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Jabarah Harley

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Jabarah Harley

College Writing 112H

Christine Crutchfield

18 November 2011

Light Skin vs. Dark Skin

 Most people over look the images of African Americans in the media. The media tends to portray lighter skinned African Americans more often than darker skinned African Americans. This has caused an issue of light skin vs. dark skin in the African American community. The way the media portrays lighter skinned African Americans has impacted darker skinned African Americans in a negative way. It has led darker skinned African Americans to feel inferior and some of them go as far as to bleach their skin because of it. The issue of light skin vs. dark skin can be fixed and it needs to start with changes in the media.

In the book, An Empirical Analysis of the Impact of Skin Color on African-American Education, Income and Occupation, author Ronald Hall mentions how the issue of light skinned vs. dark skinned blacks dates back to 1620, when the first cargo ship of Africans was brought to Jamestown, Virginia. This began a history of slavery in the British colonies and what became the United States. By the end of the slave trade in 1808, around 12,000,000 Africans had been taken from their homeland and forced to become slaves (6). Eventually, there became mixing of Black and White, especially between the masters and the females slaves. This became a new population of mulattos (half black/half white). In the book, The Color Complex: The Politics of Skin Color Among African Americans, author Kathy Russell mentions how a color caste system was established placing dark skinned persons at the bottom, mulattos in the middle, and whites at the top. Also, on slave plantations mulattoes were usually assigned indoor activities such as housekeeper, cook, and seamstress because mulattos were considered more intelligent and capable than dark skinned slaves. On the other hand, dark skinned slaves had to work in the hot sun because masters thought they would be able to tolerate the sun better (18). Many field workers envied and resented the house servants. Already we see tension between light skinned and dark skinned African Americans.  Even though the institution of slavery was ended with the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, the effects of slavery are still seen today.

In the novel, The Fire Next Time, author James Baldwin discusses the self-perception that many African Americans have about themselves. He states: “Negroes in this country…are taught really to despise themselves from the moment their eyes open on the world. This world is white and they are black. White people hold the power, which means they are superior to blacks” (25). This relates to the 1939 doll experiment performed by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark. In this experiment, they gave a group of black kids between ages three and seven a white and a black doll that were identical except for their skin color. The children were asked questions to determine racial perception and preference. They also had the children color in outlined drawings of a boy and a girl the same color as themselves. Many of the children with darker skin complexions colored the figures with white or yellow crayons. The Clarks concluded that segregation, discrimination, and prejudice caused black children to develop a sense of inferiority and self-hatred (Brown v. Board). Blacks were-and still are-born into a world where their race is an important factor in success. For years, the White race has made blacks feel inferior. Even in the media they do the same thing by portraying light skinned African Americans more often. The media is not helping darker skinned African Americas feel better about themselves.

The book The Color Complex also talks about the issue of images of blacks in the media. It discusses how lighter skinned blacks are displayed more in the media then darker skinned blacks. It states how black women who play romantic leads in films nearly always have light skin and long hair. Also, lighter skinned black women with classic European features usually predominate in beauty pageants, music videos, and the world of modeling (Russell, 135). If you think about it, most famous African American actors and musicians, especially women, have light skin.  This is because the media thinks that lighter skinned women with long synthetic hair are more attractive than darker skinned women with natural hair. Think about the singer Beyoncé, actress Halle Berry, and model Tyra Banks. Take Beyoncé,-she has light skin, and she is often seen with a long blond hair. The book also mentions darker skinned black figures that are well known and successful, such as the model Iman and Naomi Cambel. This book was written in 1992, and today when I think of darker skinned blacks that were famous, I still think of those two. This demonstrates how lighter skinned blacks still dominate the media. In his article,  Light Skinned with Good Hair: The Role of the Media and Christianity in the Maintenance of Self-Hatred in African Americans, author Akintunde Omowale explains how the racism in the media leads to African Americans to have low self-perceptions of themselves. According to Omowale, since the media thinks that natural hair and darker African American skin complexion is unattractive, the result is a psychological perception that African Americans are unattractive, and since light skin and straight hair are considered to be attractive attributes, the resulting attitude is that being white is attractive. This is sad, but it’s still true today.

The way the media portrays African Americans relates to the problem of skin bleaching in the black community. The book An Empirical Analysis of the Impact of Skin Color on African-American Education, Income and Occupation, also brings up the issue of skin bleaching. The author states “The effort on the part of African-Americans to assimilate and simultaneously bring about a reduction in psychological pain is made possible by their obsession with a ‘bleached ideal’ ” (Hall, 178). I first heard about this problem a few years ago on the Tyra Banks show. On the show, women of darker skinned complexions were ashamed of their skin color and applied skin bleaching cream to their face in order to become lighter. Some of them even put lightening cream on the faces of their kids. One woman was so desperate that she once put actual bleach on her skin. According to the article Skin Bleaching: Poison, Beauty, and the Politics of the Colour Line by Amina Mire, skin bleaching is “an attempt to gain respectability and social mobility within the white supremacist capitalist social and political order.”  I agree with this idea because the women on the Tyra show thought lighter skinned African Americans were more attractive, more likely to be successful, and overall had a better life. Today, people continue to bleach their skin. It’s sad that as I typed this topic into Google, the majority of the results had to do with ads for buying skin lightning products. Many of these creams contain the drug called hydroquinone. It inhibits the production of melanin, and has been researched to cause cancer in rodents, as well as being linked to a skin-disfiguring condition called ochronosis that results in darkening and thickening of the skin. The US FDA stated that products containing hydroquinone should be restricted to prescription use under medical supervision (Harmful Effects). In the media light skin has always been superior and more successful, so some people strive to be that way no matter what it takes. Skin bleaching is dangerous and needs to be put to an end. Skin bleaching also demonstrates the negative effects that the media is having on darker skinned African Americans.


The issue of light skinned vs. dark skinned blacks in the media can be resolved. In 2010, there was a study on advertising called Skin color shades in advertising to ethnic audiences: the case of African Americans. In the study, 299 African American males and females were given print advertisements of light skinned and dark skinned African American models. They had to rate their attitude towards the model’s attractiveness, toward the ad, and the attitude toward the brand. In the results, the males evaluated the ads and the brand more favorably when they featured light skinned models. However, although the males rated the light skinned females better, it wasn’t by much, so therefore the males still evaluated the ads that featured dark skinned females favorably. For the females the attitude toward the brand and ad were roughly the same. Also, they found dark skinned models to be more attractive (Watson). This demonstrates that even though lighter skinned blacks are portrayed more in the media, it doesn’t mean that everyone finds them to be more attractive, which is something the media needs to understand. I think that the media should feature darker skinned blacks in order to reverse the damage that it has cause by only featuring lighter skinned blacks. There are people trying to fix this issue. A movie called Dark Girls is going to be released sometime this winter. The movie aims to uncover and expose the true life of darker skinned African American women and the struggles they go through. The movie also wants darker skinned women to feel better about themselves, instead of having a low self-perception. This seems to be a good idea that could work. It relates to the late eighties when psychologist Michael Barnes replicated the original doll experiment done by Clark, and discovered that almost two-thirds of black preschool children preferred white dolls over black doll. However, he also discovered that self-hatred can be unlearned. Him and his researchers spent several hours with the children discussing the positive aspects of being Black and then retested them. This time around two thirds chose the black doll over the white (Russell, 64). This same situation can be applied to entertainment and the media. If darker skinned blacks are shown more, then darker skinned African Americas will start to higher their self-perception.

In order for the media to make a change, the supporters of this issue have to come together. They have to promote awareness of the issue by protesting studios, products, merchandise etc. The media has to understand that light skin vs. dark skin in the media is an issue and the negative effects it has on darker skinned African Americans. Imagine what the African American community would be like if this issue was resolved. Darker skinned African Americans, especially girls, would feel less inferior and feel beautiful in their own skin. They would have more hope for themselves and the future.

In conclusion, light skinned African Americans are shown more in the media than darker skinned African Americans. This has led to darker skinned African Americans to have low self-perception of themselves. Darker skinned African Americans have done dangerous things, such as skin bleaching, in order to become light skinned because they think that will give them a better life. This problem needs to be resolved, and it needs to begin with the media. Nowadays, the media shape, reflect, reinforce, and define the world in which we live in. Once the media starts making a change, people’s thoughts about darker skinned African Americans in the media will change.  The process would obviously be a slow one, but it will be worth it in the end.

Works Cited

Akintude, Omowale. Light Skinned with Good Hair: The Role of the Media and Christianity

        in the Maintenance of Self-Hatred in African Americans. Educational Resource center.

January 1997. October 27, 2011. PDF file.

Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. New York, The Dial Press, 1963. Print.

Brown vs. Board of Topeka Kansas. The Library of Congress. July 23, 2010. October 27,

2011.  Web.

Hall, Ronald E. An Empirical Analysis of the Impact of Skin Color on African-American

            Education, Income, and Occupation. Lewiston, N.Y: E. Mellen Press, 2005. Print

The Harmful Effects of Lightening Skin Creams. Word Press. September 26, 2006.  October 27,

2011. Web.

Mire, Amina. “Skin-Bleaching: Poison, Beauty, Power, and the Politics of the Colour Line.” Resources

for Feminist Research/Documentation sur la Recherche Feministe 28.3-4 (2001): 13-38. Sociological Abstracts. Web. 14 Nov. 2011.

Russell, Kathy, Midge Wilson, and Ronald E. Hall. The Color Complex: The Politics of Skin Color

            Among African Americans. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992. Print.

Tyra Banks Show: Black Women Caught Bleacher Her and Her Children’s skin. YouTube.

 Posted 2011.

Watson, Stevie, Corliss G. Thornton, and Brian T. Engelland. “Skin Color Shades In Advertising To

Ethnic Audiences: The Case Of African Americans.” Journal Of Marketing Communications

16.4 (2010): 185-201. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 14 Nov. 2011.


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5 responses »

  1. This was a very interesting essay. You supported the ideas with strong research that successfully translated to the reader about the current prevalence of discrimination based on skin color. I particularly liked how you mentioned the 1939 doll experiment and the books, “The Fire Next Time” and “The Color Complex,” that give rise to questions that a reader would not naturally ask if they have not read your essay. This essay also did a very good job of bringing up points that did not have a strong biased undertone and thus let the reader make their own conclusions on the topic.

  2. This essay was definitely something that caught my attention. Coming from an almost completely caucasian town, it’s interesting to read on the media’s effects of self-perception across all ethnic groups. The case, at first glance, can seem somewhat subjective, but the research brought in along with your own ideas blossoms beautifully into a strong statement on how pervasive the issue of discrimination and perception based on skin color truly is. The facts about taking such drastic measures as skin bleaching really shocked me. After reading this, a topic I would almost never think about, I feel compelled to hope and help in the changing of perceptions of African American women in the media and feel the desire to read more on the topic for future knowledge. Overall, a great and compelling paper. Well done! 🙂

  3. I thought this essay was very strong and well supported. I think the way you used the blog was also very effective. The image of Tyra Banks is very interesting and adds to the strength of the arguement. Also the videos add to the argument and makes the skin bleaching more visual. Your topic was very interesting and I think it is something most Americans don’t notice when viewing media. Your support through the movie and the study made your essay very strong and reliable. Your last paragraph is also very strong because it demands the media to change and it shows your side of the argument.

  4. I found this essay to be very informative. I never even made the connection that the black women that are portrayed in the media have lighter skin. If anything, I thought that blacks were making progress in the media, because it seems that each year there are more black women portrayed in modeling ads or music videos. As I think back to movies I’ve seen starring black actresses or music videos watched, after reading this essay, I now realize that very rarely are darker skin black women featured. This essay exposed the truth and highlighted some really important issues. I had no idea that some black women are bleaching their skin to have lighter skin. This is a problem that needs to come to light. Hopefully in the future we will see more women of all colors. I think Jabarah did a wonderful job communicating this problem.


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