Thursday, February 27, 2014

Erasure Hurts: Why the Discussion About Pharrell's Album Cover Matters

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When I first saw the cover of Pharrell's new album 'G I R L' over a week ago, I immediately noticed the absence of any "girls" with dark skin. I took note but I did not mention it -- not because I was not jarred-- but because I knew exactly what type of response raising these types of concerns elicits.

When a person, particularly a woman, chooses to make note of the constant media assaults against Black women and girls, they will undoubtedly be labeled bitter, insecure or disconnected. The personal attacks are tiresome, and sometimes it's just easier (read: less mentally and emotionally taxing) to avoid a fight.

Let's be clear. Pharrell has a right to put anyone he wants on his album cover, and I don't expect an explanation. But he did not make that choice in a societal vacuum, and that choice, no matter what his intention, has ramifications.

Moreover, I as a consumer, have a right to question my erasure. Black women have a stake in voicing our concerns about representation not only because we spend our money in support of these artists, but because they use our labor and likeness, with and without our consent, to get rich.

Dark-skinned women in mainstream media are more often than hypersexualized, fetishized, dehumanized or absent completely.

Merely pointing out these truths will make you a target. The outright dismissiveness coerces Black girls into remaining silent about their pain. Even I,  a woman who makes a living voicing my opinion, I am wounded, but we cannot succumb to powerlessness.

Refusing to be quiet about the damage erasure inflicts on the souls and spirits of the girls and women who are always left searching evidences an ability to think critically about the importance of representation. Reducing it to insecurity is an insult.

When it comes to media images perpetuated in a racist and sexist society, there is no such thing as "just a photo," "just a movie," or "just a song." There are consequences to the images that we consume, and those effects must be acknowledged. Whether or not you choose to admit it, the media plays an important force in our lives. It drives narratives and public perceptions. It reinforces beauty ideals and cultural tropes. And that power can either fortify cultural pathologies or destroy them.

Erasure hurts. Both men and women shoot down concerns about overt colorism, and many of these same men and women throw jabs at those who are most susceptible to it.

Lil Kim's transformation from a pretty brown girl from Brooklyn to her current state provides what I find to be a heartbreaking example. The visible evidence of Kim's personal pain make her an easy target, but in the time I spend on social media I see Black women with brown skin and black features derided daily. I, myself, have sustained many such attacks after which we are  told to toughen up, shut up or be the target of, yet, more abuse.

The current ubiquity of Lupita Nyong'o in mainstream media is remarkable not simply because she is a brilliant actress with phenomenal style, but because someone who looks like Lupita garners  celebration in mass media once every decade if we're lucky. She has, herself, noted the importance of her presence in the cultural landscape.  Lupita may be a light for a little girl who feels invisible.

These conversations must continue. While we can take up arms to decry the harmfulness of images of the black "thug" in media, somehow the jury is still out on the erasure of black women. In order for Black  people to care about an issue, it seems we have to frame it within the context of the destruction of Black men, and that is an unacceptable tragedy.

Ultimately someone must take up those battles because without the fight, nothing will change. Black women can and should wield the strength of our purchasing power and cultural influence to change the status quo.

If you don't have to care about this issue, consider yourself privileged. That does not deligitmize the concerns of those of us who do. Searching for acceptance and celebration does not make you insecure. It makes you human.

Those of us doing the work to create ourselves, and the girls in our lives, whole and happy need not feel ashamed or petty.  This work is important too.



Kimberly Foster is the founder and editor of For Harriet. Email or

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