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Race and the Politics of Color: Light Skin and Good Hair

Ms. Inglish has 30 years experience in medicine, psychology, STEM instruction, history, and aerospace education for USAF Civil Air Patrol.

Singing icon Lena Horne in a 1946 film. Ms. Horne often performed at the Cotton Club, where African Amrican Dancers were also light-skinned, some with fair hair.

Singing icon Lena Horne in a 1946 film. Ms. Horne often performed at the Cotton Club, where African Amrican Dancers were also light-skinned, some with fair hair.

The Cotton Club and "Good Hair" Standards

Cab Calloway and His Cotton Club Orchestra

Musician and actor Cab Calloway, one of my favorites, contributed to a documentary about the Cotton Club where he performed in Harlem many decades ago. His contribution to Harlem Renaissance (2004) made this film informative a well as entertaining.

In the 1930s, the Cotton Club was a whites-only night club, featuring Black entertainers.

Calloway explained that patrons often went into the club to enjoy entertainment by Black women that sometimes approached the fair hair and skin coloring of whites.

Preferences in the community then and sometimes now held that the lighter-toned the skin and hair color of the African American woman, the higher social status she would have and the more desirable she would be.

The tag-line passed among club-goers was "Light, bright, damn near white."

Light, bright, damn near white.

— Cab Calloway about Harlem club dancers

Continuum: Shades of Color

In the the early 21st century, an acquaintance of mine felt sure that as an entrepreneur and business owner, she was not held in the highest regard in her Black community, because her skin tone was one of the darkest.

It seems that, as Cab Calloway and others have suggested, the darker the skin tone, the lower the social status and the less opportunity and respect afforded to the owner of that skin.

My friend said she witnessed lighter skin-toned individuals receiving all the contracts and other opportunities offered to nonprofit foundations in the community, every time. I was appalled. She let her non-profit foundation go, laying off folks in the following order: light-to-brown-skinned Blacks, whites, and finally, darkest-skinned individuals.

Politics of Light Skin

Does "Good" = "White"?

Comedian Chris Rock's daughter Lola came to him upset about her hair one day.

She asked him why she did not have "good hair."

Apparently, this meant white hair and Chris decided to look into the whole beauty and appearance aspect of Black America. I'm glad he did, because now I understand a little more about it - especially its costs and agonies.

Black hair care is a $9 Billion business in products and services and to use these things is a huge lot of work, with sometimes a bit of torture added. I respect anyone that is able to purchase and undergo these beauty services.

Some of my high school students had hair braiding parties, where 14 hours or more were required to closely braid a head of hair. The results were jaw dropping, though - tiny, precisely even braids that stood up to weather and washing for weeks.

Sewing in additional hair in a weave process changes a woman's look even further, can be expensive, and can be uncomfortable to wear.

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"Taking out the kinks." This 1895 charicature is an unkind parody of a woman seeking to smooth out her hair. The comic strip suggests that her hair stood out on end because of a hair-raising novel. By the end, she has good hair.

"Taking out the kinks." This 1895 charicature is an unkind parody of a woman seeking to smooth out her hair. The comic strip suggests that her hair stood out on end because of a hair-raising novel. By the end, she has good hair.

Good Hair (2009)

This documentary with a sense of humor and a serious intent in a worthwhile 95 minutes, made by Chris Rock and Jeff Stilson, with additional screenwriters Lance Crouther and Chuck Sklar. See it if you have a chance to do so.

This film shows the expense and hardship of maintaining straight "good" hair among the African-American and biracial populations of America. Is it all worth the costs? People disagree. Many celebrities describe their experiences.

Featuring famous names such as the Reverend Al Sharpton, Ice-T, T-Pain, Raven-Symoné, Maya Angelou, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Nia Long, Paul Mooney, Cheryl 'Salt' James and Sandra 'Pepa' Denton of Salt-N-Pepa; and many others.

In the African-American community, the light skinned black man with curly hair is said to have it easy. (This) book of poetry is written with the pain of abusive memories, to show how hard the red bone male has it, and how stereotypes can dictate actions.

— From the movie "Good Hair"

Chris Rock and Family.

Chris Rock and Family.

Hair extension for a hair weave. These are often obainted from Indian temples, where the hair is sacrificed by worshipers.

Hair extension for a hair weave. These are often obainted from Indian temples, where the hair is sacrificed by worshipers.

Hair extensions and weaves can cost thousands of dollars and require many hours to be put into place. Upkeep can be tedious and feel like a full-time job.

Two African American women around 1899, with straightened hair.

Two African American women around 1899, with straightened hair.

Women of color were straightening their hair and wearing a variety of hats long before the 20th century.

How to Have Good Hair

High Cost of Black Hair Care

Chris Rock's film examines the African American hair care industry and its customers in depth, from gathering human hair in Indian temples to visiting The Bronner Brothers International Hair Show events, to beauty salons and barber shops and other purveyors of natural and synthetic hair additions. It is quite a story!

One particular product and process, the hair weave, is very expensive at several thousand dollars, time consuming, and even tortuous to endure.

Once the hair extensions are sewn into a crown of natural hair braided tightly into cornrows, the hairdo must be re-tightened after a period of weeks, then eventually replaced -- This sounds like the old torture of dental braces. Any one session at the beauty shop for tightening or replacement can cost a few thousand dollars.

In a barber shop featured in Good Hair, a man tells his friends and Chris that for Black women, buying a new weave time after time is an expensive addiction. Another man feels that that weaves are like pornography in their addictive potential.

Whatever the case, the weave process that I saw looks at least wearying and expensive - and like it might hurt.

Soon into the film, another man states that he dates white women because they allow him to touch their hair. The weave is untouchable, lest it be destroyed or mangled.

Later we hear a Black woman tell us that she might have to be high on drugs to allow someone to touch her weave. So, for some people, a white woman is more accessible than a Black woman because of simpler, natural hair. Color seems not the major reason in this case.

The most bothersome scene for me was that in which two 3-year-old girls are forced by parents to undergo the chemical relaxation of their hair, even though they don't want it. I cringed at this.

One of the little girls finally says,” Everybody is supposed to do it”, but she doesn't like it. The straightening "perm” burns, even if milder formulas for children are applied.

Being burned by chemicals for having kinky hair and rejected or diminished for darker skin coloring, even within African-American culture, is torture.

Famous Black Hair

Ms. Leontyne Price

A very interesting archival photo of Leontyne Price in shoulder-length braids and performing as Cleopatra is located here: Black Heritage.

When I met Ms. Price, she wore her hair pulled back, wavy, and shoulder length. She was elegant yet accessible and very kind and patient with an all-white classroom full of boys and girls that knew nothing about opera.

The Future of Hair

Time, Energy and Compromise

The 1970s were a time of Afro hairstyles in America. Many individuals even permed their hair to make it approximate that trendy look. What will hairstyles look like in 2070? it is hard to tell.

An African America nurse that recently retired once told me that she and several of her colleagues and friends visited Africa during the 1970s and wore their Afro styles. Upon being greeted at the landing airplane, one of their African counterparts asked, "What happened to your hair?"

They all laughed, but it seems non-Afro natural and braided styles were the norm in Africa and many of us in the States just did not know.

Patti Labelle and her singing group Labelle experimented with stiffened space-age hair extensions, other performers have worn dreadlocks, and many have returned to more natural styles.

Yet, thousands of people every year purchase new weaves and straightening perms and work hard for a more socially acceptable hairstyles.

I think that it costs a lot of time, energy, and compromise to become something else - sometimes, too much. If I am reading him right, Chris Rock feels the same way,


  • Favors, Esq., L.D. Dark Skin “Bad” Hair & Light Skin “Good” Hair. Afro State of Mind. Retrieved November 25, 2018.
  • Stilson, J.; Rock, C. Good Hair; 2009.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2009 Patty Inglish MS

Comments, Opinions and Thoughts

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on January 26, 2020:

I'm glad you liked this article, Rachelle. It's an important topic. Thanks!

Rachelle Williams from Tempe, AZ on January 26, 2020:

This is outstanding! You really did a good job of delving into the issues, and you covered every relative point.

akune from Surrey, England, United Kingdom on September 13, 2011:

I watched Good Hair and it was a scream with a serious flag up.

By the way, off topic, just thought of something . Doesn't usually happen does it that babies are born and parents take one look at them and say 'He/she is gonna be a comedian', you know , like you see some features and say this one is a diver or sprinter for sure...mmhn

supriyama on August 02, 2011:

Great Hub and very well written

FloraBreenRobison on July 18, 2011:

There is a predominance in focusing on appearance in all respects of today's society. Hair for African women is a popular topic. I remember watching an episode of Oprah where she introduced the topic of hair weaves and said that she was sure all the white girls in the audience were going "what's a hair weave." Regarding skin colour, when a person has interracial parents I had always thought that skin colour of the children would be somewhere in the middle of the parents' tones. And yet this is not the case. There could be a cuople whose children are all different shades. Genetics can be quite fascinating.

S T Guy from USA on April 28, 2011:

It is a very sad day when witnessing self-hatred first hand. However, it is in ample display here. Many Black men and women have been brainwashed into NOT being able to perceive or accept their own unique beauty. From dark skin to curly hair to muscular builds to curvier forms, Black people have be taught - and in many cases are still be taught - that their natural physical characteristics are flawed. It is imperative that Black people stay strong and withstand these vile, evil stigmatizations and stereotypes because their futures and the futures of their children depend on their unwavering staying power.

dashawn on March 22, 2011:

black people always been beautiful and they will always will be

Olive Ellis on March 07, 2011:

Very interesting hub. I live in Jamaica, a predominantly black country and I am sometimes descriminated against. I am sometimes called "black" by persons who are a lighter shade, but also black. I have never worn extensions and am proud of my nappy hair, which I wear natural. Keep sharing. Will be following.

esllr from Charlotte on March 05, 2011:

Very interesting and true hub. The picture that was called funny is also a source of pain of the negative images portrayed of beautiful black people to further instill lower self esteem.

I've been an hairstylist for many years and can tell you that white and other races have relaxers also to control and straighten their hair. Not only black people are conditioned to be ashamed of their naturally beautiful kinky hair.

I tell every client that there is beautiful but just have misunderstood hair. Trust me white hair is not what black women are after. White women are getting perms to get away from their mousy thin looking hair and relaxers to straighten kinky hair.Who are white women trying to look like when they do this or wear weaves?

Our hair today is a personal choice. What is wrong with enjoying your choices? All people from all over the world are wearing dreadlocks.

They are not trying to be black but are loving a style much loved from the mother land. Self expression and feeling free enough to wear your hair anyway your like is your right.

This is and enlightening a thought provoking hub. Thanks

Shelvajay from If You Know Me Personally, You Know Where I Am... on February 25, 2011:

Good Hub!

JLClose from OreGONE on February 21, 2011:

Wow, thanks for this this hub. I can honestly say that it was eye-opening. I just finished a personal hub about my fight with my own freckles--I guess all of us have our struggles with our appearance.

Nan on February 18, 2011:

Well written article. This is a complex issue. Women all want to look beautiful, and will go to great lengths to do so. White women also wear weaves to male their hair look perfect on TV, it stays the way the want it. Lena was a beautiful woman and she did marry a white music conductor. You hair and features complement your look and who you are. African women do have kinky hair, they were born with it, and do look beautiful, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Light skin was a result of a white father or white mother, biracial.

sheen khan from Karachi ,Pakistan on January 26, 2011:

nice hub i need this information about hair and lightened skin

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on January 10, 2011:

Thanks for the comments and I'll be reading the other Hubs mentioned.

@nick - Strangely intriguing. I don't think dark skin is sad - ever see a happy smiling dark-skinned African child's face? Most happy, indeed and brighter in it's light than a sad white face. Thanks for your comment.

nick on January 10, 2011:

I just wonted to enjoy looking at light skin women and I don't know if people just don't know there races or what why are there Chinese Mexican white and even dark skin woman on here light skin is happy dark skin is sad I just won't to be happy with other light skin people you know

N E Wright from Dover, Delaware on January 09, 2011:

Hello Patty Inglish, Ms,

This article is great, sad and way too true. I should know.

Still, I was even stunned by the story you tell of your friend and her non-profit business. It depressed me.

I saw the Chris Rock movies months ago. I loved it. I hated it. Notice how the young dark-complexioned girls told the fairer girl how she could not get a job with her hair -- I loved her hair -- the way it was. I was pissed.

I use to beg my mother to allow me to wear afros in the '70s. I started wearing them when I was 11 or 12 years old. I was in heaven.

I have a Hub dealing with the problems with complexions within the Black community.

Oh, Lena Horn was my hero, because she never passed for white, and to me she could have with no problem when she was younger.

I first saw her on Turner Classic Movies -- with my father -- I did not understand why they had a White woman playing opposite a Black man. The film was done in the early '40s I believe.

My father informed me of who she was, and that she was Black. I was stunned, and impressed.

I just loved Lena Horn.

I thank you so much for writing and sharing this topic. All of us need to know this subject.

Take Care,


edelhaus from Munich, Germany on January 03, 2011:

What an excellent site. I like how you covered the subject from so many different angles.

W K Hayes from Bryson City, North Carolina on January 02, 2011:

I loved the article. The fact that people are still judged by the perception of them, on the outside, is truly sad even to this day. Perhaps that is why I enjoy the hubs...I get to see who the people are without any regard for personal appearance, only the content of the mind and soul which, matters most to me.

Contrice on August 02, 2010:

A very good read. Black women still today struggle with their hair type, texture, and style.

Style Hair on August 01, 2010:

Very good and well written topic we have here, thanks for it but light skin or dark, everyone have their own style of hair do that fit them and the point is, to choose the best one that fits you..

nosense on July 30, 2010:

Black or white, we are all humans.

Rose Ella Morton from Beverly Hills, Michigan on July 24, 2010:

Let just get to the true facts. Behind every light skin woman or man with good hair started with a black and white connection. We all know about the hands in the cookies jar. if color or hair were important it would have been in the bible. We waste to much time taking about our differences to hide the fact that we are all the same.

OldenbuzzDotCom on July 04, 2010:

Thanks for this food for thought. I've recently been enjoying the diversity of beautiful women in the media, but now I see that there's still a long way to go. In a perfect world, we would appreciate all sizes, colors, and styles of beauty.

Trini Kay from Long Island, Ny on June 24, 2010:

This was a great read. Very well written. Its sad that this is still going on in our day and age but you covered it very well. Thank you.

Kevin Schofield on June 13, 2010:

Great hub! I can't imagine a world without gorgeous black women (or white or brown women) agonizing about their hair and appearance. The sad thing is when insidious racist attitudes devalue their humanity and undermine the natural human desire to take a pride in one's appearance. Grace Jones forever!

music2electro from Germany on June 12, 2010:

I love that comic drawing! Funnii :D

noorin from Canada on June 06, 2010:

Very informative and interesting =)

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on May 15, 2010:

I live in Central Ohio - All i ever see is dark-skinned people in local commercials on shows I watch: African-America, Hispanic, Asian Indian, dark Pakistani. So I guess that's "always."

Don't forget how this REALLY got started! on April 07, 2010:

I appreciate the discussion regarding " colorism" however, I am 58 years old and I have never heard of the "term". What (in my opinion) has to be understood is that we are living in a racist, thus race based society. White enslaved or colonized people of color throughout many place in this great world and because of the physical and psychological domination (can't have one without the other), many groups of color suffer from major self esteem problems, which include the desire to be white and if not white, close to white, these symptoms include preoccupation with white hair structure "Good hair”, and the low race esteem exhibited among all people that have historically dominated by a majority group. We have got to stop pointing the finger at one another (people of color)and some how suggesting that we are the problem WITHOUT first acknowledging the TRUE source of the problem, A HISTORY AND GLOBAL SLAVE TRADE AND INSTITUTIONAL RACISM, for more the four hundreds years. Yes, there are lots of problems (symptoms) but ignoring the root causes makes it impossible for us (Black people and other people of color). Think about it, how often do you see dark skinned women or girls in major TV ads, etc.

Rose Ella Morton from Beverly Hills, Michigan on March 21, 2010:

Black is beautiful

patspnn from NYC on January 10, 2010:

Interesting. Prejudice can rear its head anywhere.

Alfreta Sailor from Southern California on January 10, 2010:

Very interesting hub. I grew up in the south, during the desegregation era, and we didn't have time for those things. It wasn't until I moved away that I found out about the color and hair thing. I guess it was the neighborhood that I lived in, and school that I went to. I am dark skinned with not so "good hair," and I was among the most popular in my school. I am very serious, if you look at my school photos we didn't have those stigmas, but I do now know that they existed. This is a great hub by the way.

Playathome2 on November 20, 2009:

When ever I where weave I don't let anyone touch my hair either but it because even though I know they know its a weave, I just would get embarrassed when they feel that track in my head.

jodill from INDIANA on November 17, 2009:

Thanks. I love the film,and your hub page.

Sandy Mertens from Wisconsin, USA on November 16, 2009:

Very interesting hub.

dusanotes from Windermere, FL on November 16, 2009:

Great blog, Patty. I'm white, but I played a lot of baseball when I was younger, always out in the sun. And my skin tans well and sometimes takes months to whiten back to my normal pale look. Frankly, I prefer the suntanned look, but a lot of girls around where I grew up didn't. I can recall one red head on a date wanted to visit my parents - why I didn't know until later. I took her home, but they were gone. She looked at all the photos and then asked why my arms and hands were so dark? I guess if I hadn't been so disgusted by then I would have shed my shirt and showed my white chest and farmer's tanned arms for contrast. It totally disgusted me. I can feel a little bit what the blacks feel about being discriminated against. Thank goodness the blacks I know now love their dark skin, and so do I. Don White

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on November 15, 2009:

Thanks for all the comments! Ths is a film I will see again. It's pretty interesting.

Rebecca Graf from Wisconsin on November 15, 2009:

Very interesting piece. I saw a preview for Rock's film and was curious about it. I'll have to see it for sure now.

It is amazing how we put such pressure on ourselves and others by our perceptions of external appearance. To have to undergo expensive procedures over and over again and some of them being painful is hard to believe.

Jacqueline on November 15, 2009:

see my website

MENU: African style Magazine on African barbershop signs. Indeed serious business but very creative.

RedElf from Canada on November 14, 2009:

An informative and thoughtful hub. A school friend from Northern India told me pretty much the same thing. She said her grandmother always urged her not to get too tanned in the summer as it would make her look too much like a southerner (darker).

ngureco on November 14, 2009:

Good read.

Everything else being equal, a light skinned lady is more likely to get a job in a business owned by the darkest-skinned individual than a dark skinned lady.

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