The effects of colorism in pop-culture are no secret. From celebrities having their skin lightened on magazine covers, to Lil Kim debuting her bleached skin and blonde hair on Instagram, to Zoe Saldana darkening her skin and wearing a prosthetic nose to portray the darker-skinned Nina Simone in the recent biopic. Colorism on this scale is a global phenomenon that - as highlighted in a recent essay by Vulture writer Mallika Rao - society is "still so bad at talking about."
But Chika Okoro, a 2nd year MBA student at Stanford Graduate School of Business, is talking about it on a big stage. Her speech at the TEDx Stanford conference in May is going viral as she breaks down colorism, not only in pop-culture, but in her own life, too.
It was the casting call for the movie Straight Outta Compton that inspired her speech. The Sande Alessi Casting agency advertised a list on their facebook ranking “A Girls” as the “hottest of the hot,” women of all races, with long hair and no extensions. “B Girls” were light skinned with long natural hair with great bodies - “Beyonce is the prototype here” it said. "C Girls" were African Americans with medium or light skin tones and weave.
And then there are the "D Girls." It read, “These are African American girls. Poor, not in good shape. Medium to dark skin tone.”
Under this criteria, Okoro would have been a “D Girl,” she solemnly admits.
eeWhen I first read this, I felt betrayed, Any given year there are just a handful of movies starring Black actors and actresses, just a handful of of opportunities when people can see actresses that look like me on the big screen and see that we’re fierce and beautiful and desirable, so I felt betrayed that when even in these small circles where I’m allowed to feel beautiful, I’m still shoved aside for those with more “Favorable” features: Light skin, light eyes, long soft real hair.
Casting calls like this perpetuate colorism, setting unattainable standards of beauty for so many Black women (she notes that technically, even Beyoncé doesn’t make the cut for an “A Girl” by those standards).
Okoro first noticed colorism in high school, she said, but she “didn’t actually know the term or formally learn about it until college.”
“You’re so pretty... for a dark skinned girl” is the back-handed “compliment” she remembers hearing in school - an all too familiar refrain for darker-skinned women in America. These are messages that have stuck with the Harvard alum ever since.
“[The] Stanford Graduate School of Business has a program where they give students a chance to give 9 min talks on a topic of their choice and once I saw that casting call, I knew I wanted to give my talk on colorism.” Okoro said.
"The first step to change is awareness" Okoro says in her talk. And her speech is a part of that change helping society understand that "D Girls are beautiful too."