer) and Addie (Carmen Ejogo) have built a relationship after Addie helps Sarah with her hair growth. Sarah confides in Addie and desires to work with her in the hair care industry, but Addie declines and implies Sarah does not have the right “look” for sales and that black women would pay good money and do anything to look like women who look like Addie. Translation: light-skinned with long and flowy hair.
This leaves Sarah hurt and devastated and with good reason. Her shade and embodiment of blackness are perceived as barriers that she’ll spend years coping with as she strives to transform the beauty industry at large.
In the black community, light-skinned women have almost always been praised as the ultimate standard of beauty. They’ve been the “chosen” ones. The prettier ones. The best ones. But what about all the dark-skinned women who get overlooked and left behind? In Self Made, Addie often gets the advantage because of the ways she looks. Light skinned with long hair. Her mother is black and it’s implied that her father was a white slave owner. Her mother even insists that Addie shouldn’t have problems or challenges marketing her hair care products because she’s a light-skinned black woman. Sarah is a black businesswoman too. She’s smart, driven, and focused and has the skills to market her hair care line as well, perhaps even better than Addie, but is continually reminded that she doesn’t have the acceptable look to be successful. Is that fair? Of course not. But it’s the reality of the painful history of colorism that continues to wound the black community to this day.
It prompts the question, “Do light-skinned black women have it better and easier?”
Many women in the black community who aren’t light-skinned may argue that they do. I’ve personally experienced and witnessed the privilege, acceptance, and praise they’ve received over women who look like me as well as other black girls who have darker hues. And this is something I’ve noticed since I was about seven years old. I’m a brown-black woman, and whenever I stepped out with a lighter-skinned or racially mixed family member, friend, peer, or co-worker, I suddenly became the invisible woman. And that stung sometimes. I watched strangers, teachers, and young men, more specifically young black men, choose and fall all over the lighter-skinned young women, telling them how pretty they were, while often carrying on as if I wasn’t even in the room.
I’ve talked with darker-skinned black women who have expressed their pain and resentment when this has happened to them too. And I get it. It’s painful. However, having darker skin or a different texture of hair that may or may not be flowing down your back, doesn’t make you any less beautiful or qualified than lighter-skinned black women. While it’s unwise to play the comparison game, in a lot of ways, the comparisons have been forced on us in ways we didn’t sign up for, therefore, pitting different shades of black women against each other. And that’s not cool. There’s been some progress, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. It’ll be interesting to see what that looks like in the near future.