How digital beauty filters perpetuate colorism

How digital beauty filters perpetuate colorism

An ancient form of prejudice about skin color is flourishing in the modern internet age.

When Lise was a young teenager in Georgia, her classmates bullied her relentlessly. She had moved with her family from Haiti a few years earlier, and she didn’t fit in with the other students. They teased her about her accent, claimed she “smelled weird,” and criticized the food she ate.  But most often they would attack her with remarks about her dark complexion. Sometimes teachers would send her home from school because she couldn’t stop crying. “I remember going home and I would take those copper wire things that you scrub dishes with,” she says. “I would go to the bathroom and I would take my mom’s bleach cream and scrub my skin with it.”

And it wasn’t just white classmates. Black students harassed her too—for being an outsider, for being too different. She remembers them asking, “Why is she so dark?”

Just when she thought it couldn’t get worse, the phone in her palm became an endless stream of pictures of beautiful, lighter-skinned women getting dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of likes and affirming comments. She slowly began to notice that the world wanted parts of her—like her curves and her lips—but not things like her dark skin or her hair. Not her whole self, all together.

As she struggled to cope with the abuse, Lise convinced herself that the darkness of her skin was to blame. And social media platforms and the visual culture of the internet suggested the same thing.

Even among those closest to her, the undesirability of her darkness was reinforced. She grew to realize that her mom, aunts, and friends all used the skin-lightening creams she’d borrowed after school, many of which contain toxins and even carcinogens. It was confusing: her community fought hard against racism, but some of the prejudice she experienced came from Black people themselves.

And social media was just making it worse.

The prejudice Lise experienced—colorism—has a long history, driven by European ideals of beauty that associate lighter skin with purity and wealth, darker tones with sin and poverty. Though related to racism, it’s distinct in that it can affect people regardless of their race, and can have different effects on people of the same background.

Colorism exists in many countries. In India, people with darker skin were traditionally ranked lower in the caste system. In China, light skin is linked to beauty and nobility. In the US, people across many races experience colorism as it is prejudice rooted primarily in complexion rather race. Historically, when African-Americans were enslaved, those with lighter skin were often given more domestic tasks where those with darker skin were more likely to work in the fields.

These prejudices have been part of the social and media landscape for a long time, but the advent of digital images and Photoshop created new ways for colorism to manifest. In June 1994, notoriously, Newsweek and Time both ran cover images of O.J. Simpson’s mug shot during his murder trial—but on Time’s cover, his skin was markedly darker. The difference sparked outrage: Time had darkened the image in what the magazine’s photo illustrator claimed was an attempt to evoke a more “dramatic tone”. But the editing reflected that the darker the man, the more criminal the American public assumes him to be.


Rajesh Kumar is an Indian photographer, digital marketer, social media influencer, business development consultant, and PR expert. He is best known for brand building, digital media marketing, online sales & project management and affiliate marketing and has over two decades of experience as a digital marketer.