Three Things that I learned about Colorism and Gender on Social Media // Marlene Williams, M.A


Earlier this year, InStyle magazine got a lot of attention for allegedly photo editing or “white-washing” Kerry Washington’s skin tone so that it would appear lighter. Unfortunately it is not uncommon for popular magazines to lighten the skin tone of women who are of a darker complexion. When magazines lighten skin tone they are setting a certain beauty standard that says lighter skin is more acceptable and beautiful. This is problematic because it perpetuates Colorism or the act of assigning privilege and characteristics based one’s skin tone. While Colorism is not a new phenomenon, the use of social media in the millennial era has certainly magnified its existence and powerful impact on the perceptions of Black women. Below are some of the lessons that I have learned about Colorism and the perceptions of Black women on social media.

1. Our standards of beauty are stuck in the 17th century
            Across all social media sites there is a certain standard of beauty that has been firmly established. It is very rare to see a dark skinned woman on Instagram accounts for anything beauty related. Instead you find thousands of posts of light skin women who supposedly have “better” hair and facial features. This is also portrayed in online video skits in which light skin women are depicted as getting more attention from men in a way that glorifies their physical features. The camera angles pan up and down their body and zoom in on their faces as they flip their hair while a group of men stare in awe of their beauty. Dark skin women, on the rare occasion that they are included in social media videos, are often illustrated as having more masculine features accompanied with a bad attitude. Dark skin women are more likely to be referred to as “ghetto” and loud rather than “beautiful”. In reality the underlying message is that the closer a Black woman is to European standards of beauty (skin tone, hair, facial features) the more beautiful she is. Modern colorism is connected to a much larger societal issue that dates back to slavery and beyond. The same assumptions of beauty and gender stereotypes attributed to dark and light skin women on social media parallel the ways they were treated on slave plantations. Historically, lighter skin slaves were considered “house negroes” and were expected to do house work while the darker skin slave women or “field negroes” were considered only useful for outside manual labor. Unfortunately, this has translated into a misconception that the light skin slave woman was somehow afforded more privilege than the dark slave woman and was considered more valuable to the slave master’s family. In reality skin tone did not excuse anyone from being subjected to sexual and physical abuse by their White slave masters. Similarly, skin tone did not prevent women from having their bodies objectified while being stripped naked and sold.

2. We actually believe this stuff!

            The old ideologies (mentioned above) that are associated with colorism contribute to the ways that we treat certain people based on their skin tone. For example, research shows that lighter skin Black people actually do experience certain structural privileges that darker skin toned people do not because of the assumptions associated with a lighter skin tone. Furthermore, Colorism has become so engrained in our perceptions of beauty that it has lead to damaging effects in the Black community. YouTube videos can be seen of Black women who have begun bleaching their skin because of their experiences with colorism. What we see happening here are the effects of internalizing the societal beliefs surrounding skin tone. Colorism transcends social media and becomes a part of day-to-day interactions as it is reinforced on social media constantly. The more we see it, the more we believe it, and begin to make the same assumptions on and off line.

3. The real debate is about: Too Black vs. Not Black enough
            The light skin vs. dark skin feud is contradictory in nature. Social media praises light skin women for having Eurocentric features but simultaneously accuses them for not being Black enough. For example, Oprah’s YouTube channel features documentary videos of light skin women sharing their experiences of feeling “not black enough” because they are often asked to categorize themselves as anything but Black. On the other hand, dark complexion women are made fun of for being “too Black”. Social media frames dark skin women as the “angry Black woman” stereotype and objectifies their Black physical features (butt, thighs, waist) but at the same time considers them “too Black” to be beautiful. It sounds rather silly when reframed from this perspective.

            Colorism on social media is often masked with humor. Some of the most prominent Instagram and Vine celebrities create comedic content specifically about the light skin vs. dark skin feud. Consequently, the humor serves the function of detaching the concept of colorism from other forms of racism. In reality, colorism is the same type of racism that contributes to police brutality, unfair treatment, and a flawed justice system. However there is hope in the power we hold to change this phenomenon. Anyone who has a social media account has the power to post and like/dislike whatever they freely choose. The first step is acknowledging that colorism is a problem and understanding its historical roots. The next step is to spread awareness and build critical consciousness within our online communities. Perhaps humor could be used to create awareness about colorism rather than to reinforce it. 

Written by Marlene Williams, M.A.

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