This story was originally published May 4, 2016, by Let Your Voice Be Heard! Radio, and was the winner of the 2017 New York Association of Black Journalists Award for Best Online Media Blog Commentary. [Below are excerpts.]
Everyone is praising Beyoncé’s sixth studio album and accompanying hour-long visual film, Lemonade, which conveys themes of black womanhood, infidelity, and love. Although Queen Bey has explored these themes in previous records, she has never addressed these issues with this level of boldness and transparency. For instance, in the track “Sorry,” she calls out her husband’s mistress by name, singing “he better call Becky with the good hair.”
In turn, that line has led many to question if “Becky” is a real person. It has even sparked a massive witch hunt to find the alleged homewrecker. Many blogs report that Becky is fashion designer Rachel Roy since she posted a self-incriminating Instagram post that further fueled speculation that she had an affair with Jay-Z. However, other people suspect that Becky is Roc Nation artist Rita Ora or a woman named Cathy White, who mysteriously died soon after signing a deal with a major tabloid to expose her alleged affair with Sean Carter.
But hunting for Becky mutes the greater point and cultural implication that Beyoncé is making with this lyric. It also distracts us from the fact that black women already know Becky very well.
Who is Becky?
Black women are very familiar with “Becky with the good hair.” She makes us feel inferior and not good enough. Many black women marvel at her beauty, while others try to emulate it. Meanwhile, society esteems her as the ultimate object of desire, a prized trophy and a symbol of status to the man she marries.
Good Hair Don’t Care
Bey, however, does not call her husband’s mistress “Becky” to imply that he is sleeping with a white woman. Instead, she describes her as having “good hair,” which is a term used to describe someone of African descent with long, straight or naturally curly hair. Women with this type of hair are considered prettier than those with kinky hair, whereas those with kinks are often degraded as “nappy-headed.”
In essence, Beyoncé is describing a light-skinned or mixed-race woman with Eurocentric features to highlight two very important struggles many black women face: an inferiority complex with their blackness and the damaging effects of colorism.
Colorism is a form of discrimination that treats those with lighter, fairer skin with a higher regard and as more attractive than those with darker skin. Although many ethnicities experience some level of colorism within their communities, colorism for African Americans is tied to slavery.
Back then, lighter-skinned black folks were given the privilege to do housework and domestic tasks, while darker-skinned slaves were relegated to more grueling work in the fields. Lighter-skinned slaves were also given preferential treatment since they were often the children of white male slave owners.
Within the African American community, having lighter skin and Eurocentric features were highly valued because it increased their chance of survival and gave black people the opportunity to “pass” as white in order to avoid being enslaved.
In turn, the favor attached to lighter-skinned blacks resulted in the stigmatization of darker-skinned blacks that is still felt to this day. This stigma is constantly reinforced in media that demeans black women with dark skin, kinky hair, wide nostrils, thick lips and/or big butts. Just look at the underlying racist tone used when describing Serena Williams and Michelle Obama as “manly” or “ugly.” Let’s also not forget about the 2011 study published in Psychology Today originally titled “Why Are Black Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women?“
Furthermore, magazines and countless media outlets have long been accused of lightening the skin of brown people in order to appeal to a broader audience.
Back in 1968, Black Panther Party leader Kathleen Cleaver explained the harmful effect colorism has had on black people when she told an interviewer:
“For so many years, we were told that only white people were beautiful–that only straight hair, light eyes, light skin was beautiful so Black women would try everything they could — straighten their hair, lighten their skin — to look as much like white women.”
Lemonade And The Legacy
In Lemonade, Beyoncé puts a modern-day twist on the legacy of colorism by addressing her husband’s mistress as “Becky with the good hair.” Within that one lyric, she is expressing the pain, humiliation, and struggle that black women feel in a society that praises European beauty standards and judges black girls by this norm.
This lyric also shows that her husband’s affair with a “Becky” is even more painful because it reinforces the notion that black women with Eurocentric features are superior. It’s one thing when society tells you you’re not white-looking enough to be beautiful, but it’s another thing when the love of your life says it.
Sweatin’ Out My Blow Out
As a brown girl with long brown hair, I personally feel plagued by both sides of colorism.
I got my first perm when I was 12 years old and I have been getting periodic relaxers to keep my hair straight ever since. I get regular wash n’ sets and blowouts to transform my thick hair into straight, soft tresses. Right now, my longest lock hangs down my back, landing on my bra strap. For me, this process (no matter how damaging it may be) makes my hair more manageable and requires less work on a day-to-day basis. However, because of my processed hair and reddish-brown skin, I’m frequently told I have “good hair” and I’m really “pretty for a black girl.”
On the other hand, I’ve also been made to feel as if I don’t measure up to the ideal standard of beauty. Like many brown girls, I’ve been told to stay out of the sun so that my skin doesn’t get any darker. I’ve also had people look into my dark brown eyes and pity that I did not inherit my mother’s light hazel eyes. That basically told me that although I am pretty, I would have been much prettier if I had a light eye-color that is more associated with whiteness.
Stop Searching, We Know Who Becky Is
We may never know for sure if Jay-Z stepped out on Beyoncé or who the real “Becky” is, but that’s beside the point here. Because black women are constantly compared to white beauty standards, skin-bleaching creams make millions of dollars each year, while some women even resort to permanently trading in Afrocentric features for smaller noses, thinner lips, and lighter skin. (Think Lil Kim.)
Lemonade is about the strength, struggle, and resilience of black women around the diaspora—so it makes sense that Bey would address our struggle with internalized self-hatred.
We don’t need a witch hunt to find Becky. She’s the standard of white femininity and beauty that tells black women that no matter our shade or hair texture, we will never be pretty enough or good enough because we will never be white.
The New York Association of Black Journalists (NYABJ) honored Black Enterprise’s very own Digital Editor, Selena Hill, with a prestigious award last week for this blog article. The annual media awards competition celebrates the best and brightest journalists in New York. “We aim to recognize exemplary coverage of people or issues in the African/African American Diaspora,” reads a statement posted on the NYABJ website.