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In My Words: Media shades the truth when it comes to colorism

Associate Professor Naeemah Clark criticizes in newspaper guest columns an entertainment industry that perpetuates standards of beauty that celebrate lighter complexions over elegance also found in people with darker skin.

The following column appeared recently in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the (Greensboro, N.C.) News & Record, the Winston-Salem Journal, the Roanoke (Va.) Times, the (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News and the (Durham, N.C.) Herald-Sun via the Elon University Writers Syndicate. Viewpoints are those of the author and not Elon University.

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Associate Professor Naeemah Clark

Media shades the truth when it comes to colorism
By Naeemah Clark

Nude pantyhose don’t look good on me. That’s because they are not made for me.

Every woman of color knows that she has to dig through the department store shelf in the hopes of finding hosiery that matches her skin shade. And by doing so, we accept that we are not the norm, not the default.

This form of colorism happens all the time, so I should be used to it. But I’m not. Instead, it’s death by 1,000 cuts, and colorism is magnified when we see media representations of African-American women.

I was reminded of the hurt colorism can cause when one of my students, through tears in her eyes, looked at a magazine cover featuring Academy Award-winner Lupita Nyong’o. Nyong’o has rich chocolate brown skin and a closely cropped natural hair. And she is fabulous.

My student also is fabulous with her chocolate brown complexion and short hair. For her, Nyong’o’s cover served as a reminder of how rare it is to see a dark-skinned actress celebrated as a beauty on the big screen.

Cinematographers and photographers explain (in what may be cut 1,001) that it is easier to light a set when the models have fairer complexions and are similar in skin tone. We have grown accustomed to viewing African-American women with light brown skin and facial features associated with the standards of white beauty.

Hollywood has long considered lighter-skinned women from Lena Horne to Halle Berry to be commercially acceptable images of African-American beauty. Nyong’o recently admitted earlier shame about her skin tone as a child. She wished at times that she would wake up with lighter skin and mourned when she saw she remained the same in the morning.

These feelings can be deep and powerful. It is a poorly kept secret that some prominent African-American stars use damaging or even carcinogenic pills, creams and soaps to lighten their skin.

The emotional drive to be lighter has a heartbreaking past. Lighter-skinned slaves — those born of a slave and her master — generally received better treatment on the plantation. This notion of light privilege was extended within members of the same race.

Post-slavery, some African-American society events would only allow entrance if the guest were lighter than the pale brown shade of a paper bag.

And it is here where the cuts are the deepest. Colorism from media controlled by African Americans allows the white standards of beauty to dictate how we feel about ourselves.

For instance, African-American director Lee Daniels was criticized for casting lighter-skinned Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz as being the saviors in the 2009 movie Precious while darker characters portrayed by Gabourey Sidibe and Monique were put upon and damaged.   

Just last month, popular radio host Tom Joyner promoted a water gun fight between lighter-skinned and darker-skinned passengers on a cruise he sponsors. Incidentally, the annual cruise serves as a fundraiser to send African-Americans kids to college.

This real battle represents the pain that colorism has created in the African-American community, and the divide can be bridged in two ways.

First, the media can do better. People of different hues must be hired as models, romantic leads and heroes. And magazines must stop using computerized editing to lighten skin color.

Nyong’o looks sublime on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine’s Hollywood issue that celebrates the Academy Awards, but it is clear that her skin tone has been brightened through the magic of the fashion industry.

We already know Photoshop is used to shave off weight or smooth out a wrinkle, but when it is used to alter the rich differences in a racial group it must be critiqued as supporting a systematic racial chasm.  

Second, and more importantly, African Americans must dismiss notions of “good hair” and “light is right.” We must acknowledge that our American lineage is made up a range of ethnicities that have produced a multi-hued race.

For evidence, flip open family photo albums.

I love looking through snapshots to see the wide ranges of shades that contributed to the beautiful deep walnut color of my father, the golden tones of my mother and the shades of my sisters and me somewhere in between.

Naeemah Clark is an associate professor of communications at Elon University. She co-authored “Diversity in U.S. Mass Media” and edited “African Americans in the History of Mass Communication.”

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Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact Eric Townsend (etownsend4@elon.edu) in the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions.

Eric Townsend,
Staff
4/8/2014 9:05 AM