Documentary, studies renew debate about skin color's impact

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Race is still the elephant in society's sitting room.

Race consciousness is ubiquitous, yet so deep-seated as to seem almost invisible.

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Many people, minorities included, don't realize the assumptions they make based on race. A subset of racism is colorism -- discrimination based on skin tone.

An award-winning documentary and two recent academic studies examine perceptions based on differences in skin tone. Academics who study issues of race say the findings are disheartening but not surprising.

In the seven-minute documentary "A Girl Like Me," 18-year-old Kiri Davis interviews teenage African-American girls about the beauty standards society imposes on them and how those standards affect their self-esteem.

"You're [considered] prettier if you're light-skinned," says one teen, Glenda, in the film.

"I used to think of myself as being ugly because I was dark-skinned," says another teen, Jennifer.

Other teens share stories about knowing young women who have even bleached their skin to look lighter.

Miss Davis, a senior at Urban Academy High School in New York City, also recreates psychologist Kenneth Clark's legendary 1940s "Doll Test" in the film and obtains similar results. Dr. Clark's research was used to challenge school segregation in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education.

In the documentary, Miss Davis gives black preschool children two dolls, identical except for their color. One is black, the other, white.

She asks a little girl to show her the nice doll. The little girl holds up the white doll.

"Can you show me the doll that looks bad?"

The little girl holds up the black doll.

"Why does that look bad?"

"Because it's black," the little girl says.

She asks why the little girl thinks the other doll is the nice doll.

"Because she's white," the child says.

"Can you give me the doll that looks like you?"

The little girl hesitates -- looking back and forth at both dolls, first grabbing the white doll -- then, looking a bit sad, she reluctantly pushes forward the black doll.

Fifteen of the 21 children interviewed said they preferred the white doll.

"I learned how easily we can internalize things," says Miss Davis, who made the documentary in 2005 through the Reel Works Teen Filmmaking after-school program. "Even at 4 or 5 years old, you get the message, you get what society values and what it doesn't."

To view the film -- visit:

It's been shown at more than a dozen film festivals and won nine awards, including the Media That Matters Diversity Award and the SILVERDOCS Audience Award for a Short Documentary.

Skewed hiring

In a University of Georgia study, light-skinned black men had the edge in hiring over dark-skinned black men, regardless of credentials.

"We found that a light-skinned black male can have only a bachelor's degree and typical work experience and still be preferred over a dark-skinned black male with an MBA and past managerial positions," says Matthew S. Harrison, a University of Georgia doctoral student in applied industrial organizational psychology, who presented his research in August to the Academy of Management in Atlanta.

"This finding is possibly due to the common belief that fair-skinned blacks probably have more similarities with whites than do dark-skinned blacks, which in turn makes whites feel more comfortable around them."

With women job applicants, the findings varied a bit.

"If the credentials were different, in the case of women, the more qualified or experienced darker-skinned woman got it, but if the qualifications were identical, the lighter-skinned woman was preferred," Mr. Harrison said.

He surveyed 240 undergraduates -- 72 percent of them were female, and 87.5 percent of them were white. Students were asked to rate one of two resumes that accompanied one of three photographs of a theoretical black job applicant whose skin color was light, medium or dark.

"Most females, having been judged on aesthetics, may have been more attuned to looking at qualifications and resumes," Mr. Harrison said. "Women looked to attractiveness only when the qualifications were equal."

He believes the high percentage of women study participants also may have skewed the results regarding male job applicants.

"The darker a dark-skinned male is, the more violent and menacing he is perceived to be," he said, recalling how Time magazine darkened the O.J. Simpson mug shot on its June 27, 1994 cover, making him look more sinister.

Light vs. dark

"Our society has historically painted us a picture of lighter skin equating to attractiveness, intelligence, competence, likeability, etc.," Mr. Harrison says. "Racism is not necessarily a practice that allots preference and privilege based solely on one's race, but that one's skin color also plays a substantial role in the treatment they will receive."

Shawn Alfonso-Wells, a visiting assistant professor of anthropology in Carnegie Mellon University's history department, has studied racial classification in Cuba and the United States.

"Here we are in the 21st century and once again those relationships that were forged under enslavement are coming to light again, all that between the domestic [house slave] and the field [slave]," Dr. Alfonso-Wells says. "If you had lighter skin, your conditions weren't as harsh. Those who were lighter skinned had more opportunities to escape their conditions than those who had darker skin, and you can still see that today."

In Latin America, in particular, lighter-skinned people tend to get the better jobs because they are considered to look "more presentable," Dr. Alfonso-Wells says.

"More presentable translated to -- they looked more white," she says.

In her study, " 'Shades of Beauty': Examining the Relationship of Skin Color to Perceptions of Physical Attractiveness," University of Missouri-Columbia researcher Cynthia Frisby found that people perceive a light brown skin tone, on blacks as well as whites, to be more physically attractive than a pale or dark skin tone.

As part of the study, photographs of four female models were adjusted using computer software. Keeping other features the same, each model was pictured in three different skin tones, light, medium and dark.

Dr. Frisby asked 79 female college students -- 45 white women and 34 black women ages 18 to 28 -- to evaluate the photographs, which they thought were for an upcoming ad campaign. And 78 of the 79 women chose the light brown skin tone as more attractive.

"Whether we want to admit it or not, black, white or whatever, we have a bias about what we think is attractive," says Dr. Frisby, an associate professor of advertising in the University of Missouri's journalism school. Her study was published in the August issue of the journal "Facial Plastic Surgery."

"We can't fix it until we are aware of it," she said. "I don't think that advertisers realize they lean toward the middle, the Halle Berry person."

In her Cuban research, Dr. Alfonso-Wells noted that Cuban people also consider the middle ground the optimum skin color, not dark and not really light, but more medium.

'Cultural wounding'

Jerome Taylor, an associate professor in Africana Studies at the University of Pittsburgh and executive director of the Center for Family Excellence, has done research on the harmful effects of racism on African-Americans' emotional, physical and social health.

Negative perceptions based on skin tone are one aspect of "cultural wounding" black people experience living in a majority culture, he said.

"A more direct measure of cultural wounding [is] -- internalized racism, the tendency of blacks to identify with racist stereotypes about blacks," says Dr. Taylor, who currently is working on a paper examining how the United States' cultural history contributes to cultural wounding.

"The Frisby study ... is consistent with our general proposition of cultural wounding since blacks do not differ significantly from whites in their perception of skin tone, and the video 'A Girl Like Me' provides evidence that cultural wounding is still very much alive and takes root quite early -- between 3 and 5 years of age," Dr. Taylor said.

Mr. Harrison found the issues represented in Miss Davis' recreated doll test to be disheartening.

"It's amazing to me the prevalence of that still in 2006, but at the same time, if you look at images on television, they've changed somewhat, but they really haven't changed that much," Mr. Harrison says. "Whiteness is still very much equated with normalcy and that has an influence on the way we perceive what is normal and what is deviant.

"Tragically, it's really not that surprising."

L.A. Johnson can be reached at or 412-263-3903.


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