Battle of the What?: A Brief Reflection on the Battle of the Complexions Controversy

27 Feb























I am sick and tired of the cultural story line that insists only one version (complexion) of black women can be “in style” (beautiful, popular, desirable) at any given time.  There seems to be a not-so-invisible scale that insinuates that black beauty is either light or dark, always one or the other, never both/and.  Binary thinking is always problematic and especially in this instance because these evaluations are inextricably linked to issues of self-esteem and self-worth.  In a society that has been obsessed with black women’s single/sex/personal lives, this feels like another opportunity to pinpoint the pitfalls of being a black woman and tell her why she is not wanted (could it be you are the wrong complexion too?).  Since black women are routinely subjected to desirability tests that are based on their measure of whiteness exoticism it should be no surprise that those comparison scales are becoming more intentional and literal (see below).

Being judged and rated in society is an unfortunate plight that black girls learn how to negotiate with the help, love, and reassurance from other girls and women, of various shades, throughout our lives.  These women are our red-boned mothers, our high-yellow aunties, our mahogany brown best friends and other brown blood and soul sisters whose beauty we immediately recognize.  We learn, from our relationships with these black women, that there is no such thing as one kinda (black) beauty.  We learn how to appreciate our differences and likenesses and we realize that the discriminations and prejudices that we face are similar and rooted in racism.  But then the outside (influences) makes its way on the inside (mind).

In what was claimed to be “a black history month event,” by club promoters Mack TV and Nelly Da’Celeb of St. Louis, black women were invited to participate in a contest where they would be ranked and evaluated based on their skin color.  The “Battle of the Complexions” was a “runway contest for [the] sexiest complexion.”  A facebook page for the event announced, ‘This is the most debatable topic of the year, what’s the sexiest skin complexion?? So ladies come out & lets settle this!!”

It seems that this supposedly debatable topic could be settled in a crowded night club with hundreds of horny and inebriated men and attention-needy women on stage with something to prove.  When confronted with the multiple and layered problems of their “light skinned versus caramel (brown) skinned versus dark-skinned” contest, the promoters, two black men, not unlike Too $hort a few weeks ago (check out this post,  this post , this post, and this one), apologized for offending those who were offended, but not for the misguided event itself (the event took place, as planned, on Friday night).  In a statement they said, “It’s Black History Month so we made a party theme dedicated to our African American crowd…here’s the first time ever you can come out and be proud that you are black!!  Regardless of your skin tone!!.. We could have used a better choice of words…We did not mean to offend the offended.”

Battle of the Complexions

Well…I am offended.  And despite the attempt to clean up the mess they made, it is not just a matter of semantics.  It is not only the words that are problematic but the theme itself, because evidently it does matter what skin tone you have if the purpose of the event is to choose the most sexy complexion.  The ways in which this perpetuates and promotes colorism and division makes it far more than misguided and unfortunate word choice.

I can’t help but wonder what the tone of a venue that pits black women against each other must be like?  Do they call each other names?  Do they call each other ugly?  Do they create color-coded cliques and demean the women not “qualified” to be on their team?  How do they prove their worth/beauty/desirability?  What must they sacrifice to win?  And what would it mean to win a contest that, if only for a moment, puts you at the top of the black girl hierarchy?  Is this the kind of victory you celebrate?  In these moments black girls turned women forget about the beauty and diversity of skin tones in the family, they dismiss their light or dark skinned sister or best friend, and find themselves needing to prove their worth—their beauty—on a stage where only one can win, and in fact everyone loses.   Why does one person’s beauty have to be at the expense of someone else’s?

National Pretty Brown Girl Day, which was celebrated on Saturday, is attempting to avoid what contests like the Battle perpetuates.  The need for a day to celebrate “pretty brownness” is evidence that our society doesn’t value and celebrate it on a daily basis.  We need to start challenging that–by devoting days to celebrating black beauty, in all of its many manifestations.  Perhaps by loving on each other (when no one else will bother) will help to dismantle the cultural cues that say only one version of black is beautiful.

32 Responses to “Battle of the What?: A Brief Reflection on the Battle of the Complexions Controversy”

  1. Johnson February 27, 2012 at 9:09 AM #

    Look—at——the address on the flyer………smdh

    • Guest February 28, 2012 at 10:06 AM #

      LMAO!!!! That is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a long time. It’s too ridiculous for word….smdh and rofl all at the same time

    • teknikolorapocalypse March 10, 2012 at 2:17 PM #

      ironic ain’t it?

  2. Kjen February 27, 2012 at 10:12 AM #

    “Since black women are routinely subjected to desirability tests that are based on their measure of whiteness exoticism it should be no surprise that those comparison scales are becoming more intentional and literal (see below)”

    Actually, shouldn’t it be the other way around – these type of scale tests should be less obvious, now right?
    I don’t know. I just see this as an extension of the comb or paper bag test. But even when such “old fashioned tests” when out of style, the preference for lighter skin – for men and women – remains.

    Curing colorism. That should definitely be on the agenda for every individual.

    • rboylorn February 27, 2012 at 10:40 AM #


      Yes, I definitely think it should be the other way around. In fact I was being facetious when I said that it should be expected that the scales are becoming more intentional and literal. It is unfortunately, as you state, an extension of age old “tests” that non-light-skinned black folk are not intended to pass. It is also frankly sad.

      Even more troubling than the ways that colorism is perpetuated in our culture are the ways in which it sets us up to be enemies of one another. What would it look like if instead of pitting complexions against each other there was a way of celebrating ALL complexions of blackness?

  3. filmfemme February 27, 2012 at 10:41 AM #

    I truly have no words for this. Except…this should be forwarded to EVERY single person who doesn’t get why Viola Davis isn’t offered bigger and better film/TV roles.

    Lemme go be pissed off somewhere…

  4. Cimarron February 27, 2012 at 11:04 AM #

    I don’t even know where to start. This is a damn near perfect example of the place where racism and misogyny collide. How do we even get to a place where the resolution to the problems of a lack of black women in leadership in business, politics and religion (not to mention economic power) are on the table, when we’re all stuck in the mire of eternal ‘beauty/objectification’ conundrum.

  5. Almost30Something February 27, 2012 at 11:54 AM #

    Reblogged this on Almost 30-Something and commented:
    This is absolutely out of hand. I hope that I see the day that black beauty is no longer based on how light or dark you are. It should not matter (but apparently thinking this way makes me a dreamer). The sooner we stop placing importance on what is skin deep within the community perhaps the outside world will follow our model, Please read this article from The Crunk Feminist Collective outlining problems with colorism that are so deeply seated within the community.

  6. TyphoidMary February 27, 2012 at 12:43 PM #

    “Why does one person’s beauty have to be at the expense of someone else’s?”

    Such an important point. It’s not a zero-sum game.

  7. CParis February 27, 2012 at 2:23 PM #

    I recommend reading Melissa Harris-Perry’s “Sister Citizen”. Good analysis of how society stereotypes of African-American women and how many of us integrate those stereotypes into our belief systems.

  8. ivyleaves February 27, 2012 at 3:04 PM #

    I maintain that the idea that women should be beautiful, and compete at being so by living up to a normalized standard, is highly problematic in and of itself. Lookism is as corrosive as other “isms” to the vast majority.

    • Cimarron February 28, 2012 at 10:13 AM #

      Totally agree, ivyleaves. The author chose to focus her analysis on beauty standards. But before I can even get to that, I have to wade through my disgust with a bunch of women put on parade.

  9. All Jazz February 28, 2012 at 9:34 AM #

    I find these discriminations to be without merit.

    If I, as a white guy, can see an African American woman as attractive irregardless of her complexion, why is it that other A.A.’s cannot see her in the same vein?

    OK, I admit to a certain discrimination in my taste for women. I have always been deeply and sincerely attracted to Black women since my teens.I have felt this attraction due to many factors, one of which is, “She just is all that as a woman”. However, I have never ever felt that a woman was unattractive due to her having a dark complexion.

    What’s up with this among Black people?
    Do Black people determine beauty that different than some white guy who sees a woman as beautiful, attractive and/or whatever?

    I’ve read various articles in which the subject of attractiveness was discussed according to complexion. So many of these articles all butt dissed a dark complected woman.
    Isn’t that an endemic form of racism among one people?

    I’d like to read what Black people, both men and women think about this.

    • S. Mandisa Moore February 28, 2012 at 4:29 PM #

      And your need as a white guy to question why black people do or say a certain thing instead of why you as a white guy see black women as “she just is all that as a woman” is problematic. Dont lump black people like that-clearly not all of us believe in this shadism because some of us are (sharply) critiquing the hell out of it, much like the author and the commentators.

      I sincerely hope that your attraction to black women does not stem from an exotification of us based on the racialized gendered narrative of us in the dominant culture, because then you would be no better than the concert promoters. And it sounds like your attraction does stem from a place of exotification-based on your comment that sounded to me like saying we are the epitome of womanhood. While I totally get that you are trying to compliment black women and I appreciate that in an era where everyone seems to be throwing us shade, I cant help but feel like you are still relying on a script borrowed from the dominant culture that stereotypes and essentializes certain characteristics of black women over others.

      So instead of you asking what all black people do, I would like to ask you: why do you feel that “she is just all that as a woman”? What criteria do you go buy? How can you deconstruct that?

      To be clear, I agree wholeheartedly with the author and most of the commentators, but lets not act like colorism and shadism and internalized racial inferiority don’t come from a centuries-old legacy of white supremacy that is still evident today.

      • All Jazz February 28, 2012 at 9:55 PM #

        My attraction is due to remembering the first girl I ever fell in love with.
        That happened in my teens with a Black girl.
        This is why and, I have no need to justify this attraction any further.

      • All Jazz February 28, 2012 at 9:59 PM #

        One more thing.
        “but lets not act like colorism and shadism and internalized racial inferiority don’t come from a centuries-old legacy of white supremacy that is still evident today.”

        Seems that you need to keep this handy as a way in which you can insult others.
        You do not know me and, if you did, you would learn that I, as an individual human being have no need for this attitude.
        In fact, I see it as repulsive.

      • lula March 7, 2012 at 6:06 PM #

        I don’t understand why he needs to justify his attraction to black women, they are women, men are attracted to women.

    • gryph February 28, 2012 at 7:07 PM #

      as a white guy you should know that ‘irregardless’ isn’t a word.

      to the work camp!!

      • All Jazz February 28, 2012 at 9:56 PM #

        Unregardless of your wordcopping, I know and don’t care as, I chose to use it.

      • S. Mandisa Moore February 28, 2012 at 10:36 PM #

        gryph: exactly!!!

        All Jazz: regardless is a word-irregardless and unregardless are not words. But I am all for making up new ones and many people like to act like irregardless is a word.

        But lets talks about how your response to my questions around your exotification of black women didnt make any sense. I totally agree that you dont have to justify anything to me-but then why choose to respond?

        I am unclear as to what you mean by “Seems that you need to keep this handy as a way in which you can insult others.” My comment to you was not about insulting you or others-it was about asking why you like black women. You only gave one sentence about it-that a black woman was the first woman you fell in love with (which doesnt necessarily invalidate my comments about how our desires/attactions are linked to dominant culture narratives)

        I completely agree- I do not know you nor do I assume that I do. I am simply responding to what you have put out in the blogosphere about yourself.

  10. GGlover February 28, 2012 at 11:32 AM #

    While this saddens me, it also upsets me that a so called beauty pagent is being made the scapegoat for an issue that continues to mar our sense of community, even in the 21st century. It doesn’t stop with women, nor is it meerly an issue related to beauty. Skin color/complexion has always been tied to one’s intellectual capapacity, first in the plantation of the South, and later still in our own community. For example, who doesn’t recall a time when an application to a college or university required the submission of a photo of the perspective student. One only has to look in the yearbooks of the 30’s, 40’s an 50’s of some of our HBCU’s see the truth. Of course, the after effect was a loss of opportunity for those deserving, yet darkly pigmented, young men and women…It seems we never learn.

  11. Colleen February 28, 2012 at 12:59 PM #

    Wow – in a month dedicated to Black history, to promoting the idea of learning more about and promoting Black people and culture, a club decides to hold a competition that is completely antithetical to all that is Black History Month. It’d be like holding a beauty pageant to celebrate Women’s History Month. But then again, every oppressed group tends to internalize the methods/ideas of the oppressors so in that way it’s not too suprising, just disappointing in a major way!

    BTW – this is my first post here. I’ve really been enjoying reading this site and seeing things from a different perspective.

  12. Nikesha February 28, 2012 at 6:41 PM #

    This just illustrates that colorism is real and affects Black men and women equally. There is no celebration in trying to find out who has the best complexion a Mariah Carey or Alek Wek look-a-like. The apology was not an apology and the contest once again ripped open unhealed scabs allowing the issues of the Black community to bleed forth without clot, cure or care. It is sickening how often Black people show their true hatred for themselves by doing something out of fun when it is most often seen as out of shame or ignorance or both.

  13. gryph February 28, 2012 at 7:05 PM #

    ah lighten up!

    white people do stuff like this all the time. blondes are more fun. brunettes are sultry and mysterious. gingers are fiery. every race has fun with their intra-group diversity. there are bigger things to get all worked up about besides a club promotion gimmick that plays on certain women’s fascination with beauty-privilege…wait, isn’t there?

  14. Forever Femme February 29, 2012 at 8:14 AM #

    “every race has fun with their intra-group diversity.”

    Fun or belittlement? There is a decided difference. Just ask any blonde that’s ever dyed her hair downtown brown in order to be taken for who she is rather than what her hair color represents to the world. Or any sistah that’s sportin’ blonde locs in an effort to come thisclose to society’s definition of feminine beauty.

    “It seems that this supposedly debatable topic could be settled in a crowded night club with hundreds of horny and inebriated men and attention-needy women on stage with something to prove.”

    Isn’t this it in a nutshell? Seriously…and in 2012, seriously saddening.

    • gryph March 28, 2012 at 8:48 AM #

      a little of both. there are elements of degradation in most kinds of competition. but who is it that promotes blonde jokes mostly, men or women? it’s women. and they aren’t drunk in the club when they do it either.

      and can we please stop with the `one definition of beauty’ melo-drama?

      it is just that black women in competing for white men’s attention feel inferior to white women. white men typically chose white women over women of other races, and so black women obsess about the differences between them and white women, those becoming more sensitive to race-biases in social perceptions of ‘beauty’.

      yes there are some biases – and black people (not just the men) sometimes perpetuate them – but to describe them as total, and universal is more than a little bit nutty. it really just says how much one has been invested in white standards. and how what real beauty plays women’s identity and aspiration.

      i find it sad that we never question women’s pursuit of ‘beauty privilege’. the prevailing narratives cast women being beautiful as practically a human right, which is of course what the beauty industry wants.

      people learn to make money of whatever is provocative. and people use issues for grandstanding and attention-getting all the time. i don’t see what we should be so outraged when a club promoter does it.

      • Forever Femme March 28, 2012 at 3:08 PM #

        “it is just that black women in competing for white men’s attention feel inferior to white women.”

        I agree it is about attention but I don’t see it as Black women vying for attention from White men. Like all women, we get that from men as a whole simply because of the triangle between our thighs.

        I believe it has more to do with “being seen” period. As women, we are too easily dismissed and considered invisible because of our gender by society and those of power (males) in our unique communites. If anyone is guilty of perpetuating the flaxen-haired beauty myth as the ideate to strive for in Black and other naturally dark-haired communities (Hispanic, Asian, etc.) it’s them.

        “i find it sad that we never question women’s pursuit of ‘beauty privilege’.”

        Not too long ago, my partner was watching a track meet on television. A former athlete, she was astounded, laughing and disgusted at the native African runners’ suddenly sporting long flowing locks.

        It led to an interesting convo on how qutie a few notable ladies like Beyonce, Mary J. Blige, Mariah and Eve and have embraced the beautey meme of today.

  15. Joe Lostrangio Jr (@JoeLostRespect) February 29, 2012 at 4:13 PM #

    One can be offended, but it should have nothing to do with these clowns. All they’ve done is live long enough to look around and print up flyers. If you want to be offended direct it toward the white power structure that created the colorism we have today. Of course they couldn’t care less so that probably wouldn’t do too much good. However, what does work is discussing colorism with our children so that as they grow up they understand history and the underlying strategy at play and how best to combat it. Colorism is powerful and strong, but it’s not too bright, so if we attack it with the right strategy one day we’ll knock it out. Untill then it’s a daily battle of complexions whether someone chooses to publicize it or not.

  16. rboylorn February 29, 2012 at 4:48 PM #

    And the madness does not stop…

    See the link below for details about an FHM Phillippines cover that has women painted black (they appear to be dark skinned black women in the image) to represent the “shadows” from which a light skinned woman “emerges.”


  17. Gwendoline Y. Fortune March 2, 2012 at 12:30 PM #

    Another holdover of the Europenization of the world is found in a story told by a white female friend, married to a man from India, a very dark Hindu. She said that there are ads omen to be brides in the papers. My firend said, “She can be as ugly as sin, but if she is described a “fair” or “white” complexion,” she is easily married. We’re not alone.

  18. The One March 27, 2012 at 11:41 PM #

    The people who are saying that colorism in the Black community affects both Black men and Black women are seriously clueless and offensive. Colorism in 2012 and for a very long time before now 99.9% of the time affects mostly Black WOMEN & GIRLS, period. As long as this stupid denial and sidetracking the issue and focusing on attacking a man of another race who actually fell in love with a Black girl as his first love (Which is MORE can be said for too many Black men who produce anti-Black female garbage like this fool contest) continues we will get nowhere. Stop the denial, stop the sidetracking, and stop faling to call Black MEN out for continuing this garbage. Enough already.


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