Marketers Need to Fight the Ways Colorism Shows Up in Our Industry

Colorism has significantly impacted my life, and I am not alone

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Colorism still permeates so much of what we do in the marketing ecosystem. From who we cast to the products we create, many marketers knowingly or unknowingly cling to the white standards of beauty: blonde hair, blue eyes, light skin. It’s an archaic standard that tells the rest of us we don’t belong, this brand is not meant for us.

As a marketer who’s a dark-skinned woman, I have seen colorism show up too many times to count. Earlier in my career, I didn’t always have the language, the power or the mental energy to confront colorism head on. But now I know I have a responsibility to educate and the power to help brands make different decisions. We need more marketers to come to this realization and be a catalyst for change.

Start educating your teams on colorism

Colorism upholds and values white standards of beauty and is a product of racism. It continues to be pervasive, whether we’re aware of it or not. The preference for lighter skin over darker skin is still prevalent in white, Black, Latinx and Asian communities and is not often openly discussed.

As a South Asian woman, I was aware from a very young age that I was smart but not pretty—I was too dark to be pretty. I was bombarded with recipes for homemade turmeric face masks, brightening, lightening and whitening creams and lotions, and endless tips and reminders for staying out of the sun so I wouldn’t get any darker. Colorism has significantly impacted my life, and I am not alone.

According to Web MD, a recent U.S. survey of Latinx adults revealed that colorism had significantly impacted their lives as well. 62% believed that having darker skin hurts their ability to get ahead in the U.S., and 59% believed having lighter skin was an advantage. Over 50% said their skin color impacts their daily life.

For marketers, you can’t stop colorism if you aren’t aware of it or don’t understand it. Educate your teams on what colorism means and how it can show up in our marketing ecosystem. Be open, honest and brave about how colorism could be impacting your creation of content, products and campaigns, or members of your team.

Stop casting racially ambiguous models

Historically, as the demographics of the U.S. shifted, casting racially ambiguous models became a way to try and resonate with multicultural audiences without alienating white (“general market”) consumers. I can recall a number of occasions where I was told to put “racially ambiguous” on the creative brief to the agency. “Neutral,” one creative director said to me, justifying the selection of images to our brand team.

This was in response to me pushing back on our focus on racially ambiguous models. “We want a neutral look, not too ethnic. So that means the hair, the nose, the eyes, the skin, it all matters. Remember, a look that will be desirable and appealing to all.”

As marketers, we can’t fight colorism if we won’t stop casting and using the language of “racially ambiguous.” We must ask ourselves what it means for someone to look too ethnic and what biases we are holding onto. We have the power and responsibility to include darker-skinned models and portray them as desirable, appealing and resonant with our consumers as they actually are.

Start being inclusive of darker skin tones

In the U.S. alone, multicultural buying power is now more than $5 trillion, which includes Black, Latinx, Asian, Pacific Islander, Indigenous, multiracial and multiethnic communities. Inclusion is a driver of business, and those brands who continue to ignore these communities will be left behind.

As marketers, it’s our job to advocate and be inclusive of darker skin tones. This means intentionally casting and featuring dark-skinned models, actors and influencers in your content and programming. This means also having products that work on darker skin tones—in the beauty world, not just checking the box with foundations but also having eyeshadows, lip glosses, blushes and more that work on darker skin tones.

And don’t default to stock photography; be intentional about who is behind the camera and capture product shots that show darker-skinned hands.

We have a responsibility to fight colorism and be advocates for societal change. We must challenge our industry standards and do better for the next generation of marketers and for our consumers.