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The Filter Ep. 6 | ‘Melanin’

On skin tone and feature discrimination, and the science behind it

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Above image credit: Have you ever heard of colorism or featurism? This episode tackles what these forms of discrimination look like. (Vicky Diaz-Camacho | Flatland)

Race has been even more top of mind lately. But there’s a little-discussed aspect to the conversation of race. Colorism and featurism are forms of discrimination that affect folks in all racial and ethnic groups, solely based on a person’s shade of skin tone and facial features.

Such discrimination lurks in the background of protests around the world, minority journalists spilling the tea on Twitter about racial inequity in newsrooms and discussions on the racist history that shaped our culture and institutions. 

Colorism and featurism can affect relationships we have with our families, friendships, coworkers and, well, just about everyone. They also affect an individual’s success in school or the workplace because implicit biases based on skin tone or certain features can influence who gets a promotion or a raise. They can even affect behavioral and mental health outcomes. 

In the 1950s, psychologists Mamie Clark and her husband Kenneth Clark conducted an experiment to measure the psychological effects of segregation with a group of children using two dolls, one Black with brown eyes and one White with blue eyes. Both Black and White children pointed to the White doll when asked, “Which doll is pretty?” or “Which doll is good?” Their research was later used in Brown v. Board of Education to overturn segregation in the ‘50s.  

Where else does colorism or featurism manifest? 

They are rife in popular culture. For instance, almost all Disney princesses have Euro-centric features — small noses and wide eyes. Another example is how lighter-skinned actors, even those in minority communities, often snag lead roles in films or shows versus their darker-skinned peers.

Antoinette Landor, expert on discrimination based on skin tone and facial features
Antoinette Landor is a professor at the University of Missouri. She studies how skin tone and facial features impact self-esteem, behavioral outcomes and relationships across all racial groups. (Contributed | Antoinette Landor)

Here are just a few examples. “Martin,” a sitcom from the 1990s, cast the lighter-skinned character Gina as the love interest, and the darker-skinned Pam played the goofy best friend. The Netflix telenovela “La Casa de las Flores” only shows light-skinned Mexican actors. And it’s evident in the new “Indian Matchmaking” show on Netflix where being “fair skinned” is praised. 

The Filter is here to talk about the personal implications of colorism and featurism and what experts know about the science behind this kind of discrimination. 

In this episode, we tap an expert on the subject, Antoinette Landor, a social science professor at the University of Missouri. Then we get personal with special guest and Kansas City PBS summer intern Mawa Iqbal, whose parents are from Pakistan.

We bare all in this season finale, so sip your tea, coffee, beer or wine and hang with us.

Production credits: Jacob Douglas, Bryan Truta, Chris Cosgrove and Felicia Diaz contributed to this episode.

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