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Zendaya Tackles Colorism & Being Hollywood's "Acceptable" Black Girl

Culture & Entertainment

"You are so pretty, what are you mixed with?"


A microaggression that assumes that the beauty you see in me must come from the part of me that isn't black.

My mother taught me about the "paper bag" rule when I was very young. All of my barbies were black, all of the characters in my books had black characters, and she consistently made sure that I was fed images of beauty that were immersed in melanin. Although I didn't fully understand at the time, she made an effort to consistently recognize the beauty in my own skin, as well as the privilege that came with it.

Colorism is the system under which people with darker skin tones are discriminated against and considered inferior to their fairer-skinned counterparts. Although colorism is a worldwide theology, America's relationship with the concept is deeply rooted in slavery. This ideology, which is widely reflected in the entertainment industry today, submits that individuals with fairer skin are closer to being white and are thereby more intelligent, deserve preferential treatment, and are most times afforded better opportunities.

But never fear, a modern day black girl renaissance is occurring before our eyes.

Female creatives have found their voice in mainstream media and refuse to be silent ever again, making 2018 the year that black feminists use their platforms to incite measurable change. One of the latest entertainers to speak out about Hollywood's problem with colorism is Zendaya. She spoke to Bozoma Saint John at the Beautycon Festival about the importance of lighter-skinned black women checking their privilege to ensure that we all women are offered equal representation.

"As a black woman, as a light-skinned black woman, it's important that I'm using my privilege, my platform to show you how much beauty there is in the African-American community. I am Hollywood's, I guess you could say, acceptable version of a black girl and that needs to change. We're vastly too beautiful and too interesting for me to be the only representation of that. What I'm saying, it's about creating those opportunities. Sometimes you have to create those paths. And that's with anything, Hollywood, art, whatever."

The 21-year-old actress and activist has been an avid crusader against colorism since she was 17 and used her platform as co-producer of her show, K.C. Undercover, to promote diversity on the Disney Channel. She told Cosmopolitan:

"One thing that is really important to me is diversity on the channel. It's hard as a young person of a different ethnicity or background to look at the TV and not see anyone who looks like you. Representation is very important."
"Unfortunately, I have a bit of a privilege compared to my darker sisters and brothers. Can I honestly say that I've had to face the same racism and struggles as a woman with darker skin? No, I cannot."

Privilege is a tricky word, because it suggests that one has not endured struggles. People of color have all in one way or another been impacted by traumatic experiences of racism, but our realities are not the same. Zendaya reminds us that unless opportunities are equally afforded to all women of color, none of us are truly free.

I understand that I have never and will never experience the same narrative as my darker-skinned sister, and the only way to change that is to check my own privilege and acknowledge her struggle.

Society needs to have this conversation, but it's up to us to spark the debate.

Featured image by Getty Images

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Before she was Amira Unplugged, rapper, singer, and a Becoming a Popstar contestant on MTV, she was Amira Daughtery, a twenty-five year-old Georgian, with aspirations of becoming a lawyer. “I thought my career path was going to lead me to law because that’s the way I thought I would help people,” Amira tells xoNecole. “[But] I always came back to music.”

A music lover since childhood, Amira grew up in an artistic household where passion for music was emphasized. “My dad has always been my huge inspiration for music because he’s a musician himself and is so passionate about the history of music.” Amira’s also dealt with deafness in one ear since she was a toddler, a condition which she says only makes her more “intentional” about the music she makes, to ensure that what she hears inside her head can translate the way she wants it to for audiences.

“The loss of hearing means a person can’t experience music in the conventional way,” she says. “I’ve always responded to bigger, bolder anthemic songs because I can feel them [the vibrations] in my body, and I want to be sure my music does this for deaf/HOH people and everyone.”

A Black woman wearing a black hijab and black and gold dress stands in between two men who are both wearing black pants and colorful jackets and necklaces

Amira Unplugged and other contestants on Becoming a Popstar

Amira Unplugged / MTV

In order to lift people’s spirits at the beginning of the pandemic, Amira began posting videos on TikTok of herself singing and using sign language so her music could reach her deaf fans as well. She was surprised by how quickly she was able to amass a large audience. It was through her videos that she caught the attention of a talent scout for MTV’s new music competition show for rising TikTok singers, Becoming a Popstar. After a three-month process, Amira was one of those picked to be a contestant on the show.

Becoming a Popstar, as Amira describes, is different from other music competition shows we’ve all come to know over the years. “Well, first of all, it’s all original music. There’s not a single cover,” she says. “We have to write these songs in like a day or two and then meet with our producers, meet with our directors. Every week, we are producing a full project for people to vote on and decide if they’d listen to it on the radio.”

To make sure her deaf/HOH audiences can feel her songs, she makes sure to “add more bass, guitar, and violin in unique patterns.” She also incorporates “higher pitch sounds with like chimes, bells, and piccolo,” because, she says, they’re easier to feel. “But it’s less about the kind of instrument and more about how I arrange the pattern of the song. Everything I do is to create an atmosphere, a sensation, to make my music a multi-sensory experience.”

She says that working alongside the judges–pop stars Joe Jonas and Becky G, and choreographer Sean Bankhead – has helped expand her artistry. “Joe was really more about the vocal quality and the timber and Becky was really about the passion of [the song] and being convinced this was something you believed in,” she says. “And what was really great about [our choreographer] Sean is that obviously he’s a choreographer to the stars – Lil Nas X, Normani – but he didn’t only focus on choreo, he focused on stage presence, he focused on the overall message of the song. And I think all those critiques week to week helped us hone in on what we wanted to be saying with our next song.”

As her star rises, it’s been both her Muslim faith and her friends, whom she calls “The Glasses Gang” (“because none of us can see!”), that continue to ground her. “The Muslim and the Muslima community have really gone hard [supporting me] and all these people have come together and I truly appreciate them,” Amira says. “I have just been flooded with DMs and emails and texts from [young muslim kids] people who have just been so inspired,” she says. “People who have said they have never seen anything like this, that I embody a lot of the style that they wanted to see and that the message hit them, which is really the most important thing to me.”

A Black woman wears a long, salmon pink hijab, black outfit and pink boots, smiling down at the camera with her arm outstretched to it.

Amira Unplugged

Amira Unplugged / MTV

Throughout the show’s production, she was able to continue to uphold her faith practices with the help of the crew, such as making sure her food was halal, having time to pray, dressing modestly, and working with female choreographers. “If people can accept this, can learn, and can grow, and bring more people into the fold of this industry, then I’m making a real difference,” she says.

Though she didn’t win the competition, this is only the beginning for Amira. Whether it’s on Becoming a Popstar or her videos online, Amira has made it clear she has no plans on going anywhere but up. “I’m so excited that I’ve gotten this opportunity because this is really, truly what I think I’m meant to do.”

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