Although popular culture is often dismissed as something of lesser value, it reflects what our current society esteems. Movies, television shows, music and advertising are representations of what consumers are willing to buy. In terms of skin color, popular culture provides the color palette American society favors. There is a prevalence of white faces in the entertainment industry. During the last decade or so, however, we have witnessed a slow increase in diversity despite the numerous recent cases of white-washing in films. However, there is something interesting concerning the type of diversity popular culture portrays. The screen mostly presents a light-skinned version of this diverse country in terms of race and ethnicity. They have repackaged the stories and cultures of people of color in a lighter shade. Popular culture reinforces the colorism that keeps poisoning these communities.
Colorism can be defined as the internalization of white supremacy ideologies from the dominant group. It is a term coined by Alice Walker in 1982 and it is meant to encompass the discrimination based on skin color by both outsiders and people of the same race or ethnicity. Colorism can be seen across cultures from Latinx to Korean. Colorism is not primarily tied to the United States either. Nevertheless, this country’s greatest export is entertainment, so we set the tone for what the rest of the world should consider beautiful or valuable. When Hollywood presents Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone with the help of dark makeup and prosthetics and Cardi B as the forefront of female rap, it sends a message that people of color internalize and then perpetuate in their own communities. This pattern reinforces the idea that light-skinned diversity is more palatable to the wider audience.
The erasure of dark-skinned women in the media influences their perceived self-worth in our society that the entertainment industry is meant to represent. It validates the idea drilled into the brains of people of color by colonizers that white is inherently better. People of color then implement practices that continue this cycle of discrimination in their everyday interactions. Some women bleach their skin through intravenous treatments to become a shade lighter because Hollywood is sending the message that their stories only matter if they fit the mold.
Colorism has become the rule of hierarchy within these communities. It has taken the very blatant form of the brown paper bag test — in which upper-class black people determined who is worthy of inclusion based on skin tone. The influence of colorism can be seen even in those popular culture figures that were thought to be breaking the industry skin color norms, such as Michael Jackson and Sammy Sosa. Despite gaining wide acceptance, they later resurfaced with a lighter skin tone after treatments. It is not a surprise that many people have chosen to abandon their families and culture in order to pass as white to access more opportunity.
There has been some progress, however, in the diversity that the entertainment industry has been exporting over the last decade. Now we can enjoy the performances of Viola Davis, Idris Elba and Eva Longoria among others who would have been on the so-called wrong end of the paper bag test. It is a sign that colorism can be vanquished from the screen and within our daily lives. Diversity in the entertainment industry should not be a commodity to be exploited for profit, but rather an opportunity that allows people of color to tell their stories in whatever color palette they choose.