Skin Tones of Media

“Can I honestly say that I’ve had to face the same racism and struggles as a woman with darker skin?”

-Zendaya, “Essence Magazine" August 2016 issue



Zendaya: “I don’t face the same struggles as a woman of darker skin”

In an honest plea, Zendaya resurfaces a historical social construct.

People of darker complexion are patronized and shunned from the eyes of success. However far-fetched, in modern terms it is said that, “Light skins are winning”. But this discerning argument has been established long before modern society had a say in the matter. 

The translation for this argument between light skin versus dark skin, is that people of color who have lighter complexions are more desired, naturally beautiful and more accepted in society. Those who may or may not buy into this hierarchy disregard that this mindset has not been set by individuals but by ancestral history.

Slavery has always been the most gruesome but most historically defining creations of American, African, European and Caribbean antiquity. It was the 15th– 16th century that has really started this evolution of slavery. Slavery before this time was seen more as a form of service, rather than a form of bondage. It wasn’t until Europeans took part into the pool of bodies that slavery took on a new form. Taken from their homelands, African people filled the labor forces in these unfamiliar terrains. Inevitably, African history and European history became intermingled. The Eurocentric views impeded on the mindsets of African people then and still today, while Afrocentric influence are clearly present in countries like Brazil. The physical and mental damage inhibited on these groups of people is undeniably apparent, much so that these biased conceptions still hold weight in society today.

Slaves brought to the New World were regarded by their physicality. If they looked strong enough to make it across the Atlantic, they were forced on to slave ships, where many died from infection and disease. Delivered into these foreign lands, a slave’s spot was recognized at the dirt bottom. To be exact, referred to as cattle. Their place was in the field, day in and day out. Well the men mainly. For women there were exceptions…


The black woman became desired

Black bodies were products but black women were sex objects. As slave masters “supplies” a.k.a. black slaves depleted from disease and overbearing labor, they soon realized they needed an easy cheap solution to regain stock. This form of “breeding” gave European slave masters the right to rape women to regain their economic value in the malicious trading market known as slavery.

Plantations became a site of gender exploitation. Raped by their slave masters, black women became subject to the sexual abuse of their masters or pimped out by their wives. Becoming sexual prey to the notorious white masters, they were “shared” around town. The original justification for slavery was that black people were not human, more like cattle; therefore they should be treated as such. Obvious infrequencies like the impregnation of black slave women by their masters dismayed their glorified beliefs, but made no difference in these unjust practices.

Slave masters had no choice but to intermingle with the black slave woman, creating a new mixed race of blacks. With the inclusion of mixed slave children, came select preference. The one-drop rule still applied, but a new spot for blacks of mixed descent was inserted, keeping them at neutral standing. On the racial hierarchy scale whites were still on top, followed by people of mixed race and lastly blacks. Those that didn’t resemble the archetypal black slave were considered a little more bearable to be in close proximity with. Lighter skin slaves were considered more attractive by their masters, therefore granted the privilege to serve inside the house.  Considered “house slaves”, it became apparent within the slave cultivation where their place was.

Afro- descendants had to overcome colonial legacies in order to be accepted into a society that shunned them. Such methods included bleaching of the skin in order to fit into the physical realms of acceptance and the mental boundaries of societal perceptions of self. Slavery became the social, economic and political conquest of blacks. During and even after slavery, it holds a mental strain on a black persons’ view of self worth.

In historical context it seems sinfully appropriate that the color of someone’s skin played such a role in one’s social position. In a world that judged one’s humanity by the color of one’s skin, it is accountable that they would then build the scale for one’s worth. Being lighter skin was easier to view, easier to swallow. Dark skin was disgusting, intolerable and deserving of punishment.


Why does this hold weight today?

The existence of race derives from a social construct. A social construct is a structure that is shaped by social experiences; where the perception of a few is able to speak for all. We may not all view the world this way, but society itself is a cultivation of many ideas, histories and beliefs from different people.

In present day, we do not need to be enchained to historical views. We don’t have to believe things are how they used to be. But unfortunately society is still controlled by colonial views, unaware that they are such. Those who recognize it call it “colorism”, forming bias against a person because of their skin color. But on a larger spectrum, I like to use the word declared by Richard Lynn: a system of structural racism called “Pigmentocracy”.


America is a Pigmentocracy.

What does this mean? It means that someone can only make it so far depending on the color of your skin. Universally, white trumps. It is a racially profiled system that limits the opportunities for any other race, mainly minorities. Those who make it on TV screens like Zendaya are usually of mixed descent, allowing their social limitations to be lifted. Other female black celebrities like Yara Shahidi and Amandla Steinberg are all of “lighter skin” or mixed descent. They are speaking out because they have been allowed the mic. And why is that?

Pigmentocracy. It all relates.

Pay attention to media portrayals. Media is meant to be a reflection of society, yet representation continues to struggle to represent all peoples, regardless of race, gender and sexuality.


Jasmine BootheComment