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The recent debate over Beyoncé’s appearance at the Los Angeles premiere of her new film has made one thing clear: even a cultural icon can’t escape the legacy of racism and colorism in America.

The superstar nearly broke the internet this week when images emerged of the singer in a silver gown, with platinum hair and what many perceived to be a lighter skin tone.

And while Queen Bey wakes up flawless – and appearances may have been enhanced by lighting used by the event – this look didn’t go over well with some Black people.

The criticism, largely appearing in posts on Instagram, ranged from people accusing Beyoncé of bleaching her skin to others assuming she chose pale makeup and lighting to look like a White woman.

“Where did her melanin go?” one user wrote on Instagram under a post by popular gossip account The Shade Room. 
“I don’t like how 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 the critics’ statements “stupid,” “ignorant,” self-hating and racist.

“She does a film, called the renaissance, where the whole theme is silver with silver hair, a silver carpet, and suggested silver attire and you bozos decide that she’s trying to be a white woman and is bleaching her skin?” Knowles wrote in the caption of an Instagram post that has since gone viral.

In the post, the singer’s mom included a slideshow of her daughter over 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 longtime Beyoncé fan, said she found the singer’s appearance to be jarring precisely because her music is grounded in celebrating Black culture and the empowerment of Black women.

“Her music is unapologetically, boundlessly and globally Black,” Thomas said. “And she gets to have this sovereignty over her body and how she chooses to present it to the world but we the people also get to have a response to that presentation.”

Thomas said it was traumatic and frustrating for some Black women who have spent their lives watching Eurocentric standards of beauty— such as lighter skin and long flowing hair— appear to be celebrated more than the physical features of Black people.

And these images of Beyoncé, she said, were “an extreme pale presentation.”

“We are still grappling with beauty standards that are still seeped in White supremacy,” Thomas said. “Black women are still grappling with and constantly being confronted with not being enough.”

JeffriAnne Wilder, author of “Color Stories: Black Women and Colorism in the 21st Century,” said the controversy surrounding Beyoncé’s appearance shows that the Black community has still not fully reckoned with the issue of colorism.

Colorism is when people from within the same racial group show bias against those with darker skin tones.

The origins of colorism are rooted in the system of White supremacy that has equated lighter skin tone with more privilege, Wilder said. During slavery, White slave owners often showed favor to enslaved Africans with lighter skin 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 by White men against enslaved Black women.

Over time this hierarchy of skin tone caused divisions among Black people and the internalized discrimination has left deep psychological and emotional scars that have lasted for generations.

In the early 20th century, many Black organizations on college campuses used a “brown paper bag test” to determine whether someone’s skin was light enough to join their group.

Lighter skinned Black women were often deemed “redbones,” a term that for some undermined their Black heritage by implying that the women were mixed non-Black ancestry.

“It shows we have this unsolved, unresolved issue with skin color politics in Black America,” Wilder said.

Studies show that even today colorism is perpetuated by people outside the Black community.

A 2023 survey by nonprofit Catalyst found women with darker skin tones were more likely to experience workplace racism than women with lighter skin.  Darker skin has also been associated with harsher prison sentences, according to a study published in the University of Chicago Press Journals.

Beyoncé isn’t the first Black celebrity to face criticism for appearing lighter in images. Wilder noted that in 2013, singer India Arie was accused of lightening her skin on the cover photo for her single “Cocoa Butter.”

Arie later posted on social media confirming earlier reports that the look was due to the camera flash and angle.

Still, the image was surprising for fans and some Black women because Arie, like Beyoncé , had previously made songs that praised natural Black beauty including “Brown Skin” and “I Am Not My Hair.”

Kevin Mazur/WireImage/Getty Images

Beyoncé performs onstage during the “RENAISSANCE WORLD TOUR” at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on May 30, 2023 in London, England.

In her Instagram post defending her daughter, Tina Knowles noted that she was especially frustrated with members of the Black community who continued to promote colorism and other racist stereotypes.

“How sad is it that some of her own people continue the stupid narrative with hate and jealousy,” Knowles wrote. “Jealousy and racism, sexism, double standards, you perpetuate those things.”

Other celebrities joined in defending the superstar, including Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer who wrote, “You have raised beautiful, strong, intelligent black, PROUD TO BE BLACK women. Period. Anyone who says otherwise has their own issues to deal with. I’m sorry you’ve come across the negative comments that people don’t realize is a reflection of how they feel about themselves.”

But Thomas said to her the criticism wasn’t a matter of being jealous 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 also get to be critical of Beyoncé,” Thomas said. “We love her, but she’s not above reproach.”

As fans flock to theaters this weekend for the premiere of “Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé,” Wilder said this latest debate over the singer’s appearance shows the Black community needs to have deeper discussions about the root cause of colorism.

Until that happens, it will continue to be a delicate issue, she said.

“It’s highly sensitive,” Wilder said. “It has caused a lot of people a lot of pain for generations. It has caused divisions in families.”

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