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Category: Health, Race/Ethnicity

Colorism, Black Women, and Contemporary Representation

| September 25, 2009

Former President Jimmy Carter touched off a media firestorm recently by suggesting that racism explained the extreme rancor of some criticism of President Obama’s health reform plan. The resulting debate, however, didn’t begin to reach the nuance of how attitudes about race are experienced in this country, particularly by black women, as the author explains.

This month’s issue of Essence Magazine highlights 16 preeminent African American women employed in various capacities by the Obama administration. Each holding at least one Ivy League degree, they are a bastion of accomplishment, poise, and intelligence.

From Valerie Jarrett and Mona Sutphen (White House) to Susan Rice (UN) to Lisa P. Jackson (EPA), the article offers brief profiles of each woman in complement to a larger article that praises the representation of African American women in the highest levels of government. And while I am proud to see such accomplished African American women foray into areas of influence and visibility, I was struck by the lightness in skin tone of the majority of the women profiled. On its own, this is certainly not a cause for alarm, though I am of the opinion that that this belies a larger, endemic pattern that is part of the political history of African Americans.

According to a December 2007 article by Jennifer Hochschild and Vesla Weaver in the journal Social Forces entitled “The Skin Color Paradox and The American Racial Order,’’ there is a well-documented history of colorism in every level of local, state, and federal leadership in America since 1865. Their conclusion was that, “light skinned [black people] have always been considerably overrepresented and dark-skinned blacks dramatically underrepresented as elected officials.” Colorism is a widely understood yet rarely challenged form of discrimination in which the lightness of one’s skin tone affords preferential social treatment to one group of people over another.

Colorism is so deeply entrenched within the social fabric that there are studies available to prove that lighter skinned blacks have higher incomes, receive preferential treatment in classroom settings, get hired and promoted at much larger rates within the corporate sphere, more often report the news and—especially in the case of women—headline a major Hollywood film, and even are executed at much lower rates than their darker skinned counterparts. Though certainly colorism affects men of color, there are particular ways in which it is especially nuanced in the political and social lives of African American women.

The highest profile African American woman in the White House is none other than the First Lady, Michelle Obama. An extraordinarily accomplished and brilliant woman in her own right, Michelle, to the wide delight of many African American women, is a dark skinned woman. In an article posted by The earlier this year, author Vanessa Williams states, “If a black president represents change, a dark-skinned first lady is straight-up revolutionary …the lingering effects of racism and sexism, coupled with a beauty industrial complex that constantly assaults our senses with images of female beauty that trend toward the lighter end of the racial color wheel, has rendered dark-skinned women nearly invisible in mainstream media.”

President Barack Obama’s choice of mate is a testament to his choice of partner that is based on equality, mutual respect and a beauty standard that is all to often not acknowledged in public spaces. A powerful player in her own right, Michelle Obama’s presence in the White House is indeed “revolutionary,” but the vast majority of the African American women we see in the media do not share her hue. Issues of colorism and visibility would no doubt be a larger part of the public discussion if that discourse paid more attention to the intersection of race and gender. As it is, the many ways colorism—along with racism and classism—affect women of color is obscured and marginalized. Yet the impacts are felt personally, professionally and politically.

One researcher, Matthew Harrison, who studies colorism in relation to hiring discrimination has said that the preference for a lighter skinned applicant may not be a conscious decision, but that human resources departments “need to be more aware of this issue and a bit more cognizant” of their behavior. I don’t suggest that the hiring of women with lighter skin tones by the Obama Administration is at all intentional—rather it is a result of a long history of social behavior that allows instances of colorism to show up in every fold of the social fabric of African American women. Just as Obama opened many doors with his historic nomination and presidential win, perhaps Michelle Obama’s presence in the White House can open doors as well.