Posted on August 14, 2008

Beyonce Ad Row Shows Race Is Far From Cosmetic Issue

Quentin Fottrell, Irish Times, August 12, 2008

WHAT COLOUR is Beyoncé? She features in an ad for L’Oréal hair dye, which has been accused by some websites of whitening her skin. It took three days for the mainstream press to pick up the story. The colour-code chart for skin, unlike hair, is a sensitive subject, so most newspapers waited for L’Oréal’s response.

The cosmetics firm denied any wrongdoing: “It is categorically untrue that L’Oréal Paris altered Ms Knowles’s features or skin tone in the campaign for Feria hair colour.”

That presumably excludes the usual lighting design and touching up, which turn flesh-and-blood mortals into ethereal objects of desire.

Her skin does look darker on the red carpet, but whether it has been lightened to give her more crosscultural appeal is a tough call. Did the artistic director want the colour-code chart to match her hair dye? It’s not a black-and-white issue. There are many shades of grey or, in this case, golden brown.

For instance, Beyonce rarely has an afro . . . outside of an Austin Powers movie. Her hair is usually shorn from the head of some poor white girl. Still, it’s a free market. Beyonce is either buying into the dominance of white consumer culture and/or simply wearing hair that is more manageable and fashionable.

Tyra Banks, who also wears weaves, has spoken about her “issues” of not letting her hair grow into an afro. She knows the media is white-centric for the same reason they’re youth-centric and airbrush out wrinkles: corporations regard young, white folk as having the most disposable income.

Beyonce’s ads will appear in magazines like Elle and Allure , which usually have white cover girls. Ask Naomi Campbell how many more covers she thinks she would have if she had been that beautiful . . . and white, and how her supermodel pals had to help her fight for catwalk shows. (Ask her nicely.) Whitney Houston had the same problem. She was marketed to white teenagers, but blacks criticised her music for being too white. She was booed at the 1989 Soul Train Music Awards, and Keenen Ivory Wayans did a “Whitney Houston’s Rhythmless Nation” sketch on the show In Living Colour .

Houston told Ebony magazine in 1991: “Don’t say I don’t have soul or what you consider to be blackness. I know what my colour is. I was raised in a black community with black people, so that has never been a thing with me. Yet, I’ve gotten flak about being a pop success, but that doesn’t mean that I’m white.”

Unfortunately, she married and divorced—after allegations of drug use—bad boy singer Bobby Brown. Although she started as a gospel singer like her godmother Aretha Franklin, she cultivated an image and life with a dangerous edge, embracing the worst urban black stereotype. Her career never recovered.

In March, Barack Obama, the poster boy for a post-racial/bi-racial society, had the opposite problem to Beyonce when Hillary Clinton’s campaign was accused of darkening his image in a negative ad campaign. The image on Clinton’s website does appear darker than the original MSNBC debate.

But the colour-code of negative ads never has pastels or bright Technicolor hues with raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, or girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes. They will be bathed in moodier shades and, if you have a non-Caucasian subject, he/she will inevitably look darker.

The Clinton camp blamed a “saturation-desaturation” production process. We’ll never know. But what does all this suspicion say about us? Ever since Michael Jackson’s alleged vitiligo, a skin condition causing the skin to lose pigmentation, the media regularly scans images of black figures to assess their colour.

When gossip magazines pore over images of white folk who look orange or brown or salmon pink, there are no cultural or racial incendiary devices hidden in the commentary. They are not subjected to the same loaded scrutiny as Beyonce, Naomi Campbell, Whitney Houston, Tyra Banks or Barack Obama.

The implication is that to be darker either creates an exotic supermodel like Alek Wek or alienates whiter people or ignites a negative stereotype. Commentators called the Obama picture “sinister” and “menacing”. But the very presumption behind this indignant accusation of prejudice feeds the prejudice itself.

Richard Dyer says in his book, White , that we are more race-obsessed than colour-obsessed: “The myriad of minute decisions that constitute the practices of the world are informed by judgments about people’s capacities and worth, judgments based on what they look like, where they come from, how they speak, even what they eat.”

I had a former colleague whose mother is black and father is white. On our first day, the boss’s PA gave us a form to fill out. We were faced with three boxes: “Black”, “White” or “Other”. I ticked “Other”. She ticked all three. We handed them back and counted how long it would take for the irate PA to return.

Caucasians appear to regard whiteness as tantamount to nothingness, a blank canvas devoid of colour against which all others compare. It’s not that simple: my old colleague married a redhead and they have ginger, fair-skinned, blue-eyed kids.

Our cultural colour-code chart is clearly way beyond void.