The Subtle, and Unsubtle, Influence of “Colorism”
Stanford GSB alumna Chika Okoro challenges America’s image-makers to think before they cast.
Chika Okoro speaking at Stanford TedX
Southern California native Chika Okoro, who recently earned her MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business, recalls the day she discovered the casting call for a 2015 film she eventually saw in theaters three times: Straight Outta Compton.
“The movie had already come out, and I’m no actress, so I wouldn’t actually audition,” said Okoro in “Confessions of a D Girl: Colorism and Global Standards of Beauty,” her TEDxStanford 2016 presentation that addressed the role that subconscious bias plays in culture. “But I just wondered, hypothetically, if I did, what role would I get?”
The filmmakers had divided potential actresses into four categories. The “A” girls were “the hottest of the hottest, models, must have real hair, no extensions.” The “B” girls had “long natural hair, must have light skin. Beyoncé is the prototype here.” The “C” girls were “African American girls, can have extensions, must be medium- to light-skin toned.” And finally, the “D” girls were “African American, poor, not in good shape, must have a darker skin tone.”
Okoro describes feeling betrayed. “Things like that convince dark-skinned people that they’re not normal,” she says. “It makes you feel unrecognized and invisible.” She adds that “in my world, this phenomenon is all too familiar, something just as sinister and subtle as racism.” But she also sees progress. For example, Naja, an L.A.-based lingerie and swimwear company, now offers the color “nude” in seven different shades.
Okoro, a Harvard undergraduate alumna who finished her graduate work at Stanford GSB in mid-June, is currently considering product marketing or strategy-development jobs at a number of early stage startups. We talked to her about how colorism and subconscious bias play out in business culture.
You asked executives to consider colorism as they develop the “face” of their brands. Do you feel they have a responsibility to do good beyond their own business objectives?
I think they’re in a position to have a disproportionate influence. I just think it’s responsible to portray different types of people — color, size — to represent what the world actually looks like, as opposed to what we’ve been shown is the right way to look.
As much responsibility as, say, Hollywood and the arts?
I think they all play a part. It’s a cycle. TV and movies show us what’s desired, how we’re supposed to be, and consumers pick up on that. And as those Western images have spread, America has gained global influence. So many cultures now aspire to American standards. Advertising and corporate America influence people to look a certain way through clothes and makeup. Everyone needs to play a part in breaking that cycle by not just showing one type of look, person, or way of being.
What made you pursue these questions?
I started noticing it in middle school, and continue to notice it. Who are the girls that guys talk to? Who do I see on TV? I didn’t see a lot of people who looked like me, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Once I got to college and started studying critical race theory, I got it. That Straight Outta Compton casting call was just a blatant example of how these biases are still prevalent.
So now that you recognize it, has it changed your personal behavior?
In some ways. Some days I wear my hair straight, other days it’s in braids. I like variety. But sometimes I wonder: Do I like variety, or do I really wish I had long, straight hair? It’s a subconscious voice, and I go back and forth with it sometimes.
Does that feel like a healthy personal debate, or is it something you struggle with?
It’s complicated, trying to isolate yourself from the messages you’ve been fed your entire life. I want to say I’m a completely independent thinker and not affected by those messages, but it’s hard to completely disregard what I’ve been taught. I want to disentangle how much of my choices are influenced by other messages. I think it still does affect me, and it’s more prevalent in some parts of my life than in others.
When I’m interviewing for jobs. Do I straighten my hair so I look a certain way? How would I fit into a particular corporate culture? I like to think I can go in braids and it’ll be fine. But there are also times when I fall into the belief that I should do what I know will be safe, thinking maybe it’s best to walk in there with my extensions and straight hair. Why risk wearing my hair natural or in braids?
Given the current racial polarization in the U.S., where does colorism fall on the spectrum of social priorities?
It’s part of this overall idea of what’s accepted and what’s not, what’s right and what’s wrong. A lot of what we’re seeing in terms of police violence is an unconscious bias against people of color. These are messages we’ve been fed for a long time; it’s very easy to criminalize black men. Right now our country needs to analyze the belief systems that lead us to characterize people in certain ways. We need to look for these biases.
Any signs of progress in corporate culture?
There’s a big discussion about subconscious bias now in Silicon Valley. Just being aware is important, because that leads to a discussion about what actions can be taken. It’s an evolving, ongoing process. I know it’ll take time, because it’s a cultural shift. But people are talking about subconscious bias, and I think there’s a desire to overcome it. No one wants to think they’re being unfair. We now understand these things are going on, and people are open to that conversation. That’s progress. We can’t change things we don’t know exist.
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