The recent debate over Beyoncé’s appearance at the Los Angeles premiere of her new film made one thing clear: Even a cultural icon cannot escape the legacy of racism and colorism in America.
The superstar almost broke the internet this week when images emerged of the singer in a silver dress, with platinum hair and what many perceived as a lighter complexion.
And although Queen Bey wakes up perfectly — and her appearances may have been enhanced by the lighting used at the event — this look was not well received by some black people.
The criticism, largely appearing in Instagram posts, ranged from people accusing Beyoncé of bleaching her skin to others assuming she had chosen pale makeup and lighting to look like a white woman.
“Where did his melanin go?” one Instagram user wrote under a post from popular gossip account The Shade Room.
“I don’t like the way they lightened her skin. Beyoncé is a black woman,” another user wrote.
The backlash prompted Tina Knowles to come to her daughter’s defense, calling critics’ statements “stupid,” “ignorant,” hateful and racist.
“She makes a movie, called Renaissance, where the whole theme is silver with silver hair and a silver carpet and silver clothes suggested and you idiots decide she’s trying to be a white woman and she’s whiten his skin?” Knowles wrote in the caption of an Instagram post that has since gone viral.
In the post, the singer’s mother included a slideshow of her daughter through the years set to her song “Brown Skin Girl,” a lyrical ode to the strength and beauty of black women.
But Geneva Thomas, a New York-based media executive and A longtime Beyoncé fan, said she found the singer’s appearance offensive precisely because her music is grounded in celebrating black culture and the empowerment of black women.
“His music is unapologetic, unabashed and overall black,” Thomas said. “And she has this sovereignty over her body and how she chooses to present it to the world, but we the people can also have a response to that presentation.”
Thomas said it was traumatic and frustrating for some Black women who have spent their lives watching Eurocentric beauty standards — such as lighter skin and long, flowing hair — seem to be more celebrated than Black people’s physical features .
And those images of Beyoncé, she said, were “an extremely pale presentation.”
“We are still grappling with beauty standards that are still steeped in white supremacy,” Thomas said. “Black women still struggle and are constantly faced with not being enough. »
JeffriAnne Wilder, author of “Color Stories: Black Women and Colorism in the 21st Century”“, say it The controversy surrounding Beyoncé’s appearance shows that the black community has yet to fully address the issue of colorism.
Colorism is when people of the same racial group show prejudice against those with darker skin.
The origins of colorism are rooted in the system of white supremacy that equates a lighter complexion with more privilege, Wilder said. During slavery, white slave owners often favored lighter-skinned African slaves by forcing them to work inside the house instead of toiling in the fields. In many cases, lighter-skinned slaves were the product of sexual violence perpetrated by white men against enslaved black women.
Over time, this hierarchy of skin tones caused divisions among black people, and the internalized discrimination left deep psychological and emotional scars that lasted for generations.
At the beginning of the 20th century, many black organizations on college campuses used a “brown paper bag test” to determine whether a person’s skin was light enough to join their group.
Lighter-skinned black women were often considered “red bones”, a term that for some undermined their black heritage by implying that the women were of mixed non-black ancestry.
“It shows that we have this unresolved problem with the politics of skin color in black America,” Wilder said.
Studies show that even today, colorism is perpetuated by people outside of the black community.
A 2023 survey by Catalyst, a nonprofit organization, found that darker-skinned women were more likely to experience racism in the workplace than lighter-skinned women. Darker skin has also been linked to harsher prison sentences, according to a study published in the Press Journals of the University of Chicago.
Beyoncé isn’t the first black celebrity to face criticism for her lighter appearance in images. Wilder noted that in 2013, singer India Arie was accused of lightening her skin in the cover photo of her single “Cocoa Butter.”
Arie later posted on social media confirming earlier reports that the look was due to the flash and camera angle.
Still, the image was surprising to fans and some black women because Arie, like Beyoncé, had previously composed songs praising the natural beauty of black people, including “Brown Skin” and “I Am Not My Hair.”
Kevin Mazur/WireImage/Getty Images
Beyoncé performs on stage during the “RENAISSANCE WORLD TOUR” at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on May 30, 2023 in London, England.
In her Instagram post defending her daughter, Tina Knowles noted that she was particularly frustrated with members of the black community who continued to promote colorism and other racist stereotypes.
“How sad that some of his people continue this stupid narrative with hatred and jealousy,” Knowles wrote. “Jealousy and racism, sexism, double standards, you perpetuate these things. »
Other celebrities joined in the superstar’s defense, including Oscar winner Octavia Spencer who wrote: “You raised beautiful, strong, intelligent black women who were PROUD TO BE BLACK. Period. Anyone who says otherwise has their own problems to solve. I’m sorry you’ve heard negative comments that people don’t realize reflect how they feel about themselves.
But Thomas told her the criticism wasn’t about jealousy of Beyoncé. In fact, Thomas described herself as a member of the “Beyhive” who attended the Renaissance tour this summer and plans to see the concert film in theaters.
However, Thomas said she can still hold Beyoncé accountable for the image she projects to the black community.
“I can also criticize Beyoncé,” Thomas said. “We love her, but she’s not flawless.”
As fans flock to theaters this weekend for the premiere of “Renaissance: A Beyoncé Movie,” Wilder said this latest debate over the singer’s appearance shows the black community needs to have more conversations in-depth on the root cause of colorism.
Until then, it will remain a delicate issue, she said.
“It’s very sensitive,” Wilder said. “It has caused a lot of pain to a lot of people for generations. This caused divisions in families.