The Effect of Colourism in Media & Marketing

In 2014, rapper André 3000 performed at the Lollapalooza music festival whilst wearing a jumpsuit with the words "across cultures, darker people suffer most. why?" written across his chest. He wore it in support of the Black Lives Matter Movement (which, reminder, actually started in 2013) and everyone took the message to mean that anti-blackness exists on a global scale. 

This isn't wrong at all, but looking back, it can also be understood through the lens of colourism.

Audio available here!

What does colourism mean?

Colourism is defined as prejudice or discrimination towards individuals with a darker skin tone. Across Africa, Asia, South America, you name it, having a darker complexion results in systematic and unfavourable treatment. Colourism exists in various forms, on a scale from insidious to glaringly obvious: we've seen it in the unregulated whitening creams widely available in black and Asian beauty stores, heard it in the back handed “you’re pretty for a dark-skinned girl” compliments, and felt it as you've headed towards the shade so as to avoid getting darker in the sun.

fair and lovelyAn advert for skin lightening cream, Fair and Lovely

Colourism is perpetuated within communities of colour, and for this reason it may appear to be a strictly intra-community issue. However, colourism- an offshoot of racism- exists in wider society and like most societal issues, is amplified by the media. 

Colourism in traditional media

In the UK, the media has effectively contributed to the erasure of dark skinned black women. More often than not, lighter skinned black, biracial or 'racially ambiguous' women are chosen in place of dark skinned women in order to fill the quota of hiring a non-white person whilst also remaining palatable to mainstream (note: white) audiences. 

A clear example of this is the recent debacle regarding Candice Braithwaite and Rochelle Humes, where, from what we understand, Candice, a highly qualified, dark-skinned woman did all the groundwork for a BBC documentary on the disproportionate rates of maternal mortality amongst black women...only to be dropped and replaced by a new host, Rochelle, a fairer skinned, mixed race woman.

We don't do that here gif

Reminder: being light skinned and mixed race are not mutually exclusive, meaning dark skinned mixed race people exist, as do light skinned monoracial people. The former can be subjected to colourism and the latter can benefit from it.

Some may argue that Rochelle has a larger platform, will bring in higher ratings and shed more light on the issues black women face during and after pregnancy. However, aside from Rochelle not having firsthand knowledge on the topic or being able to relate as someone with access to private healthcare, the optics just look bad.

The media can't afford to be colour blind, otherwise dark skinned people (black women, in this case) will continue to miss out on opportunities, recognition and money! It is also up to lighter skinned people to use their position to be vocal about colourism.

How does colourism affect the influencer industry?

It’s no mystery that black content creators are paid less than white content creators. South Asian, Latinx, and Arab content creators are also on the lower end of the influencer ethnicity pay gap. In the same vein as traditional media looking for “palatable” people of colour, brands and agencies will withhold their budget from darker skinned influencers in favour of light-skinned influencer.

Here's an example:

  • 'A', a dark skinned black hair influencer with 40,000 followers was paid £450 for a campaign with a leading hair brand
  • 'B', a light skinned biracial hair influencer with 30,000 followers was paid £1400 for the same campaign
  • however, 'A' has a lower engagement rate than 'B'

There is a clear pay disparity between the two influencers. Yes, engagement rate is an important metric when negotiating prices for brand partnerships (our pricing report goes into this in more detail!), but even by this logic, influencers 'A' and 'B' should have been paid the same amount.

 Equal pay gif

This is a perfect example of how lighter skinned people benefit from (and in this case, profit off of) colourism. On top of this is the added layer of receiving colourist hate comments.

How can we combat colourism?

On a general level, everyone needs to start proactively challenging colourist beliefs and behaviours. Listen to the experiences of darker skinned people, their stories are valid. Advocate for them, especially when they're not in the (figurative and literal) room. Within influencer marketing, dark-skinned content creators aren't asking for much from brands and agencies: only for fair representation and compensation. If you're an influencer, here's a guide on how to ensure your campaign is all-inclusive.


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