|Photo taken from a personal blog made with Wordpress|
Image originally from the film Dark Girls
Colorism’s origins began with the slave trade and the introduction of white supremacy over black people. When slaves were working on plantations in the south and working for their often abusive owners in sweltering temperatures doing intense physical labor, it was many a slave’s dream to be able to work in the house as a domestic worker. The slaves who tended to work within those walls are what we know to be called as “light skinned” people or people who were biracial due to the consensual and nonconsensual sex between slave owners and their female slaves. These slaves were more often than not treated with more kindness and respect by their white owners although not treated as equals of course, and the conditions were much better than any other typical slave experience. In order to be considered light enough to work in the house or to inquire a level of quasi-equality with white people, a slave's skin was compared to a paper bag (Dark Girls). If your forearm was as light or lighter than the brown paper bag then you were allowed to work in the house and received more amenities than others, and if you weren’t then you were just another slave on the farm. This was later infamously called the “paper bag test” and this along with other means of racial identification such as the “1 drop rule” (If you had “one drop” of African descent in your blood you were black) were still used after slavery was abolished in many states to categorize people within communities as light or dark, or as white or black (Dark Girls). With this history in mind it’s clear that in America the idea of whiteness has been synonymous with many positive things such as beauty, cleanliness, worthiness, wealth, etc.., and words such as dark or black have been synonymous with things such as night, coldness, sadness, nothingness..,etc. So it makes sense that the media that we are bombarded with promotes the idea of light over dark.
Walk into any local grocery store or department store and look at ads or magazine covers. How often do we one see a black woman on the cover? And how often is this woman a shade of black that is a deep brown chocolate color that couldn’t be confused with any other ethnic origin? The answer to both these questions is unfortunately not often or hardly ever. In media, when black women are shown in tv and in ads they are often portrayed as very light skinned with straight hair and european type features. Now these women are beautiful and I’m happy to see women of color represented in media, but the effects of not showing darker skinned individuals, which represent many black women in America is damaging and can lead to many issues such as self-loathing, higher incidences of depression and even added reasonings of suicide (Dark Girls). Many cases of this colorist idealization in media have appeared concerning celebrities such as Beyoncé, who was the center of controversy concerning a L’Oréal ad in which her already light skin was lightened to make her appear almost white. Other examples of this are seen with the choice of the actress Zoe Saldana, (a very light woman whose origins are from the Dominican Republic) to play the role of a darker skinned black artist and Civil Rights activist, Nina Simone in an upcoming biopic. Another example concerns the actress and former beauty queen Vanessa Williams who, although being the first African American woman to win Miss America, is extremely light skinned and has very eurocentric features such as light colored eyes, straight hair, and thinner shaped nose and lips (Harrison). As I’ve mentioned before, the fact that these women are represented is great and shows signs of progress of black female representation in media, however it is the presence of a minority group of black women, who look almost white which shelters a large portion of black women from being represented. The effects of this kind of under representation in media are many and significant and can leave scars on one’s being forever.
The lasting effects of this idea which is again and again inforced by the media are great and some of these effects can add or lead to much bigger issues than the experience of one person. By the media only showing a single view of beauty of light skin and straight hair it causes many darker women to devalue themselves and go to drastic measures to change their appearance. Many people in countries the world as a result of colorism and media turn to skin bleaching as a beauty routine to make their skin lighter and to become more beautiful (Charles). Skin bleaching has time after time been linked to major health problems such as cancer, skin deformation, and even often resulting in burns. With this information in mind, skin bleaching is quite dangerous and would seem to most as not worth it, but still it remains to be a business that profits annually $500 million worldwide and is most popular in developing countries (Charles). The irony that skin bleaching is most popular in the developing world is interesting due to the fact that in many of these countries the white populations are the minority, such as countries like Nigeria or Thailand where skin bleaching is very prevalent, so it goes to show the impact of media spread messages from developed nations to developing countries.(Dark Girls, Charles Skin Bleaching Link) In some countries such as Jamaica there are even songs that celebrate skin bleaching and encourage it such as the song by deceased reggae artist Captain Barkey (Song Lyrics Pg.384 Charles) that reads, “ If you a bleach and bleaching bleach on, bleach on, bleach on.”
Advertising by the skin bleaching companies is also enticing to consumers by its promise of a man or love. For example the skin bleaching product created by Nadinola Bleaching Cream reads “ Nadinola Bleaching Cream brightens and refreshes. Look how men flock around the girl with the clear, bright Nadinola complexion” (Charles). Many investigations also suggest that children as young as kindergarten are aware of the preference of white skin in society.
A study known as the “doll test” was first performed by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark in the 1940s. It showed how children perceived each other based on skin complexion. During the test young children both black and white male and female were asked a series of questions such as, “Which doll is the dumb child?” and they would chose from an array of dolls from a white complexion to a very dark complexion. CNN recreated this same test in 2010 to show how children view race today in America and the results were quite something. (Note for some questions some children chose not to answer or didn’t give a definitive response.) When asked to pick the “dumb” child approximately 76% of white children picked the two darkest tones and 50% of black children also picked the two darkest tones. When asked to pick the “mean” child, 57% of black children picked the two darkest tone dolls along with 66% of the white children. When asked to pick the child whom they would want as a classmate 40% of black children picked the lightest skin tones along with 89% of the white children. Finally, when asked to pick the “ugly” child, 54% of white children chose the darkest two tones with, 32% choosing the middle tones. When black children were asked, 41% chose the two darkest toned dolls. These results show that still today in the 2010s children are still being taught that the darker you are the less pretty or handsome you are, the less smart you are, and the less of a good person you are. So I feel based on this study, how children must become so aware of these ideas at a young age must be of course coming from principles taught at home but also in large part by our media portrayal of darker skinned people. If you noticed in many of these results almost 50% or more than 50% of black children picked their own skin complexions as having the negative traits like: mean, the unideal classmate, ugly, and dumb ( All study results are from CNN). These kids by age 5 have already been told that they are less than their peers purely based on the color of their skin. Colorism can even aid discrimination in the workplace, because when two equally qualified black women are up for a position the deciding factor is sometimes who looks the most pretty based on european standards (Harrison). By teaching kids to have hatred of themselves at such a young age how can people wonder why statistically black kids particularly female are more likely to have issues of self-loathing and continue to be the least married group in America. (Dark Girls) Even today on social media many trends such as the #teamlightskin or #teamdarkskin on Twitter continue to promote colorism and even coin phrases like “You’re pretty for a dark skinned girl.” With the facts stated I believe that media continually chooses to promote colorism on a conscious and even subconscious level.
Although many feel this way about the dark skin issue such as Bill Duke the creator of the documentary Dark Girls, many including him wonder about the effect colorism has on girls of a lighter complexion. In his new documentary he explores this same idea except with women who are lighter skinned. In the documentary it reveals that many lighter skinned women or biracial women feel “not black enough” to be accepted by the black community but “too black” to be accepted by the white community, leaving them feeling isolated in society. Many of these women who were interviewed, such as actress and child star Raven Symone have admitted to addictive tanning to make themselves dark enough to belong to the black community where they could feel embraced and beautiful (Light Girls) Others interviewed also stated that there are stereotypes that come along with being lighter skinned such as being perceived as “over emotional” or “whiny” or not understanding of the “real” black struggle in America. (Light Girls/Dark Girls) With that being said, although I agree with points made by the lighter skinned people in the documentary, I still think colorism effects darker women more negatively than lighter women, because statistically darker women struggle more in this country and our not as widely accepted as beautiful by the media as lighter women are.
Colorism is an issue that I believe is something very raw and carries deep scars on both ends, light and dark for many women and men in America. I do believe however that it substantially negatively affects darker women much more when it comes to perception of their beauty and intelligence and also their representation in media outlets across the world. This type of ideology to live under in our society can at times prove difficult and can drive major internal struggles for many black women. This type of self loathing can lead to going to desperate measures for beauty through likes of skin bleaching. The distribution of only lighter skinned women as beautiful can also lead to teaching men that the desirable woman is the lighter, leaving darker women the most unwed group in America. (Dark Girls) Colorism also can affect women in the workplace because when two equally qualified black women are up for a position the deciding factor is sometimes who looks the most pretty based on european standards. I think moving forward colorism is an issue that should not be shelved as an issue only existing within a group, I think that this needs to be a broaden issue discussed by people of all races to end the pain and self hate that the idea of colorism causes. If more darker skinned women were celebrated in media I think it can begin the healing process, in the words of actress Lupita Nyong'o “ I hope with my presence on your screens and in magazines it can help lead you, young girl on a similar journey, that you will feel the validation of your external beauty, but also get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside, and there is no shade in that beauty.”(Link to Lupita Nyong'o Essence Speech)