some of us are brave

Light Skin, Labor and “Straight Out of Compton”

I could write this post almost entirely with cut and paste, that’s how common this now feels.

Gawker released a casting call for a movie about hip-hop group NWA.

The call features an explicit race and skin shade hierarchy for the women:



A GIRLS: These are the hottest of the hottest. Models. MUST have real hair – no extensions, very classy looking, great bodies. You can be black, white, asian, hispanic, mid eastern, or mixed race too. Age 18-30. Please email a current color photo, your name, Union status, height/weight, age, city in which you live and phone number to: subject line should read: A GIRLS

B GIRLS: These are fine girls, long natural hair, really nice bodies. Small waists, nice hips. You should be light-skinned. Beyonce is a prototype here. Age 18-30. Please email a current color photo, your name, Union status, height/weight, age, city in which you live and phone number to: subject line should read: B GIRLS

C GIRLS: These are African American girls, medium to light skinned with a weave. Age 18-30. Please email a current color photo, your name, Union status, height/weight, age, city in which you live and phone number to: subject line should read: C GIRLS

D GIRLS: These are African American girls. Poor, not in good shape. Medium to dark skin tone. Character types. Age 18-30. Please email a current color photo, your name, Union status, height/weight, age, city in which you live and phone number to: subject line should read: D GIRLS

Look, folks are going to go to town on the colorism and sexism. And they are right to do so.

I’d like to quickly throw out a few other things.

I have said that no other topic on which I have written gets more mail, much of it angry and angsty, than my ruminations on beauty and structure. The concept is fraught with difficult concepts like intersectionality, intersecting privileges and oppressions, race, class, and gender.

It is also fraught with labor concepts.

The NWA casting call is a job ad. It is fundamentally a labor arrangement that explicitly renders the concept of colorism that is implicit in all labor arrangements.

For that reason, I have privately argued many times that casting calls are important sociological texts. I have also said I would love to see the calls that gave us Miley Cyrus’ infamous VMA performance. The casting call is where our personal “preferences” are revealed as the structural inequalities we are willing to accept to defend our privileges.

Among others, Sandy Darity and Darrick Hamilton have done considerable research on colorism and labor markets. Jill Viglione has done work on colorism and the prison industrial complex. The quick and dirty (and inadequate) summary of that research is that colorism intersects with gender to systematically oppress dark skinned black women economically and politically.

I was there when NWA became a “thing”.

I clearly recall the first time Dee Barnes played “Fuck Tha Police” on a syndicated rap program. I was a southern girl. My mother still whispers curse words. I had literally never seen anything like the bombastic west coast sound and imagery that video brought into my living room. I was transfixed.

I was there and I can imagine that in the story of producing a hip hop supergroup that gave us hip-hop moguls and movie stars, a lot of other black women were involved. For sure, Dre would beat one black woman’s ass on the way to moguldom (see: aforementioned Dee Barnes, who is maybe a B or a C?). Cube is now Mr. Buddy Comedy but he once wrote a track called “Cave Bitch” about race and sexual politics rooted in a version of gendered black liberation ideologies.

If nothing else, I imagine that the black men in NWA are products of black women. So, a few C and D women were part of the economic machinations that produced NWA. I suspect those mothers, sisters, cousins and aunties wouldn’t all be A and B  candidates in the movie of their lives.

Even when black women are central to the production of a valuable cultural moment and economic system, they are cast as inferior in the telling of their histories, if they are visible at all.

That is an affective domain, full of interpersonal interactions and relationships.

But it is also a structural domain, a political economy of labor where certain kinds of black women stay losing.

It’s a microcosm of the ways that beauty is about more than who we are just “naturally attracted to”. It’s a kind of oppression with far-reaching consequences for black women that leave us with almost negligible wealth, criminal justice battle stories, mass media accounts of our undesirability, poor health, and impoverished golden years.

I will exercise that cut and paste option the next time readers or audiences pushback with “it’s just entertainment” and “ain’t that deep”.

There will be a next time. There is always a next time. And that is rather my point.

Well, that and fuck tha police and the racist sexist political economy while you’re at it.


5 comments on “Light Skin, Labor and “Straight Out of Compton”

  1. kreyno37
    July 18, 2014

    “There will be a next time. There is always a next time. And that is rather my point.”

    This. A million times.

  2. katherinejlegry
    July 17, 2014

    In yesterday’s morning news on the Today show which I watched part of not for news but for cultural critique, they featured the JC Penny’s campaign which reminded me of Miley’s “circus” toned down as media cues up on the beauty concept of “normal” or “real” people. (I admit I watched the Miley concert in morbid fascination.) On the Today show, the red dress was pointed out as what men are attracted to and that women find a sign of another woman who will steal their man. Pregnancy maternity wear that isn’t camouflage is all the rage especially with 8 Today women pregnant and due within the same week. The ninth one just gave birth to twins. Evidently, young women with eating disorder stories admitted they are dressing more for one another than for men on the lame Katie Courick show. I guess Katie’s coming back. I point this out because in addition to everything you wrote, the white woman beauty being pushed today, if it isn’t a blond whore in the red dress or underpants is weddings and motherhood, like Kate Middleton… “who wears a baby bump well”. I find it all regressive. The beauty “standards” aren’t really working for any “real” women. It’s all divisive. What is hailed as “most beautiful” is eaten. It’s dehumanized into object. But anyhow, I agreed one hundred percent with your article.

    • tressiemc22
      July 18, 2014

      I probably should not have laughed at “if it isn’t blond whore…” but I did. Defense mechanism, I’m sure. And I agree. Same macro process with vastly different effects. That’s always my small point in this tiny little corner of the world. Thank you for reading.

  3. You nail it here. I would love to see the Miley casting call too. A couple of people on Twitter responded to the first place I saw it posted ( asking in what version of the universe Beyonce would be in the second level of hotness.

    Maybe because I’m an English prof, the thing that strikes me about this casting call is its similarity to a grading rubric. Maybe it’s the A-, B-, C-, and D-level designations. Beyond those, there’s an explicit set of criteria — skin color, hair, weight, class — and an explicit designation for how each one reflects rank. I guess rubrics make explicit the structures behind what counts as “just good writing” in the same way that casting calls show what counts as “just what’s considered attractive in this culture.” Which is not of course what you’re talking about above. Thanks.

  4. Melissa
    July 17, 2014

    Yes, there IS always a next time, damn it. And it’s the next minute. And the one after that. And the one after that…

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This entry was posted on July 17, 2014 by in Uncategorized.
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