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Skin-folk: The Impact of Colourism in the Media on Black Women

Introduction

Colourism has acted as a social barrier within the black community and continues to play a significant role in their day-to-day lives. Colourism, which can be alternatively known as shadeism, is the discrimination against people within the same racial groups, determined by the shade of their skin. In this digital age that we live in, the influence of the media has led to a society where light-skinned women are treated superiorly in comparison to their dark-skinned counterparts; this has created an unhealthy sense of competition where the black community feels like they need to compete with one another in order to prove themselves. This has pitted the black community against each other and prevents our light-skinned and dark-skinned sisters from feeling unified. For us to eradicate these notions, we must begin to educate ourselves on the reality of colourism, push for more representation in mainstream media, and begin to treat one another as equals rather than opposites.

History

Colourism dates back to the years of slavery, where enslaved black people were mainly distinguished by their skin tone. Those who were lighter-skinned were often better-treated in comparison to those who were darker-skinned; enslaved black people with dark-skin had to work away in the fields, while enslaved black people with light-skin were often found inside doing housekeeping. Enslavers also frequently sexually assaulted their enslaved females, thus creating light-skinned children. Those with light-skin were their own family, therefore, they received favoured treatment in comparison to those with darker skin. Given some of the enslaved spent their days outside, they became much more tanned than those who remained inside; this led to the notion that dark-skinned individuals were part of the lower class, who labored outside, and light-skinned individuals were part of the upper class, who labored inside. As history progressed, these notions from slavery were unfortunately still present through routines such as the Paper Bag test, where individuals darker than a brown paper bag would not be allowed into certain social groups. 

Hollywood


Pictured above: Warner Bros./Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

In our constantly changing world of media, colourism in Hollywood has revealed itself time and time again. Over the years, audiences have noticed the same family archetype in many black movies and sitcoms; shows like “The Proud Family” and “Black-ish” feature dark-skin men with light-skin women. Even in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”, which originally had a dark-skinned actress playing Aunt Viv’s fiery yet loveable character, switched her out midway through the series for a lighter-skinned actress who was much “calmer” and arguably, boring (pictured to the right). 

Pairing a dark-skinned man with a light-skinned woman ultimately plays into the common preferences of black men within the black community. While many may choose not to outright say so, they tend to be more attracted to lighter-skinned women. While there is nothing wrong with this, these preferences become more and more of a trend in entertainment as they provide black men with a somewhat relatable feeling. 

There are a few factors that play into these archetypes. First, Hollywood consistently aims to portray the men as the typical black male stereotype– tough and ultimately, the alpha-male. Hollywood also tends to portray light-skinned women as classy and elegant, while any dark-skinned female characters have typically been represented as the aggressive and obnoxious black woman. In “Martin”, the male lead, Martin Lawrence, also played a female character named Sheneneh (a stereotypical name), where she ultimately was ridiculed and mocked. Why did she have to be played by a male actor? Why couldn’t they have cast a dark-skinned actress? Why was this her chosen name? The answers to these questions are simple; they wanted to use the dark-skinned female character as comedic relief for the audience that only further solidified society’s false perceptions of black women. 

Colourism in Hollywood shows up in the technical aspects of entertainment as well.  Ever since film became available in colour there has been a noticeable difference between how white actors show up on-screen in comparison to black actors. It is clear that cinema tends to cater towards white people, frequently leaving darker actors poorly lit, overexposed, or practically invisible.

In recent years, Hollywood has seen a surge of films and television shows that are directed and produced by black people, and feature mainly black casts, allowing for much more effective representation. 

A highly talked about show has been “Insecure”, HBO’s comedy series written by and starring Issa Rae, a dark-skinned actress. The show consists of an entirely black cast and the scenes often take place in dimly lit bars. However, the lighting used throughout the episodes truly accentuates the actors’ features. How do they do this? The makeup artist working with the cast uses a reflective base on all of the actors, light is reflected off of the actors (rather than directly on them), and the use of a polarizer filter, which affects the amount of reflection that comes off of a surface, helps to frame their faces and reflect the light in a way that leaves the actors well-lit.

 

Pictured above: Justina Mintz/HBO

Evidently, it is entirely possible to properly light darker-skinned actors. The problem is the lack of effort and compassion from the industry; instead of taking the time to learn these techniques and actively start to cast more dark-skinned actors, they opt for lighter-skinned actors who are “easier” and will ultimately save them more time. 

Social Media

Social media, despite its many benefits, is slowly becoming one of the most toxic environments, especially for the black community. We constantly see black men putting down dark-skinned women and uplifting white women and/or light-skinned women simply because of their preferences. What the majority of them fail to realize is that it is completely okay to have a preference in terms of who you are attracted to– what’s not okay is degrading those who do not fit your preference. 

Colourism in social media began to become an issue through Youtube. Youtubers, who were typically teenagers, would go around asking strangers questions such as, “would you rather have a dark-skinned girlfriend or a gay son”. Questions like these are wildly inappropriate and very disappointing. There is absolutely nothing wrong with having a darker-skinned girlfriend or a gay child, yet the comparison between the two insinuates that having either one in your life would be some sort of shame. Try putting yourself in the shoes of a dark-skinned woman or a gay man: how would you feel watching a video like this and hearing the rude comments made in the video? It would not feel good whatsoever. While social media has begun calling people out for making these types of videos, that still does not erase the colourism that is deeply rooted within the platform. 

Instances of colourism are more commonly seen today on TikTok, the biggest social media app of this generation. There have been trends where men will express the type of women they are attracted to, using heart-eye and kissy-face emojis when talking about white and light-skinned women, and then using barf emojis when talking about dark-skinned women. Another video I came across while scrolling through my TikTok feed was a dark-skinned man saying “would you rather date a dark-skinned woman or go blind?” followed by a song stating, “I would rather go blind”.  On countless occasions I have seen a beautiful dark-skinned woman post a video of herself, only to read her comment section and see remarks such as “you’d be prettier if you were lighter”. 

We as a society have tied being light-skinned with being prettier, and through trends and comments like these, have implied that dark-skinned women are gross and undesirable. The fact that the men who participate in them are usually black men just goes to show how the black community, unfortunately, discriminates amongst ourselves. 

Conclusion

The one thing we need to remember when discussing colourism is skin-folk are not always your kinfolk: those who look like you on the outside won’t always treat you like family. To encourage conversation, black families need to have discussions about colourism, especially if they have young children; the earlier they can learn about it, the more they can educate themselves and use this knowledge to help work against this problem. As for the media industry, they need to begin regularly having more dark-skinned representation both in the characters they create and the actors they choose to portray them. What we see represented in the media can easily influence how we can begin to see the rest of the world. This is the generation that has the power to truly cultivate a change, and it is time for us to begin making stronger efforts towards a more appreciative and inclusive community. 

Works Cited:

Collie, Meghan. “Here’s How the Woman Behind the Camera on Insecure Properly Lights Its Black Actors.” FLARE, 16 June 2020, www.flare.com/tv-movies/insecure-lighting/.

Grace. “Your Favorite Classic Black Sitcoms That Are Actually Colorist.” SORELLA, 11 Sept. 2020, sorellamag.org/colorist-black-sitcoms/.

Majeed, Keyallah. “Here’s How We Leave Colorism in 2020.” VOX ATL, 7 July 2020, voxatl.org/heres-how-we-leave-colorism-in-2020/.

Nittle, Nadra Kareem. “The Origins of Colorism and How This Bias Persists in America.” ThoughtCo, 30 Jan. 2020, www.thoughtco.com/what-is-colorism-2834952.

Rotondo, Irene. “‘Colorism in Popular Media’ Explains Prejudices against Darker Skin.” The Springfield Student, 27 Oct. 2020, scstudentmedia.com/colorism-in-popular-media/.

Uzogara, Ekeoma E, et al. “A Comparison of Skin Tone Discrimination among African American Men: 1995 and 2003.” Psychology of Men & Masculinity, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1 Apr. 2014, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4365794/. 

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