Colorism in the Entertainment Industry - The Herald: Opinion

Colorism in the Entertainment Industry

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Posted: Monday, October 17, 2016 1:00 pm

After two consecutive years of controversy surrounding an all-white pool of nominated actors, the 2016 Academy Awards sparked protest and boycott by minorities. The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite spread across social media, and other award shows, such as the Black Entertainment Television Awards, became breeding grounds for criticism of Hollywood and its relationship with minority communities.

The protesters are right: the Academy Awards reflect a larger problem in Hollywood, which is a lack of substantive roles for black actors. It makes sense, considering that movies are likely to gross a much larger profit if the actors are attractive, and our society has created an arbitrary beauty standard that rewards and accentuates white features.

The entertainment industry created a cyclical pattern of colorism in conjunction with negative attitudes about black bodies in the media. Black women are often expected to assimilate to traditionally white female features, such as straight hair, and Black women with lighter skin are rewarded with far more roles. Meanwhile, white women who appropriate traditionally black features are praised and adored by society.

A perfect example of this is Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner: two women from the same family who get routine injections to give them full lips and curvy figures, and commonly appropriate Black culture through their style.

All the while, these women are able to maintain their whiteness and the privilege that comes along with it, highlighting the primary problem of cultural appropriation: the fact that they’ll never actually experience the hardships of finding their identity at the intersection of oppression that black women in the United States do.

This misrepresentation and lack of representation has real world implications for black young women. Because the media is constantly painting an image of black bodies as less beautiful, less capable, and less desirable than white bodies, black communities become vulnerable to colorism within their own race; African Americans are likely to experience discrimination based not only on racism, but on colorism as well.

Racism is a concomitant factor of colorism, but the terms are not synonymous; while racism operates on systemic oppression on the basis of ethnic origin, colorism refers to discrimination based on purely phenotypic features, including the shade of one’s skin tone, regardless of ethnic origin. Colorism in the entertainment industry has been an American problem most likely since the invention of cinema, especially considering the social landscape between blacks and whites throughout United States history.

The entertainment industry functions as yet another subliminal way in which the white community maintains control over minorities.

Whites are constantly cast as the heroes of movies and television shows, with diversity in the roles they may select. In contrast, black actors are offered far fewer roles, and when they are, the roles are often limited to criminals or slaves. This casting cycle perpetuates negative stereotypes about black and brown bodies, and ultimately affects the psychological well-being of minorities subjugated to skewed media representation.

Colorism in entertainment also has another (arguably more dangerous) effect – it strategically whitewashes history and preserves the heroification of whiteness.  

Whether it’s Emma Stone as a Hawaiian and Chinese character in “Aloha,” Jake Gyllenhaal as Dastan in “Prince of Persia: Sands of Time,” or Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl in “A Mighty Heart,” Hollywood has a history of casting white actors to play historical figures of color.

This misrepresentation is not an oversight; it is eurocentrism. The media continues to regard European culture as the savior of the world, even in contexts far before Europeans even made their way into global hegemony.

Young people in the United States of all colors are spoon-fed inaccurate history, which is uniquely dangerous in a society that claims to be democratic and uses that claim to perpetuate violence in other parts of the world.

Even when the actors in important historical roles are black, the industry prefers black actors with lighter skin. For example, Zoe Saldana was cast as Nina Simone, a Black musician and civil rights activist who was relentlessly criticized for her dark skin.

Although changes in systemic racism are slow and long-awaited, incremental success is better than nothing at all.

The Academy Awards diversified the decision-making body after the 2016 backlash. Society has a long way to go in order to dismantle a system of oppression and privilege based on skin color, and the entertainment industry must correct its ethnocentric representation and initiate change in our mindsets about black beauty.

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