This model was bullied for her dark skin. Her story is all too familiar.

I can't take my eyes off Khoudia Diop's beautiful skin.

Even in pictures, it's easy to get lost in it. Deep and rich, like a thousand night skies. She refers to herself on Instagram as the "melanin goddess," which would normally be boastful and trite, if it weren't so clearly true.

But not everyone sees her beauty, or her worth. Diop was called names and bullied for her skin color as a kid.

“Growing up, I faced it by confronting the bullies," she told The Daily Mail U.K. "As I grew, I learned to love myself more every day, and not pay attention to the negative people.”

Today, the 19-year-old is leaning into her unique, stunning complexion by working as a model. Her 303,000 Instagram followers can't get enough of her striking look.

"If you’re lucky enough to be different, don’t ever change," she said.

Though Diop wrote her own happy ending, bullying around colorism is all too common and rooted in historic and systemic issues.

Colorism is the false and outdated notion that the closer people are in complexion to the white or fair-skinned ideal, the better. Complexions that are closer to white are seen as prettier, smarter, more worthy of time, and more worthy of attention. But too often this leads to bullying and discrimination for people of color with darker complexions, from within and outside the same racial or ethnic group.

This issue is complex and has deep historical roots.

Slaves with lighter skin were often assigned to work in the house, while slaves with darker complexions were sent to the fields. This practice continued for decades, turning into discriminatory exercises like the paper bag test. That's where a brown paper bag was used as a kind of "skin-tone barometer" for privileges, like access to certain churches or black Greek life at colleges and universities. Those lighter than the bag were welcomed in. Darker than the bag? Not so much.

Photo by iStock.

But as stories like Diop's illustrate, colorism is not just a thing of the past, and it affects people of color of all complexions. Those with lighter skin may find others challenging their authenticity and their "black experience." Men and women with darker skin or coarser hair may not see themselves represented in the media, specifically as love interests or idealized depictions of beauty.

And colorism is a difficult thing to combat because this type of prejudice and internalized racism begins when we're young.

In 2010, Margaret Beale Spencer, a leading researcher in the field of child development from the University of Chicago, was recruited by CNN to recreate the famed "baby doll test" from the 1940s.  In the original, black and white children were asked questions about whether they favored a white doll or a white doll painted brown. The results showed both white and black children had a bias toward the white or lighter skin doll.

When Spencer conducted a version of the test more than 60 years later, though, she found that the results had changed, but not by much. White and black children still have white bias, though black kids have far less than their white peers.

Photo by iStock.

"All kids on the one hand are exposed to the stereotypes," Spencer told CNN. "What's really significant here is that white children are learning or maintaining those stereotypes much more strongly than the African-American children. Therefore, the white youngsters are even more stereotypic in their responses concerning attitudes, beliefs and attitudes and preferences than the African-American children."

It's a grim reminder that historical, external, and media-driven forces behind colorism are having an impact on all of us, no matter our race or ethnicity.

That's why people like Khoudia Diop are so important.

Watching Diop, and stars like Viola Davis and Leslie Jones, find success in their respective industries is a strong indictment against the narratives that women with dark skin are undesirable or unworthy of admiration or respect. But it doesn't mean their journeys are easy or smooth. All of these strong women experience bigotry and ignorant comments, not just from the dregs of the internet, but from critics who should know better too.

Jones experienced intense online harassment this summer when trolls lobbed insults and images of gorillas her way. Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images.

Colorism is real. We live it every day. And speaking out and talking about it, like Khoudia Diop, is the first step to putting an end to it.

Whether or not you're a famous face, it's important to speak out against colorism.

Check your friends and family when they make ignorant and prejudiced comments. Support brands, magazines, and movies that showcase people of color with darker complexions. Signal boost voices when those who've been discriminated against are brave enough to tell their stories. Buy dolls and picture books with protagonists of color for the children in your life.

There's a lot we can do to weaken the hold colorism has on our society so more folks like Diop can rise to the top of their fields.  And it starts with all of us.

Photo by iStock.

More

Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

According to NOW Toronto, the producers of Frozen II have entered into a contract with the Sámi people—the Indigenous people of the Scandinavian regions—to ensure that they portray the culture with respect.

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Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

Frozen II features Indigenous culture much more directly, and even addressed the issue of Indigenous erasure. Filmmakers Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, along with producer Peter Del Vecho, consulted with experts on how to do that respectfully—the experts, of course, being the Sámi people themselves.

Sámi leaders met with Disney producer Peter Del Vecho in September 2019.Sámediggi Sametinget/Flickr

The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

In a contract signed by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Sámi leaders, the Sámi stated their position that "their collective and individual culture, including aesthetic elements, music, language, stories, histories, and other traditional cultural expressions are property that belong to the Sámi," and "that to adequately respect the rights that the Sámi have to and in their culture, it is necessary to ensure sensitivity, allow for free, prior, and informed consent, and ensure that adequate benefit sharing is employed."

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Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, was part of the Verddet advisory group. She told NOW, "This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories. It hasn't happened before."

"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

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