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“Colorism in Popular Media” explains prejudices against darker skin

Irene Rotondo

As of Oct. 25, the highly-anticipated SEAT at the Table events have begun at Springfield College. With over 35 different Zoom sessions scheduled, participants have the opportunity to learn from facilitators who have lived the exact experiences they will speak about. “Colorism In Popular Media” was run by Student Trustee Sabrina Williams and Cultural Connections Coordinator Ja’Naya Ashley with approximately 75 participants at its height.

“Colorism In Popular Media” aimed to explain how even in modern media today, those with darker skin tones are given less positive attention and can be portrayed as characters with certain stereotypical traits. Movies, video games, television shows, ad campaigns, online videos– all of these forms of media (and more) are perpetrators of colorism, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

Williams and Ashley began the event by sending out a preliminary survey in the Zoom chat room to get an idea of what the participants already knew about colorism. They asked questions like, “What is colorism?” and “Do you know what Light-Skin Privilege is?” in order to gather information ahead of time and compare it to participants’ understanding at the end of their event.

Williams and Ashley then went on to give the official definition of colorism on their first powerpoint slide, and they explained the different associations of colorism as well.

“Colorism is defined as prejudice or discrimination against individuals with dark skin tones, typically amongst people from their own racial or ethnic group, so essentially colorism is a form of racism,” stated Williams. “Colorism is giving preference to people with lighter skin tones who have those more Eurocentric aspects or features.”

Though colorism affects both men and women, Black women are more often than not the ones who will suffer the most. This is because women are held to different beauty standards than men, and their physical appearance is so much more heavily focused upon than mens’. 

“Light skin women are perceived as intellectual, classy, and attractive. Dark skin women are usually associated with being loud, sassy, ghetto, and sometimes lessintellectual than light skin women,” read the PowerPoint slide.

Following the definitions was a slide specifically devoted to the discussion of Colorism in popular television shows. Ashley and Williams included pictures from the shows “The Proud Family”, “Martin”, and “Black-ish” to properly give a visual representation of why these shows were or are problematic. 

“It has become very popular for sitcoms, especially for one with families, where the man is usually a darker skin tone and the wife is a light skin woman,” said Williams. “So that was one thing I wanted to point out in this picture, but also Martin is deemed as a ‘hood’ character; [he] uses African American dialect much more than his wife. His wife is deemed as the classy, intelligent, respectful woman, and he’s more of the opposite character.”

Ashley and Williams emphasized their point by displaying 13 photos in their next slide of celebrity couples with a dark skin man and a light skin woman. Williams stated that though not all of the men depicted had actually come forward and said that they preferred a light skin woman over dark, the trend is far too common to be ignored.

The next slide showed four different lyrics from popular Black male rappers that are offensive towards dark skin women. Ashley highlighted rapper Lil Wayne specifically, and stated that he even has a dark skin daughter and did not see anything wrong with his lyric, “I bet that b*tch look better red.” The phrases “red” and “yellow bones” are slang terms for a light skin Black woman, and Ashley pointed out that Lil Wayne had even stated, “My daughter is the first and last dark skin child I’m having, the rest of my baby moms are light skin chicks.”

Following the discussion on how colorism is perpetuated by rappers was a slide called “Light Skin Privilege”. Defined on the slide as “Light skin women, and even men, receive preferential treatment from others inside and outside of the Black community,” Ashley delved into exactly why Light Skin Privilege exists.

“Light skin women and men, they receive favor because they’re closer in shade to being white than a darker shade of Black,” stated Ashley. “It mainly looks like picking a light skin person over a dark skin person for a position or role they clearly don’t fit… an example I wanted to use is a few years back, T-Pain, he was holding dance auditions for his music video… there was a light skin woman who was at the dance auditions, she tried out, and she didn’t do good at all… then, you know, a dark skin woman comes, and she does amazing… and then T-Pain’s response was, ‘You did good, but I don’t think you’re fit for this position, so I’m going to give it to her,’ to the light skin woman, who didn’t do a good job at all.”

In the final segments of the discussion, both Ashley and Williams took the time to describe their own experiences as Black and biracial women. Ashley stated that because she is the “lightest” in her family, she has not experienced any personal colorism towards her but has seen it directed at others. However, Ashley said that she was a victim to the media and its colorist messages when she was a child.

“When I was younger, I was brainwashed from the media and I was colorist, I guess, because I wanted my dolls to be white or light skin. I remember going to the store, and I’d always pick white dolls, and I caught my mom one time switching the dolls to a Black one… She told me, ‘You should have dolls of all shades, because all shades are beautiful, and I’ve been noticing you’ve been picking the white dolls, and I’m starting to think you believe that they’re more beautiful than the Black dolls because they’re white,’” recounted Ashley. “And I did believe that, I’ll admit that, because it was all in the media, so growing up and being little, of course I’m going to think that ‘light skin is the right skin’ which is a quote a lot of people actually use.”

Williams said that her experiences are much different than Ashley’s because she is the darkest skinned person in her Black and Puerto Rican family. Williams endured constant comments from her family about how she would be “more attractive” if she had lighter skin and found it difficult to find herself while surrounded by people who did not look like her, but were her family.

“None of my baby pictures were hung in the house, unless my light skin sister was in the pictures, they would not hang up pictures of myself individually,” said Williams. “I’ve been called blackie, I’ve been called a n*gga, I’ve been called different things from my family… I don’t really associate with my family anymore because of the treatment I got, and I never really noticed I was being treated differently until I went to a private white high school and realized that the way I was being treated at school was the exact same way I was being treated at home.

“When I was younger, my grandma used to put relaxer in my hair– for those of you who don’t know what it is, it’s a very harsh chemical that’s essentially supposed to get rid of the curls in your hair. I have really curly, kinky hair, so my grandma used to do that a lot. It’s very dangerous, it used to burn my eyes and I had, like, scalp problems for years… I was also trained to straighten my hair so many times because they couldn’t stand the sight of my hair, the texture, and they never knew how to take care of it, just essentially telling me I looked better with straight hair,” Williams added.

After finishing telling their experiences, Ashley and Williams opened up the floor for an extra half hour to participants for any questions or comments they had. Participants were eager to share and typed questions and comments like, “Do you feel comfortable listening to/singing along to songs with such problematic lyrics? (like the ones we saw in your presentation before)”, “I’ve been reading a lot of books to my kids, and whenever there’s a multiracial family, the father is usually darker and the kids are ALWAYS lighter than whoever the darker parent is”, and “Thank you so much! I learned so much this conversation and session, and really enjoyed it”. The discussion between facilitators and participants detailed more of the content Ashley and Williams had mentioned in their presentation, and everyone walked away with a good, informed feeling.

Free registration for SEAT at the Table events will continue to be open for the rest of the Zoom sessions until November 1.

Photo: Office of Multicultural Affairs

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