Ilhan Omar Is Tackling Colorism. Here’s Why That Matters.
"A number of initiatives in the congresswoman’s fight against toxic skin-lightening products have passed in the House, efforts she hopes will start changing harmful beauty standards.
“From magazines to television shows and movies, fair features have been portrayed as the ideal standard. What kind of message does that send to young girls?”
— Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota
Two decades ago, a Somali-American girl named Ilhan overheard a boy at a soccer game explaining to another girl that she would be more beautiful if her skin color were lighter — like Ilhan’s, he said.
“I was embarrassed that I was used in the conversation to make my friend feel less beautiful,” she recalled. “It was painful.”
Then a 16-year-old Minneapolis high school student, that girl, Ilhan Omar, grew up to become a U.S. congresswoman. And that experience spurred her to push an ambitious bill in the House of Representatives to tackle colorism in America. Colorism, also known as skin-tone bias, is the preference for light skin over dark skin. It’s reflected in harmful beauty standards — who and what is considered beautiful — in biased hiring practices and across the media, to name a few examples.
Since May 2020, a number of initiatives in Ms. Omar’s fight against toxic skin-lightening products have passed in the House. These include $4.7 million in funding to increase public education on the dangers of skin-lightening products, better enforcement of existing bans on skin-lightening cosmetics that are illegally imported and the directing of $1 million in funding to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for a new study to better understand the dangers of these products.
The products, which include bleaching creams, tablets and injectables, are part of an $8.6 billion global industry, with the United States making up one-third of the market. Women of color take risks in their quest for lighter skin: Chemicals like mercury and hydroquinone in these products have been linked to lasting skin discoloration, damage to eyes, kidneys and lungs and, when used by pregnant women, birth defects. It’s a public health crisis, according to the World Health Organization.
“Colorism is prevalent everywhere: academia, Hollywood, everywhere in society,” says Kimberly Norwood, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of “Color Matters: Skin Tone Bias and the Myth of a Postracial America.” It’s not just a problem in majority-white communities. The issue is also prevalent in communities of color. We saw a stark example of this when the film “In the Heights,” based on the Latino community in New York City, directed by Jon M. Chu, who is Asian American, did not cast darker-skinned Latinos in lead roles. Writer Lin-Manuel Miranda, who was also part of the film’s creative team, apologized for falling short in “trying to paint a mosaic of this community.”
Black Americans with lighter skin have higher socioeconomic status and tend to marry people with higher socioeconomic status, one study found. Indeed, the authors concluded, “The impact of skin color or shade was as impactful as race in American socioeconomic status.” Another study found that darker-skinned Cuban and Mexican Americans face higher levels of discrimination at work than their lighter-skinned counterparts. Darker-skinned African American children are more likely to experience frequent suspensions from school, and a study commissioned by CNN in 2010 found that both white and Black kids are biased toward lighter skin.
Despite this, “I don’t think colorism as an issue is really on people’s radar,” Ms. Norwood said.
In Her Words interviewed Ms. Omar to discuss why we should all be talking about colorism, how the issue is both physical and psychological and why she’s pushing this agenda in Congress.
Our conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
How did your work on these initiatives come about?
It’s rooted in my experience growing up as a Black woman in a society where fair features are the standard of beauty. We know the beauty industry has sold the narrative that lighter skin is more beautiful. From magazines to television shows and movies, fair features have been portrayed as the ideal standard. Even celebrities like Beyoncé and Priyanka Chopra Jonas have had their skin lightened on magazine covers. What kind of message does that send to young girls?
One analysis from 2019 looked at 19 years of Vogue’s magazine covers and found that a vast majority of them featured white women or lighter-skinned women of color, and that the dark-skinned women could be counted on one hand. Even that data is skewed because Lupita Nyong’o has graced Vogue’s cover four times. What is the effect of this on ordinary women?
There are real-life consequences. In my own community, many immigrant women have used creams and soaps to try to attain these beauty standards. It’s important for us not to only condemn this message but also to understand the lasting health impacts. The industry is heavily under-regulated, and because of this, many of the women are unaware of the health issues.
While the U.S. spent an estimated $2.3 billion on skin-lightening products, it’s harder to find statistics about how many Americans actually use them, whereas data show 77 percent of Nigerian women bleach their skin. Is this as much of a problem in the U.S. as it is in other countries?
We have to think about it in context. If it’s a problem in China, India, the Philippines, East or West Africa, it’s also a problem here, because we have huge numbers of people from those countries who now live in the United States. Generally, when we have these conversations, we have it in the context of it being a problem in other countries, but the U.S. should be part of the advocacy to condemn and limit the usage of these products to promote acceptance and change the ideas of beauty standards. We don’t think about that being necessary here in the United States because we forget that there is a huge segment of our society that isn’t fairer-skinned or white that these messages are being sold to. And that they are suffering as much as women in other countries.
How did you decide to use your platform in Congress to work on this issue?
I introduced my skin-lightening amendment last year, after hearing women in my district and surrounding districts share their stories of skin discoloration and long-lasting health effects. Activists like Amira Adawe, founder of the Beautywell Project, say that this problem often doesn’t get talked about, and that so many women carry shame around using these products. It felt important to destigmatize this issue.
What does an awareness campaign look like?
With this passing the House, it brings greater awareness about the health impacts, possibly a shift in beauty standards, a development in how people see themselves and interact in society around beauty standards and also better regulations.
It’s great that the House passed an amendment to increase funding to research mercury exposure from commercial skin-lightening products. I’m excited we were able to get language in the underlying bill about this, which is the first time we’ve been able to do that. We’ve been trying for a while. Now we will continue to push for it to get passed in the Senate and be signed into law.
What is the relationship between skin-tone bias and racism?
Externally, there has always been an importing of beauty standards into communities of color by white colonizers. There used to be a history of celebrating darker skins in many of the communities that are now struggling with newer beauty standards. I think it is the impact of the colonial legacy. It doesn’t just impact skin color, it impacts the amount of cosmetic surgeries that are taking place to have more white-adjacent features.
Within many communities, there is colorism and casteism. The fairer you are, the more you might have access to benefits and privileges. All of that is rooted in that colonial legacy.
Then there is racism embedded within these industries that perpetuate these harmful standards.
How do you approach conversations about the preference for lighter skin?
Only with the acknowledgment of what’s taking place, are you able to course-correct. I hear and feel the ways in which people talk to my children and compliment them differently according to their different skin colors. I can now say, “No. That’s their way of thinking. You don’t have to think that way. You are beautiful.”