what the girl group member you identified with says about you (everything)
my journey with colorism, through the lens of Destiny's Child
welcome to strong feelings! Essays by writers we love, in which they share their most impassioned opinions on a given subject. If you love our usual advice column — don’t worry it’s not going anywhere. This month for strong feelings, writer, actor, and producer Emebeit Beyene (she/her) unpacks her journey with colorism through the lens of Destiny’s Child.
I grew up in the late 90s/early 2000s. A simpler time where chips cost a quarter, the internet was an exciting new thing on dial up, and kids still played outside. Yeah, the good ol’ days.
Conversely, this was also a time where access to pop stars was limited — getting to see them wasn’t as easy as a quick trip to their Instagram page. If you didn’t buy tickets to a concert — which, thanks to my frugal immigrant parents I did not — or skip school to catch them outside of TRL, (again, no), then you really had to put in some elbow grease to stay tapped in.
Back then, Destiny’s Child was my everything. I’d bolt home from school to watch every TV appearance. If I knew I couldn’t make it in time, I prepared in advance, setting a timer on my VCR to record on the single blank VHS tape that I owned. I abused that tape and ran it ragged with non-stop rewinds and records. If that wasn’t enough, I subscribed to every teen magazine from Word Up! To J-14 and used the centerfold posters as floor-to-ceiling wallpaper. My father would rib me: “Do they have pictures of you in their house?”
Lack of access created a mystique that only fueled my obsession, though. When my friends and I got together we would cosplay as the trio, performing full choreography learned from taped music videos. Who you got to be in the group was sometimes chosen, but most of the time it was assigned. The assignments were based on availability and similarity. Whether it was Destiny’s Child or the Spice Girls for you, this much is true: Who you got to play said a lot about who you were, and frankly, what you looked like.
If you played Beyoncé, you most certainly gave “main character” energy. You were the girl who didn’t shy away from the spotlight and wasn't afraid to lead the charge. If you were Michelle, you were the biggest cheerleader of your group and, chances are, you became everyone’s emergency contact later in life. Now, if you were a Kelly, like me, you were a true ride-or-die friend — a right-hand woman. If the Grammy’s had a Best Supporting Actress award, it would go to Kelly. She and I had so much in common that I gladly accepted the role when it was assigned to me, but more often than not I fought to be her because I felt the most like her. Not only were we both loyal to the soil, but, most importantly, we were both darker-skinned girls.
Kelly was the darkest in the group, something she was reminded of time and time again. As the darkest girl in my childhood friend group (and every friend group since), that resonated with me. As a kid, I felt like she understood the isolation that comes with having darker skin. And looking back now, I know she helped shape my complicated relationship to my skin color.
Kelly held it down for me in a time where I didn’t see girls with my complexion represented and celebrated in mainstream media. She was my anchor in a sea of whiteness. No other brown girl at that time had crossover appeal the way Kelly did. She could be on the cover of Essence one day and Seventeen the next. I loved her for that, but at the same time she became my paper bag test.
In my mind at the time, Kelly was the last acceptable shade of Black. I constantly compared my skin tone to hers in every magazine she was featured in, and panicked whenever there was a discrepancy. I couldn’t fathom being darker than her because, honestly, I thought I would be considered ugly. So, throughout my teenage years, I avoided tanning at all costs. I always sat in the shade and when that was unavailable I covered my head with a towel to ensure that I was not sabotaged by the sun.
The spectrum of Black skin was a source of contention within myself, but also one that permeates the entire Black community. It is exhibited explicitly through comments like “Who turned the lights out?” when a dark-skinned person enters a room, or implicitly through backhanded compliments like “You’re pretty for a dark-skinned girl” or “You’re going to change the game for dark-skinned girls.”
I’ve had the displeasure of receiving both kinds of comments, and, for a long time, it took a toll on my self-esteem, particularly in dating. It was always difficult for me to accept someone's affection or compliments because I was so used to them being made in spite of my complexion. If I found myself at the center of a man's attention, I would convince myself that I was their last option, and therefore concessions had to be made. The feeling was only amplified when I moved to LA and found that there was strangely only one look to the “it” girl, and it was not mine. Over time, the feelings continued to compound, destabilizing the connection I had with myself.
Jewel Wicker, a culture journalist who’s covered everything from Sza’s new album to the Atlanta rap scene, attributes this effect to anti-Blackness and systemic racism as a whole. While colorism may be one of the ways racism is internalized, “there's all these other struggles from marginalized people within the Black community that seep in,” she says. “If you're an immigrant, if you're darker skinned, if your hair is not a certain texture, if you are of a lower class, all of these things make it difficult for you to have confidence and feel good about who you are.”
Even as a global popstar, Kelly Rowland wasn’t exempt from the cruelty of colorism. She recently revealed in a BBC interview with Tan France that her first teenage lover broke up with her because his grandmother said she was “too dark chocolate” for him. Within the entertainment industry, she was constantly reminded that she was the darkest one in the group. She says it made her “uncertain about how [she] looked, and it started to define what beauty was to [her].” For me, Kelly was the beauty standard, my North Star. But for her, the person she always compared herself to was Mariah Carey. The goalpost just moved closer and closer in its proximity to whiteness.
While this beauty standard still exists in many spaces, (such as rappers exalting light-skinned women or Hollywood granting more opportunities and fame to light-skinned actors), there have been efforts made to offset it. Fenty is disrupting the beauty community with a wide range of cosmetic shades (something that should have happened a long time ago, but unsurprisingly, took a global pop star to make an industry standard).
Magazines are also more conscious in their representation. Kelly has appeared on the cover of Essence magazine three times. And according to the magazine’s former Deputy Editor, Cori Murray, they felt a sense of responsibility to level the playing field. “You could count on Essence to be that one place that was going to show you a range [of skin tones] and actually lean more into darker-skinned women,” Murray adds. “If [we] had a choice between two models, we leaned towards the darker model because that's the imagery we wanted to portray [and] because we knew that [even if] we were just one small ripple in a pond, this was going to be our chance to have an effect.”
Reflecting on our childhood games, my friend Meaza Yalew says much of our Destiny’s Child cosplay was really a way for us to express and develop our identities. We mirrored them, not just because we thought they were cool, but because they modeled behaviors and characteristics that allowed us to see the potential for the same within ourselves. I now realize that my connection to Kelly was not only through our similar skin, but also through my desire to be as confident as she appeared to be in it.
We still have a long way to go, but thankfully for both Kelly and myself, we have people in our corner that uplift us and remind us of our beauty whenever the media fails to do so and, not to mention, a strong relationship to self. Through tireless work in therapy I have detached my value from the validation of others and developed a true sense of self-love and self-worth. I genuinely accept myself for who I am, the good and the bad, and I simply implore those who don’t to go elsewhere. While I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that I still have residual panic whenever I am in the sun, I am proud to say that these days I’ve gracefully learned to silence the alarm and embrace my skin — in all of its shades and all of its glory.