Op-Ed: The Token Black Model Circuit in London is Rooted in Racism

April 20, 2022

Colorism across the global diaspora 

I’ve been to many places in this world, but never the United Kingdom. However, that doesn’t mean the concept of colorism in the modeling world is foreign. I can only look at my own backyard in the U.S.—coupled with my experience promoting Black beauty in the 2000s—to know that this topic isn’t exclusive to Black people across the pond. Especially when it comes to an industry fueled by vanity and a perceived “standard” of beauty.

“The simplest way to think about colorism is that the darker you are, the less pretty you think you are, the less access to resources that people think you should be able to get and the lighter and more proximate you are to whiteness, the more privilege society accords you. And of course, this colorism is rooted in racism. The circulation of these debates occurs in very specific industries. In acting, in modeling.”
— Dr. Awino Okech, Professor in Gender and Racial Justice Studies at SOAS University

Of all the catwalking done in 2018’s London Fashion Week, only 36.2% of the models working were POCs. Yet, it was never determined how many of their skins were of the darker variety. That’s because London, just as it is here in the states, has a tokenism and colorism issue in fashion and media. 

“I look different to what a normal mixed-race girl looks like,” London-born Coral Kwayie, a half-Ghanaian, half-English model, said in an interview. “So, I think that people can pick what my ethnicity is when it comes to a shoot.” 

That wasn’t the case for supermodel Ajek Deng who quit the modeling industry in 2016, albeit briefly. The dark-skinned Sudanese beauty had been vocal about the racism she’s faced, even accusing luxury brand Balmain of removing her from a show in place of a fairer-skinned model.

 “There is so much discrimination and racism in my world,” Deng told the British newspaper, The Sunday Telegraph, in 2019.

Colorism has long been a thing in the UK before the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, brought the subject to light in last year’s interview with Oprah. Many studies and research have uncovered lighter-skinned people more likely to be hired for jobs than their darker counterparts—from the blue-collar worker to an anchorman/woman on the telly, to a model on the runway. In 2020, BBC News investigated that the country’s passport photo checker showed bias against dark-skinned women

As Dr. Deborah Gabriel, founder of Black British Academic told The Guardian, “It’s part and parcel of systemic racism and inequality. And it’s linked to power and imperialism.”

How media perpetuates biased beauty standards 

We’ve long heard the stories of the division amongst Black people during slavery, where the light-skinned ones were treated slightly more favorably. In 2022, nothing has changed. Even though conversations are being had, the damage has been done to many. Especially women of color who are bombarded with messaging about their features, specifically their skin tone. 

Do you want tone-deaf advertising? Nivea had that covered in 2017 when the company came under fire for their “Natural Fairness” body lotion that promised “visibly fairer skin.” How about inaccuracies in films based on historic figures? See, Zoe Saldana in the Nina Simone biopic or Zazie Beetz in The Harder They Fall, and see how those situations turned out. It’s this racial ambiguity that media, fashion, and entertainment industries skate on, when they hire a lighter POC, as a way to tell their audience that they adhere to diversity. Full stop! Yay, racism is solved! But it’s on their terms, because the reality is, the (Eurocentric) message being sent, especially, and most importantly, to the impressionable minds and eyes of young Black girls, is the closer you are to white, everything will be all right.

What a load of bollocks.