Back in 2017, Allure magazine interviewed 41 actresses, models, entrepreneurs, and more who are women of color on what it was like growing up with their skin tone in America.
1. Padma Lakshmi
“Before high school, I lived in a white suburb of Los Angeles where there were so few Indians that they didn’t even know the ‘correct’ slurs. They called me the N-word or ‘Blackie.’ For a long time, I hated my skin color…
“[And] when I started to work as a model, people would on occasion say things to me like, ‘You’re so pretty for being an Indian.’ I’ve gotten to a place where I have a much broader feeling that I’m beautiful because I’m accepted in the culture. I scar very badly. You can see every scrape, cut, and burn — mine don’t go away… but I’m very thankful for my skin.”
2. Meghan Markle
“I took an African-American studies class at Northwestern where we explored colorism; it was the first time I could put a name to feeling too light in the black community, too mixed in the white community.
“For castings, I was labeled ‘ethnically ambiguous.’ Was I Latina? Sephardic? ‘Exotic Caucasian’? Add the freckles to the mix and it created quite the conundrum. To this day, my pet peeve is when my skin tone is changed and my freckles are airbrushed out of a photoshoot. For all my freckle-faced friends out there, I will share with you something my dad told me when I was younger: ‘A face without freckles is a night without stars.’ ”
3. Zazie Beets
“My father is German; my mother is African-American. Growing up, I visited my grandparents in Berlin a lot. I would not see any other person of color for three weeks. People would stare. They would say things like ‘Oh, you look like chocolate — I want to eat you up!’ I’ve been to gatherings where people would say, ‘She has so much race in her’ or would use the word ‘n*****’ — or the German term ‘neger.’ And I would be like, ‘Who are you talking to?’ I feel German, I speak German, [but] I don’t look German.
“In the United States, if you’re African-American, it can be assumed that your family has been here for generations. In Europe, colonialism is much more alive and it’s assumed you’re from Nigeria or Senegal. I would have these conversations like ‘Where is your mother from?’ ‘Brooklyn.’ ‘No, but where is she from?’ I would respond, ‘We don’t know,’ since we can’t trace our roots beyond North Carolina. Slavery has erased our ability to find our origins. We have been here as long as some of the first immigrants.”
4. Constance Wu
“My family is Chinese-Taiwanese. I’m from Richmond, Virginia. The community in which I grew up was pretty white. The storybooks you got at school featured white children and an animal, or animals.
“Fresh Off the Boat is the first television show led by [an] Asian-American [family] in over 20 years. I’d always been in the supporting role, the best friend, or the assistant to the white person. And I was grateful. But once I was in the lead role and other people started making a big deal out of it, I realized I was previously blind to it.”
5. Eva Longoria
“I remember growing up in Texas not speaking Spanish and yet feeling as Latin as can be — kind of being a fish out of water. It was definitely hard for people to just assume you’re one thing, but you’re not just that one thing. That was something to navigate early on in Hollywood. Because Hollywood has an idea of what they think Latina looks like, and I didn’t fit into that box, so I had to create my own box.”
6. Aja Naomi King
“I was afraid of the darkness of my skin. I believed I had to be celebrated for my intelligence and my sense of humor. Those could be the beautiful things about me since my skin couldn’t [be]…
“It has been a process of self-love to embrace the beauty of every single drop that makes up the richness that is my beautiful brown skin. If you learn anything in life, learn to love yourself. There is no amount of makeup or skin-care products that will make you love yourself.”
7. Samira Wiley
“In the African-American community, they had something called the brown-bag test. If you are lighter than the bag, you’re OK. There are a lot of parts I read in scripts and think, Why are they sending me this? This is for a beautiful white girl. Not only is that in other people’s minds, but now it’s permeated my mind as well. I encourage anyone who’s reading this to be whoever they are. I want to be an example of someone who is trying to do that every day.”
8. Joan Smalls
“My skin is a caramel color with olive undertones. My mother’s complexion is golden and olive. All my family members have a variation of skin tones and color, and not once have we ever mentioned it or compared it…
“[But] when I first started modeling in Europe, the makeup artists asked me if I brought my own foundation. I was taken aback — this is a professional? It’s sad that they hadn’t worked with more people with my skin tone.”
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This article was originally published in March 2017 and has since been updated.
Lena Finkel is the Editor and Founder of Femestella. Prior to starting Femestella, she worked at People, InStyle, and Tiger Beat. Her favorite Housewife is Bethenny Frankel and when she’s not watching RHONY, you can probably find her obsessing over her tuxedo cat Tom or hoarding drugstore lipsticks.