On Colorism, Respectability Politics, and Cardi B

Getty Images/Alberto Rodriguez

Getty Images/Alberto Rodriguez

Last week, Cardi B made history as the first female rapper since Lauryn Hill to reach the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart without any guest appearances. Her hit single, “Bodak Yellow”, dethroned Taylor’s Swift “Look What You Made Me Do”. Although Cardi B’s historic success was met with praise across social media and beyond, it didn’t take long for people to question the value of it.

Within a day of Cardi B taking the number one spot, there were a plethora of facebook posts on my timeline expressing how discouraged they were about Cardi B being the image of success for young black girls. Most of the posts were from Christian women who couldn’t fathom a stripper-turned-reality star-turned-rapper being a leader for women. One post in particular even did the cringe-worthy hazard of comparing Cardi B to Michelle Obama, obviously emphasizing that she wanted her daughter to be more like the former first lady and not the unapologetic rapper who has no filter.

I can’t say that seeing post like the one mentioned above surprised me. As progressive as this generation of millennials are, there’s still an odorous tinge of traditionalism that highlights how respectability politics prevails in black culture.  My first reaction was basically filled with concern because I knew those posts were not the right message to be sending young black girls, and I also knew that it was wrong to diminish one’s success because of their past.

I will be the first to say that comparing Cardi B to Michelle Obama, Oprah, or any other black women whose rise to success seemingly makes them more conducive to being a “leader for young black girls” has respectability politics written all over it (in all caps, followed by an exclamation point). Just because someone’s rise to success doesn’t align with other’s perception of what success should look like, doesn’t mean that it should be demeaned and contained. Furthermore, that notion is attendant to the archaic idea of black elitism in which the divide between middle class, church-going, respectably mannered black women and the perceivably unkempt, loud-mouthed,and misunderstood black girls from the hood becomes more apparent.

This is a notion that was also held by Azealia Banks who mentioned, among other things, that stripper culture should not be the face of hip-hop and Cardi B representing that is an issue. Besides the fact that Banks isn’t in any position to declare what the face of female hip-hop should be, she subconsciously contributed to the faulty reasoning that a black woman’s profession defines her worth and assuming that all women who are strippers chose to be in that position . Cardi B’s rise is an obvious suggestion of the opposite. In fact, like some black women who are strippers, Cardi B became a one because it was an escape from poverty and the domestic violence incited by an ex-boyfriend. Although it’s a desired profession for some, it’s a means of escape for others. That’s obviously illustrated in “Bodak Yellow” with Cardi B rapping “I don’t dance now. I make money moves”.  Furthermore, I will also be the first to argue that Cardi B’s rise to success should be an example for all black girls that they can fulfill their dreams when the odds are heavily stacked against them

The second aspect of the criticism of Cardi B involved Azealia Banks again. In typical Azealia Banks fashion, the highly controversial rapper took to social media to express that colorism helped Cardi B ascend to the top, even going at length to label her “a poor man’s Nicki” (insert straight-face emoji here).



Immediately following her twitter thread, there were black feminists who defended her under the guise of colorism and Banks’ mental illness. Basically, social media defenses of Banks  varied between the “Banks is a dark-skinned women, so we have to acknowledge her disadvantage in society, and choosing Cardi B over her just perpetuates the colorism narrative” facebook post and the “We have to address mental health and how it take its toll on black women” twitter thread.


Don't get me wrong. I am well aware that hip-hop culture regularly demeans black women and has a long history of contributing to misogynoir. I will also admit that hip-hop does have a behind-the-scenes colorism issue. I only use that term because I do believe that hip-hop is probably the only platform in which the dark-skinned women are more accepted. Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliott, Rah Digga, and more are examples of hip-hop being a welcoming environment for dark-skinned black women. Additionally, to counter Banks’ claim of black men not hyping them up, it was Russell Simmons and Jay-Z who believed in a 17-year-old rapper from Brooklyn, New York, by the name of Foxy Brown and immediately signed her to Def Jam Records. It was Timbaland’s production skills that helped elevate Missy Elliott to hip-hop regality. I can go on and on and list examples of how black men have helped dark-skinned black women and even put them on the map.

However, I am not oblivious to colorism being a hidden issue. Whether we like it or not, there’s truth to Lil Kim’s decision to bleach her skin and Azealia  Banks’  decision to do the same. Additionally, I believe that Banks did accomplish shedding light on the colorism dialogue in hip-hop because although the issue isn’t prevalent in hip-hop doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist in that realm.

Nevertheless, those truths  don’t reduce my thoughts on labeling Azealia Banks an asshole. And I’m not going to use colorism and her mental health as excuses for her being that way. I don’t believe there is more depth to her comments on Cardi B than simply being a bitter, self-destructive female rapper who's jealous because Cardi B's social media feuds aren’t more famous than her actual music.

I find it distressing that black woman’s historic accomplishments are being unpacked and analyzed as a means to belittle her success. Cardi B is a perfect illustration of the potential that black girls have in an environment that’s increasingly stifling to their success and that, in itself, doesn’t require any further analysis.