Colorism in Pop Culture

In the pits of a racial reckoning, Black people are retouched in magazine covers, advertisements and many other forms of media. Have you ever gone through a department store and counted the number of times you saw white models compared to Black models and while you’re counting, how many of those Black models are dark skin compared to fair skin? This is a prime example of colorism.  

Colorism means if you are a person of color, the fairer your skin is the closer you are in the essence of being white. Therefore, you receive more advantages and are perceived differently than those darker than you. 

“I think colorism can impact how people view other races and ethnicities in a negative way by ‘pitting’ one race against one another because of skin color,” said Alissa Stoehr, an assistant teaching professor in sociology. “This is also a very racist way of holding on to the white standards of beauty and ‘accepting’ people with lighter skin tones.”

According to Novotny Lawrence, an associate professor at Iowa State University, colorism can come in two forms: ingroup and outgroup. It’s not only groups on the outside looking in but can occur from within. Ingroup members that are Black people evaluate each other based on their color complexion. 

“Colorism gives some people privilege over others and that ultimately is when hurt and problems arise,” said Lawrence. “When you start privileging certain people based on their looks over others it leads to a myriad of problems for the people that don’t fit what is valued as beautiful. That can affect folks socially, economically and politically.” 

Colorism dates back to the Civil Rights era, specifically with the brown paper bag test according to Audrey Elisa Kerr’s “The Paper Bag Principle: Of the Myth and the Motion of Colorism.” The brown paper bag test was a test practiced in the Black community. It compared an individual’s skin tone to a brown paper bag. If a person’s skin was the color of the bag or lighter, they were allowed access to churches and organizations and if a person’s skin color was darker than the bag, they were restricted from coming in. Currently, this may impact who stars the roles in movies and television.

“We live in a racist society, so colorism becomes a part of that ideology,” said Stoehr. 

In a sense colorism is an extension of racism and discrimination. It is shown in a different aspect, particularly with pop culture and media. 

“We have done a very poor job historically in this country talking about and teaching about and coming to terms with racism in our society,” said Lawrence. “Things like colorism is an extension of our failure to reconcile with racism in this country.”

An example of colorism portraying in pop culture is when O.J. Simpson was on trial. TIME magazine released an issue with Simpson on the cover that appears to be altered to make his skin tone darker. The darkened ambiance around Simpson makes him appear more sinister. After receiving backlash from readers, TIME magazine republished with the correct skin tone. 

“They [men of color] are shown as being darker than they are which plays into the racialized stereotypes of who society associates with criminality,” said Stoehr. 

In our society, we created this norm that if you are of a lighter skin tone, you are superior  to those of darker skin tones. 

“It [colorism] makes me feel terrible because beauty comes in so many different forms and we have to get out of this idea that somehow being fair skin is more beautiful than not,” said Lawrence. “We are a range of different people, a range of complexions and a range of identities that in all of that there is value and beauty. I speak to you as someone who is fairer skin and as a black person, it’s ridiculous and unfair. I wish we didn’t have to grapple with it to this day.” 

Because colorism is a conscious racist thought, it takes the social change at the systemic and institutional levels. 

“Quite honestly, it’s like anything else, first and foremost you have to admit that [colorism] is a problem and that it exists,” said Lawrence. “All too often I think people can go through society with blinders on.”

Stoehr thinks we need a clearer definition of what colorism is and then explore what ways to combat it. 

Take into question who is it that gets opportunities versus others and what do they look like? Are we seeing images of more prominent complexions like fair than those who have darker complexions? If so, speak up, educate others on colorism in the media, continue to make noise on racism and provide real equity at higher levels in media like CEO positions, Editor-in-Chief and television producers.

As the poet Audre Lorde famously said, “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept and celebrate those differences.”




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