Vanity Fair and the Light/Dark Thing

There’s been quite a buzz in the blogosphere these days about the lack of diversity in Vanity Fair’s annual “Hollywood Issue.” The fold-out cover features nine of Hollywood’s up-and-coming actresses. And wouldn’t you know it? All nine happen to be very thin, fair-skinned white women. Notable exclusions include Zoe Saldana, who starred in two of the year’s biggest films (“Star Trek” and “Avatar”) and Freida Pinto, star of the runaway hit, “Slumdog Millionaire.”

But most of the controversy over the lily-white cover has centered upon the omission of Gabourey Sidibe, the Oscar-nominated star of “Precious.” Sidibe was not completely ignored; she appears inside the magazine. But her exclusion from the cover has a lot of folks talking about the magazine’s bias against people of color. One writer bluntly questioned whether Sidibe is “too fat, too black” for the magazine’s cover. The fact that Sidibe graces the March 2010 cover of Ebony magazine seems to underscore the charges of racism. A lot of folks, many of them non-black, are pulling the race card on this one.

But not so fast. I discovered the Vanity Fair controversy the same way that I learn about most popular culture these days – via Facebook. The posts started flying the same day as the Grammy’s, which inspired quite a few comments as well. So between reading people’s thoughts about the Vanity Fair cover, I also got my fair share of interesting tidbits such as: “Beyonce didn’t call Jay-Z by name because he doesn’t really love her“; “Michael Jackson’s kids don’t look like him because they’re not his kids“; “What is she wearing?“; and “Doesn’t Lil’ Wayne look like a cockroach personified?

Oh wait, did I forget to mention that all of the Grammy posts were by African Americans? Now, I’m not going to make the argument that Lil’ Wayne should be a contender for the male version of “America’s Next Top Model,” but a cockroach? Come on people. Let’s not get it twisted. There is only one feature of Lil’ Wayne that makes such a comparison fathomable – his blackness.

The cockroach insult is not a new one. It has been used as a racial slur for a long time. But among African Americans, it is an epithet typically reserved for dark-skinned blacks. No matter how “unattractive,” medium and fair-skinned blacks are immune from it. It is the slightly subtler version of the “African booty scratcher” insult leveled on school playgrounds. And in the vast majority of cases, both the perpetrator and the victim are African American. After all, let’s face it – the only white people who would dare enunciate such obvious racial epithets are the hood and swastika wearing varieties.

At some point in their lives, many dark-skinned African Americans have heard the term “black” hurled at them by other African Americans with such venom that it makes them feel lower than low. The color complex is the wound of internalized racism that African Americans try to keep concealed from whites. We may have come a long way since slavery, but we’ve yet to learn to love our blackness. I once heard activist John Perkins say that black people hate ourselves so much that we required an entire movement to try to convince ourselves that black could be beautiful. If the continuing (and perhaps rising) popularity of skin lighteners is any indication, that movement still has a way to go.

Oh yeah, we’re not supposed to talk about skin lighteners anymore, especially in mixed company. But if you open that Ebony issue featuring Gabourey Sidibe, I’m sure you’ll find plenty of ads for them inside, their number likely rivaled only by the number of ads for hair straighteners.

I’m not opposed to critiquing the Vanity Fair cover. But quite frankly, I’m less interested in convincing white folks to love blackness than in helping us to love ourselves.

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