Lehman Students Challenge Colorism in the Entertainment Industry

By Deirra Francis

Rutina Wesley speaking at the 2012 San Diego Comic-Con International. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Colorism limits opportunities for women of color in film and TV, and Lehman students won’t stand for it. “Roles for younger women of lighter skin tone typecast [them] as this sex symbol,” Lehman student, filmmaker and actress Valerie Baptist told the Meridian, while darker-skinned women, are “strategically” sidelined as “the handy-dandy sidekick, a darker-toned woman dumbed down in her beauty by the makeup artist in order not to outshine.”

Dr. Mark Christian, chair of Africana studies and cultural theorist, agreed. “There is a double standard within the entertainment industry. Black men are sex symbols while black women of darker skin tone aren’t.” On the other hand, he added, “Black women of lighter skin tone are portrayed as the top of the pyramid hierarchy of the group--high-class, sexy and smart.”

“The only way to represent people of color is to have more directors of color.” 

- Octavia Maybabk, Lehman sociology major

In the face of this discrimination, Lehman students who aspire to make their careers in the entertainment industry feel frustrated. Denied the opportunity to show their talent on the basis of their skin color, many now aspire to change these double standards. 

Christian noted that colorism is nothing new. “The prejudices people have attached to skin tones stem from the deep-rooted racism in our history. On top of the after-effects of slavery, we have been bombarded with images on television and film of this stereotype.” 

These racist portrayals date back to the beginning of mass advertising--and they haven’t changed much. In the 1920s, an ad for the N.K. Fairbank Company featured a white child asking a black child, “why doesn’t your mamma wash you with Fairy soap?” Almost a hundred years later, a Dove ad released Oct. 9, 2017 showed a black woman removing her brown shirt to reveal a white woman underneath in a lighter shirt. Likewise, SheaMoisture commercials supposedly celebrate diversity but manage to exclude representation of a big part of their darker-skinned base clientele who have “kinky” hair texture, featuring mainly women with straight or fine hair. 

Christian pointed out that within the entertainment industry, this discrimination has privileged women who look “ethnically ambiguous--people with an off-white skin tone who appear to be of mixed race. The more we tune into our favorite shows and movies,” he said, “the more variety of black women we see. However, the ugly face of colorism continues to resurface.” 

This shows up in the way that many productions cast ethnically ambiguous women in the role of black women, perpetuating a stereotype. Notoriously, in 2012, Zoe Saldana was casted as Nina Simone in the movie “Nina.” A prosthetic nose and dark makeup were applied to Saldana, but the Latina actress still failed to resemble the appearance of the legend. This distortion shows how black women are excluded even from playing themselves.

In mid-July, the star of the hit TV show “Everybody Hates Chris,” Iman Hakim, tweeted “so I’m not even being considered to audition for a role because I am ‘too dark.’” 

This chronic discrimination has drawn widespread demands for a change from viewers and actors alike. Many Lehman students told the Meridian they see a shift in social values taking place. “I definitely think people are talking about it more,” said Lehman alumna Nadia Floyd ’17. “I do think progress is being made, not only in the entertainment industry. On television we’re seeing the emergence of dark-skinned black girls. This discourse is occurring in classrooms even more, not only amongst black students but Latino (non-gender specific) students have spoken up about it as well.” Floyd, who wrote her English honors thesis on colorism and patriarchy, said, “It’s refreshing to see this! We still have a way to go, of course, but yeah, there has been a growing cultural awareness towards colorism.” 

A Lehman panel on “Colorism in Africa and the African Diaspora” that took place on Nov. 9 in the Lovinger Theatre inspired many in the audience to demand change. 

Lehman student Erachie Brown pointed out that access to social media can also help anti-racist messages reach millions of people, so the tools now exist to debunk the negative connotations assigned to darker-skinned African-American women. “The knowledge we’ve gained in production helps us to create our own platform of film and series that we are interested in watching,” Brown explained. “Our position is to cast the Taraji P. Hensons, Tiffany Hadishes, Nicole Beharies, and Rutina Wesleys of the world.”

Other Lehman students noted that some directors are already making waves in the entertainment industry with their positive representations of black women, citing Ava Duvernay, Shonda Rhimes, and Issa Raye as examples. Duvernay is the first Black woman both to win the Best Director Prize at the 2012 Sundance for her featured film “Middle of Nowhere” and to be nominated for an Academy Award for the documentary “13th.” She was also nominated for the Golden Globe Award for best Director for the movie “Selma” in 2014. Rhimes is best known as the creator, head writer, executive producer for shows like “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Private Practice,” “Scandal,” and “How to Get Away with Murder.” Raye follows in their footsteps as a director, writer, and actress creating the webseries “Awkward Black Girl’ which later turned into the hit HBO show “Insecure.” 

Octavia Maybabk, an African sociology student at Lehman said change is needed and a new generation of directors is key. “The only way to represent people of color is to have more directors of color,” she said.