Kerry Washington, star of “Scandal”, is on the March 2015 cover of In Style magazine. Shortly after Washington shared the cover with fans through Instagram, concerns were raised about whether her features and skin colour were altered. In response to the uproar, the magazine issued a statement indicating that they didn’t lighten her image; they lightened the overall cover image:
“While we did not digitally lighten Kerry’s skin tone, our cover lighting has likely contributed to this concern.”
Similar concerns were raised over the front page of the January 11, 2015 edition of the Toronto Star that focused on the attacks on France’s satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Under the headline “The education of a terrorist”, the story included a photo illustration of Said Kouachi, one of the individuals responsible for the Paris attacks.
These are examples of what is referred to as “colourism”, which is defined as, “a form of prejudice of discrimination in which human beings are treated differently based on social meanings attached to skin colour.” The result is that those with lighter skin tones are seen more positively and treated more favourably than those who are darker. So while it could be argued that Washington’s skin tone was lightened to make her appear lighter, and therefore more Caucasian, it could be argued that the image of Kouachi was darkened to make him appear more threatening.
The photo illustration used by the Toronto Star is a sharp contrast to the actual photo of Kouachi, whose skin tone is much lighter than that depicted on the front page of the newspaper.
When the issue was raised with the Toronto Star’s Public Editor, Kathy English responded that Kouachi’s skin colour was not intentionally darkened. Instead, the goal was to “darken the edges and the top of the photo space in order to make the white type stand out.”
Television news shows and print newspapers have used the unaltered photo worldwide. So why did the Toronto Star feel the need to alter the image to darken it?
When the issue was raised with the Toronto Star’s Public Editor, Kathy English responded that Kouachi’s skin colour was not intentionally darkened. Instead, the goal was to “darken the edges and the top of the photo space in order to make the white type stand out.” She went on to note that this is, “quite a common design technique. Because the image was being used to illustrate a Page 1 story, they are looking for a more dramatic overall image — again, that’s in line with common design principles of a newspaper’s front page.”
The Public Editor apologized for the outcome and noted that the effect was not apparent to the editors during the computer production process and that the newspaper printing process made the entire image darker than what appeared on the computer screen.
While editors may not have given thought to the impact of their design decisions, or to the social implications of darkening pictures of people of colour for more dramatic effect, the impact feeds into this society’s prejudice against and demonization of people with darker skin tones — colourism.
It has significant implications as people with darker skin tones are stereotyped, and as a result, treated differently throughout society. For example, various studies have shown that employers prefer to hire Black males with lighter skin tones, less education and work experience over Black males with higher levels of education and past work experience, but with darker skin tones. There are also studies that show that immigrants with lighter skin tones earn more than their darker-skinned counterparts.
Charges of colourism also reverberate throughout Hollywood. There is criticism that women with darker skin tones are cast in episodes of police shows dealing with the inner city while lighter-coloured women are cast in roles in which the beauty of the character is important.
Colourism plays out in the school system, with a recent American study showing that school discipline for girls differs by race and skin colour, with girls with darker skin tones being disciplined more harshly than their lighter-coloured counterparts. Similar patterns are also evident in the criminal justice system. One recent study found that women with lighter skin tones were more likely to receive shorter prison sentences than their darker-skinned counterparts.
Charges of colourism also reverberate throughout Hollywood. There is criticism that women with darker skin tones are cast in episodes of police shows dealing with the inner city while lighter-coloured women are cast in roles in which the beauty of the character is important. Lighter-skinned women are also disproportionately featured in People magazine’s annual “Most Beautiful” list. Some fashion magazines have been accused of lightening the photos of Beyoncé and Gabourey Sidibe. Similarly, darker-coloured Black men are portrayed in the entertainment industry in roles that are more violent and threatening.
Colourism is also reflected in the news media. Particularly concerning is when pictures of Black men — usually those the news outlet wishes to portray in a negative light — are altered to darken their skin colour. An example is the infamous TIME magazine cover in which O.J. Simpson’s mug shot was altered during his murder trial in the 1990s. The pictures show the contrast between the unaltered mug shot used by Newsweek with the altered photo illustration used by TIME. This has become an iconic example of Photoshop being taken too far and racism and colourism in the news media being used to perpetuate stereotypes of the violent nature of Black men with darker skin tones.
As Sheila Stainback, a CNBC correspondent and vice president of the National Association of Black Journalists said at the time: “Why did he have to be darker? I think it plays into the whole menacing-Black-male portrayal.”
In response to the controversy, TIME’s Managing Editor at the time posted a message on America Online which read, “It seems to me you could argue that it’s racist to say that blacker is more sinister, but be that as it may: To the extent that this caused offense to anyone, I obviously regret it.”
Benjamin Chavis of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), argued that the cover made Simpson seem like “some kind of animal.” Journalists suggested that, since the mug shot was a news photo, it should never have been altered at all.
Colourism, and the role of both the entertainment and news media in reflecting and reinforcing colourism and the stereotypes we hold about people with darker and lighter skin tones, has a significant impact on the self-perception of Black and Brown children. In experiments in the United States in the 1940s, researchers showed African-American children aged six to nine two dolls, one White and the other Black, and asked them to identify the good doll, the nice doll, and the one that looks ‘bad’. The researchers found that Black children were more likely to identify positive traits with the White doll, and negative traits with the Black doll. When the study was replicated in 2006, similar results were found.
Colour matters and media have a role to play in ensuring stereotypes aren’t reinforced in the choices they make – intentionally or not.
Tana Turner is Principal of Turner Consulting Group Inc., an equity, diversity and inclusion consultancy firm in Toronto. She provides a range of human rights, employment equity and human resource services to organizations in the private, public and non-profit sectors. In addition, she conducts program evaluations and social research.