Southern California native Chika Okoro recalls the day she discovered the casting call for a 2015 film she eventually saw in theaters three times: Straight Outta Compton. “The movie had already come out, and I’m no actress, so I wouldn’t actually audition,” said Okoro in “Confessions of a D Girl: Colorism and Global Standards of Beauty,” her TEDxStanford 2016 presentation that addressed the role that subconscious bias plays in culture. “But I just wondered, hypothetically, if I did, what role would I get?” The filmmakers had divided potential actresses into four categories. The “A” girls
were “the hottest of the hottest, models,
must have real hair, no extensions.” The
“B” girls had “long natural hair, must have
light skin. Beyoncé is the prototype here.”
The “C” girls were “African-American girls,
can have extensions, must be medium- to
light-skin toned.” And finally, the “D” girls
were “African-American, poor, not in good
shape, must have a darker skin tone.”
Okoro describes feeling betrayed.
“Things like that convince dark-skinned
people that they’re not normal,” she says.
“It makes you feel unrecognized and
invisible.” She adds that “in my world, this
phenomenon is all too familiar, something
just as sinister and subtle as racism.” But
she also sees progress. For example, Naja,
an L.A.-based lingerie and swimwear
company, now offers the color “nude” in
seven different shades.
Okoro, a Harvard undergraduate
alumna who finished her graduate work
at Stanford GSB in mid-June, is currently
considering product marketing or strategy-
development jobs at a number of early-
stage startups. We talked to her about how
colorism and subconscious bias play out
in business culture.
You asked executives to consider
colorism as they develop the “face” of
their brands. Do you feel they have
a responsibility to do good beyond their
own business objectives? I think they’re
in a position to have a disproportionate
influence. I just think it’s responsible to
portray different types of people — color,
size — to represent what the world actually
looks like, as opposed to what we’ve been
shown is the right way to look.
As much responsibility as, say, Holly wood
and the arts? I think they all play
a part. It’s a cycle. TV and movies show
us what’s desired, how we’re supposed to
be, and consumers pick up on that. And
as those Western images have spread,
America has gained global influence. So
many cultures now aspire to American
standards. Advertising and corporate
America influence people to look a certain
way through clothes and makeup. Everyone
needs to play a part in breaking that cycle
by not just showing one type of look,
person, or way of being.
What made you pursue these questions?
I started noticing it in middle school, and
I continue to notice it. Who are the girls that
guys talk to? Who do I see on TV? I didn’t
see a lot of people who looked like me, but
I couldn’t put my finger on it. Once I got to
college and started studying critical race
theory, I got it. That Straight Outta Compton
casting call was just a blatant example of
how these biases are still prevalent.
So now that you recognize it, has it
changed your personal behavior? In some
ways. Some days I wear my hair straight,
other days it’s in braids. I like variety. But
sometimes I wonder: Do I like variety, or do
I really wish I had long, straight hair?
It’s a subconscious voice, and I go back and
forth with it sometimes.
Does that feel like a healthy personal
debate, or is it something you
Photograph by Christina Gandolfo
the Cycle of
A Stanford GSB alumna challenges
Hollywood and advertisers to portray
the world as it is.
BY MARTIN J. SMITH