Investigative Journalism:

Colorism affects the African-American community

by DJ Burris
Spring 2013

Watch DJ Burris' video produced for this investigation:
Racial Divide: The Struggle Between Light and Dark  2:31 »»

DJ Burris photo
Photo by DJ Burris
Colorism is a practice of discrimination in a particular community in which those with lighter skin tones are treated more favorably than those with darker skin tones.

"I wouldn't go as far as to say there is a conflict. I believe there is an ongoing hidden competition that a lot of us carry inside of each other," said UNCP student Donte West.

It's about the amount of melanin

What is that makes some black people lighter than others? The more melanin in one's skin causes a person to be a darker in complexion and the less melanin causes a lighter complexion.

Some people looking from the outside in would wonder why this is even an issue in the black community. After all the agony the black community has endured during slavery and the Jim Crow Era.

How did colorism begin? Historically, light skinned blacks have been the African Americans in the position of power because they closely resemble the aesthetics and visible characteristics of European people.

The White Ideal are interpretations that construct a spectrum of sorts where if I look at you and I can see that you potentially have European blood, I can assume that in comparison to someone who has darker skin, kinkier hair, and a more African phenotype that you're better than them. It's the idea that European genetics are your saving grace," said Dr. Yaba Blay, an Africana Studies scholar and producer of documentary projects for CNN.

Dr. Blay's statement exemplifies the harsh realities that are associated with being black.

"I can't count how many times I have heard that President Barack Obama wouldn't have been elected if he were dark skin and the only reason he was elected because he is bi-racial. Instead of embracing that we have a black president and believing that someone of black descent has achieved the highest honor in the world. We will find a trait and hound that person for having that feature or overpraise because their skin is lighter or darker than yours," says Kanye West, an American recording artist, record producer, film director and fashion designer.

"As a result, putting a limit on our success and believing it is not possible because a person may be darker than what we are accustom to seeing in the positions of power. Why is it that we as black are the only race that if somebody trying to achieve a goal, we will sit there and put them down," West says.

Derogatory Terms & The Media Industry

"When I was younger you also get that feeling and you get all those jokes; you get 'you're blacker than this' and 'you're blacker than that' jokes. You take it and you suck it up," UNCP senior Curtis Brooks said. "But in the back of your mind you wonder what are they really putting beneath them because what I look like."

Several black people in the entertainment industry practice colorism. For example, Yung Berg, hip hop rapper, said in an interview "I'm kind of racist! I don't really like dark butts too much. It's rare that I do dark butts. Like really rare."

Yung Berg was referring to dark skinned women and how he prefers not to date darker women because he believes they are not as appealing as a woman of lighter skin tone. He was comparing his preference for light-skinned woman to that of being racist even though dark skin women are the same race as him.

There are several entertainers like Lil Wayne, Kanye West and Kevin Hart that have made similar comments in their songs or stand-up comedy performances. They are known to favor light-skinned women. However, this is not just an entertainment industry issue. It is an everyday social issue among blacks.

Using derogatory terms about individual black people may affect their self-esteem and make them feel inferior of their own image. Derogatory terms or phrases like 'she is cute to be a dark skinned girl' or calling someone 'high yellow' without thinking about the ramifications adds to the problem, as if something is wrong with being light or dark skinned.

It's become the norm for some darker-skinned black persons to feel inadequate and want to further distance themselves, as if dark is ugly and light it beauty.

The Struggles of Being Light or Dark Skinned

During a focus group on colorism, UNCP senior Rachel McAuley shared a story about words of advice she was given by another woman about things she will need to do if she wants to pursue a media career in front of the camera.

"I had two internships this past summer and one of them was at a news broadcasting station," McAuley explained. "They had an anchor, a female African-American, and I really looked up to her. I had always seen her as I was growing up. She had always been on the channel."

"At the end of the summer she had taken me to the side and asked me if this was something I wanted to do. I told her I was more into journalism, but I wanted to experience more of broadcasting," McAuley said.

"She said 'honey, you have to do something about your hair.' You have to understand going into this business, especially being a young African-American women, you have to dress better and you have to put make up on. You're pretty much are going to have do your best to pass off as looking or seeming white, not by the color of your skin but by how you present yourself,'" McAuley said.

"It is bizarre that another black woman told me this, but this is a reality in todays job market," McAuley said. "People are strictly judged on how we present ourselves and more if you are black and even more if you're dark-skinned."

"From my experience, I have noticed several advantages in the corporate world," UNCP student Malcolm Morris-Griffin said. "In certain places I've worked I have always seen that there are more light-skinned people working at my job than those with darker skin. I didn't know why until I did some research and started noticing that there are trends. If you're good looking and your light-skinned you tend to have a better chance at attaining a job as opposed to someone with darker skin just because they are negatively labeled."

Actions like this are making black people want to change some of the very features that make them who they are. Darker people want to be lighter because they believe it will make them more appealing for courting, employers and even to seem more intellectual.

The National Science Foundation funded a study in 2002 asking 150 white and black students about cultural stereotypes involving skin tones of blacks. The results revealed light-skinned blacks were more likely to be described as intelligent, attractive or wealthy, while dark-skinned blacks were more likely to be described as poor, criminal or tough and aggressive, according to psychology professor, Keith Maddox of Tufts University.

These beliefs are the reasons why some dark skinned blacks feel inferior to blacks of lighter tone because of the stereotypes that exist. Stereotypes shape the way we think about one another and in society. The darker somebody is the more negatively people think of them.

There are examples of celebrities allegedly using chemical products or creams to lighten their skin tone because of pressure to fit media image of what is appealing. The late singer Michael Jackson, former baseball player Sammy Sosa, pop star Beyonce Knowles and rapper Lil Kim are all celebrities who have been accused of lightening their skin.

The Twitter hashtag terms 'teamdarkskin' and 'teamlightskin' receive tweets ranging from humorous and offensive to reflective. Some examples: Affecting an entire race

Colorism affects the African-American race as a whole. The image of being light is depicted by the media industry and society as what is right. In reality, all should come together no matter the skin tone to reverse the patterns that have been continuing from each generation so African-Americans can deviate from their past.

"It dates back to slavery, where other races have put us down. So now years later we are putting each other down with the same stuff that hurt us before," UNCP senior Curtis Brooks said. "I feel like it is a never ending cycle and it makes everyone feel inferior."

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The topics of the articles on these pages by students in the Investigative Journalism (JRN-4600) class in the Department of Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke in Spring 2013 semester have been chosen by the individual class members who wrote them. The themes, covers, sections, pages, images, graphics, videos, wikis, tweets and blogs have been designed, prepared, managed and moderated by students in the course and the themes and article topics have been reported and illustrated by the bylined individuals. Views implied or expressed in these issues are not endorsed by the professor, the department, the university, or possibly anyone else. We are grateful to those persons, agencies and institutions that have graciously provided information and images for these editions. Your comments on this series of articles are welcomed by Professor Anthony Curtis who may be contacted via e-mail at or by phone at (910) 521-6616.