Pondering "fair": Good or light?

In a recent blog posting for Code Switch, a website examing race, ethnicity and culture, NPR editor and producer Camila Domonoske ponders the word "fair," from its Anglo-Saxon roots as "beautiful" to its modern usage meaning "light-skinned."

Domonoske begins with a fairy tale, Snow White, where the evil stepmother asks her enchanted mirror to identify the "fairest of them all," but did she mean beautiful or blonde?

Domonoske writes:

The conflation of beauty and paleness hardly came out of nowhere. Petrarch's Laura, the archetypal object of love poetry, was golden-haired. The idealized beauties of Renaissance paintings were alabaster-skinned (though the presence of people of color in medieval and Renaissance art shouldn't be ignored). And when Elizabethan women wore skin-lightening makeup, they were following a tradition hearkening back to the Roman era.

Having one word that means both beautiful and pale makes a pretty obvious statement about Western beauty standards. But the meaning of "fair" goes even further – mixing goodness in as well. Essayist Autumn Whitefield-Madrano points out that at the same time "fair" was transitioning from beautiful to pale, it also came to carry more positive moral overtones – and "black" gained the meaning "dark purposes."