In my final paper for Rhetorical Theory and Practice I choose to examine the issue of colorism in the African-American community, and how it is still alive because of celebrities from within the same group. I choose the sitcom Martin to illustrate my argument.
“The Perpetuation of Colorism by African-American Celebrities:
As Seen in the Sitcom Martin”
Racism is the belief that one racial group has a make-up that renders it superior to all others. When most think of racism and its place in history along with everyday life, thoughts tend to immediately shift to the belief that whites are superior to all other races, particularly African-Americans and other minorities. This form of racism is not the only one. Issues of racism go back to the beginning of not only the history of the United States, but also this world. Our great nation in particular has an extensive history with racism. From the 18th century African Slave Trade to the 1849 Gold Rush discrimination of Chinese workers, we have had no shortage of this type of hatred.
Unfortunately, the most common type of racism in this country are instances where affected whites feel superior to African-Americans. The leaders and supporters of the African-American Civil Rights Movement fought hard for the equality of people of all races, colors, and backgrounds. Many advancements in the equality of African-Americans in society have been made amid a variety of obstacles. Advancements like the Black Power movement, the Black is Beautiful movement, and the more recent and still alive Black Lives Matter movement (Joseph 2009; Deloch-Hughes 2012; & Black Lives Matter n.d.).
Nevertheless, one obstacle in particular is hurting the further advancement of the equality of the African-American race. It comes from within the group itself. Colorism in the African-American community is more lethal to African-Americans than colorism from outside racial groups. In this paper, I will examine how this dominating hindrance of the African-American culture is being perpetuated by celebrities from within this same group. I will use the popular American sitcom Martin to illustrate this issue. Furthermore, I will examine this problem through the Media-Centered Perspective.
Origins of Colorism in the African American Community
Colorism in this paper is defined as the “allocation of privilege and disadvantage according to the lightness or darkness of one’s skin” (Burton, Bonilla-Silva, Ray, Buckelew & Freeman 2010). Within the African-American community, the dominating colorism hierarchy elevates lighter skin individuals to a higher esteem in comparison to their darker skin group members. Those who have darker skin are typically looked down upon. This is not the only hierarchy. Darker skin individuals can also be valued above lighter skin individuals.
The phenomenon of colorism in the African-American community plants its roots in slavery conditions. As slavery progressed, white slave owners began raping the women of color, leading to children with progressively lighter skin. The more whites forcibly reproduced with the African-American slave women, the lighter in color the slaves became. Not only did work need to be done out in the fields, but there also existed a great need for workers inside the homes doing the cooking, cleaning, etc. Those who were darker were forced to work outside, where the harder more rigorous labor existed. Those with lighter skin were chosen to do the housework, which tended to be less gruesome and more favored. Although they were still African-Americans and slaves, they had European blood, therefore they were seen as more valuable and prized than their darker slave members (Harrison, Reynolds, & Thomas 2008).
The Effects and Perpetuation of Colorism
Although this form of slavery was abolished 150 years ago, the mindset it created still exists strongly in the African-American community. The mindset that assigns a certain set of characteristics, preconceived notions, and mannerisms to a person simply based on their skin color. Lighter tone individuals typically possess Eurocentric features (freckles, loose curly and wavy hair, smaller body frames, eye colors other than dark brown, thinner lips, narrow noses etc.) (Mayo, Mayo, & Mahdi 2005). They therefore are viewed as being better looking than those individuals with Afrocentric features (brown to darker skin, tight coarse hair, brown eyes, bigger lips, and wider noses, etc.) (Blair, Judd, Sadler, & Jenkins 2002). But being “better looking” is a double-edged sword, as it also comes with the reputation of being snooty, stuck-up, a know-it-all, wimpy, and vain. Afrocentric individuals are stuck with mainly negative connotations: being overly aggressive, possessing a horrible attitude, having a criminal nature, seen as dirty or impure, just to name a few. In the rare situation when darker skin individuals are glorified over lighter skin African-Americans, women are termed “Queens’ and “Nubian Princesses” and they are thought to be better homemakers. Men are seen as mentally and physically strong, and are typically deemed more respectful than lighter skin men.
Of course any one person can possess any combination of these characteristics, but this is completely independent of the color of their skin. Slavery has taught African-Americans to hate themselves and others for insignificant reasons. The African-American community has had much time to eradicate this crippling mindset. At any moment in time, each and every person has the ability to take a step forward. However, 150 years later, it continues to thrive. It still dominates much of our culture. I believe it is much in part to African-American celebrities perpetuating the issues of colorism. Any and everything they do, we see. The music lyrics they write and make famous, the roles they take in movies and television, and things such as this, serve as direct and indirect reminders to their community of these colorism issues. Instead of using their influence to change the current mindset and promote equality, they continue to feed it. I will point out clear examples of this in the television show Martin.
The Perpetuation of Colorism in Martin
Throughout the entirety of the shows five seasons, reoccurring themes and instances of colorism were present. The most notable being the tense relationship between two of the main characters Martin and Pam. This relationship is very much one of the highlights and most remembered storylines of the show. These two characters are constantly pitted against each other. They mock each other, demean the other, and can never get along. Both of these individuals are darker skin. This feeds into the colorism issue in that they both have horrible and overly aggressive attitudes towards one another, the most known “feature” of dark skin individuals. This overly aggressive attitude and rude demeanor is also known to be more common of dark skin African-American women, which is thoroughly embodied by Pam’s character.
Most of the insults between the pair highlight further staples of colorism among darker skin African-Americans. For example, Pam always insulting Martin for being small and physically weak, when dark skin African-American men are supposed to be tall, strong, and powerful. She questions him about his job status, while it is a common trait for dark skin men to have trouble with employment. Pam also points out his physical features for being unsightly, when it is also common for dark skin men to have larger features than light skin men. When the taunting is coming from Martin and directed towards Pam, he mainly animalizes her, describes her as being manly, and taunts her about her hair being unkept, fake, and nappy. Darker African-American women are often viewed as being masculine and undesirable.
Here are a few dialogues that show these instances of colorism:
- Martin speaking to Pam: Sure we do [have a lot in common]. We’re both built like men. (Ridley & Keith, 1994)
- Pam: Look Gina! It’s a munchkin trick-o-treater. Trick-o-treat. You’re a slob. Did you lose another job?
Martin: Why you gotta go there Sounder? Shouldn’t you be down at the airport sniffing luggage? (Evans & Keith, 1994)
- Martin: If she come in here actin’ crazy, I want you to start barking. Ok? Loud as you can. This way the neighbors hear you, everybody comes running.
Pam: Why don’t you try flapping your ears and flying after her? (Carrington & Keith, 1995)
When examining the relationship between Martin and Pam, we have to keep in mind his relationship with Gina. As Martin and Pam’s relationship would not be as big of an example of colorism without Martin’s subsequent relationship with Gina. Gina is Martin’s long-term girlfriend and later his wife. He loves her, respects her, cares for and protects her. Gina is also very fair skinned. She comes from a wealthy family, is well-educated, and has a stable job in public relations. She even makes more money than Martin. All of these characteristics are signature of light skin individuals, especially women. Although she does not have many other Eurocentric features common of lighter women, Martin loves her and holds her on a pedestal, while constantly berating Pam. These are the types of relationships that dark skin men are said to commonly be in, glorifying light skin and white women while rejecting dark skin women.
Tommy and Cole are also main characters of the show. Both of these characters are dark skin and represent several other stigmas associated with dark skin men. The most notable being their problems with jobs and careers. Lighter skin individuals are often termed to be better educated and therefore have better jobs. The character of Cole has a job at the airport cleaning jets. This represents how being undereducated leads to having a job that simply “makes ends meet”, instead of having a career like Gina. Even though Cole has a job he still lives at home with his mother in her basement. He also doesn’t seem to have high ambitions or long-term goals when it comes to his work, that is, in the eyes of others. In the episode Suspicious Minds, Cole tells Martin that he has big dreams, dreams of being a sandwich vendor. However, that dream isn’t a reality for him, and he didn’t see himself being able to make his dreams come true. Explaining, You know I can’t be no sandwich vendor. The man is not gonna give a brother that kind of power (Ridley & Keith, 1994). Further exaggerations of the employment issues dark skin men are labeled to have.
Tommy lies on the opposite side of the spectrum. He is the only male character to have gone to college. He is well kept and highly intelligent. He claims to have a job but no one knows exactly what he does, neither can he garner proof of his employment. This circumstance was a popular joke throughout the entirety of the show. In the episode Suspicious Minds, Martin explains to Tommy that he doesn’t know what he does. Even though he picked him up from work once, it was just a big white building with no signs or windows. Tommy doesn’t offer any details on his job, he only states that he got transferred to the big black building across the street. Later on in the same episode everyone accuses Tommy of stealing Martin’s new CD player because they don’t know where he works (Ridley & Keith, 1994). Why is it that the one educated and intelligent dark skin character has to be made into a joke? Again, the only character with a stable, well-supportive job is Gina.
Colorism through the Media-Centered Perspective
There are newer television shows that continue to display these forms of stereotypes based on one’s skin color. The original runnings of Martin ended nearly 10 years ago. However, episodes are still played on many television stations targeted toward African-Americans and African-American youths. This exemplifies just how popular, iconic, and influential this show and the actors are in this culture. The Media-Centered Perspective describes why celebrities are able to perpetuate colorism in their fields of work.
This perspective is composed of the media ecology theory, the phenomenon of media logic, the social learning theory, the parasocial relationship theory, and amplification and reduction. First, the media ecology theory states that “the medium is the message” meaning that the medium is pervasive and influential in and of itself because it is the major method of communication (Sellnow 2014). No matter what is being displayed on it, it will impact the audience. In the preliterate and literate eras, face-to-face interaction and print were the methods of communication. Whatever messages were being transmitted in those forms were just as influential as messages being transmitted in the current electronic era. Because of media logic, by simply watching television, the audiences are primed to receive whatever message and ideologies are being transmitted. This is because we don’t understand television’s influence and effect over us. We don’t view television as something special or something that should be monitored, because again, it is one of the major methods of communication in our lives (Sellnow 2014).
When people watch shows such as Martin on television or on their computers, they don’t realize that they are receiving the messages that are being disseminated. Instances of colorism in Martin are not thought about or picked up because they are often disguised as being comedic. According to the social learning theory, humans learn by observation, imitation, and modeling (Sellnow 2014). Young adults, and older adults alike see things on television and over time begin to emulate what they have seen, especially if what they have seen is meant to make them laugh. Not thinking anything of it because other shows and other people they know emulate these same things as well. Laughter is a positive thing, therefore anything that makes us happy and makes us laugh can’t have a negative effect. A young child might watch Martin make fun of Pam and then make fun of a girl in his class the same way because he doesn’t know it to be alarming or wrong.
Comedy is not the only reason why the audience would remember and emulate what a television actor says and does. Through the parasocial relationship theory, the viewer develops a relationship with who they are watching on television (Sellnow 2014). This same young boy who makes fun of a classmate the same way Martin does to Pam may do so because he somehow relates to Martin. In the show, Martin is from an unpleasant neighborhood, the young boy may be as well. He may understand that Martin is just a character, but even if he doesn’t, he may view Martin as someone he wants to be like. Martin has nice things, his own apartment, a beautiful girlfriend, etc. Because this boy wants to be like Martin he will start to adapt his idol’s ways as his own, including the negative.
Although Martin is not purely composed of instances of colorism, it comes down to amplification and reduction. What themes are made more noticeable, and which ones take a back seat (Sellnow 2014)? Martin and Pam have a few moments where they get along and work together. However, these moments are scarcely remembered and end in the two berating each other again. Pam is a beautiful and talented woman, however she is just remembered for being the butt of Martin’s disgusting jokes. Cole has a big heart and is a loyal friend, but his positive characteristics are overshadowed by his lack of motivation in life and his simple-mindedness. Tommy is educated, intelligent, well-spoken, and very loving, yet his character is most known for having the nonexistent job. The storylines that are amplified the most in this show, are the ones that perpetuate colorism.
Celebrities are the people who everyday people like myself look up to for inspiration. If they can make it to such a position considering the unfavorable conditions that many of them were birth into, it gives regular individuals hope that they too can rise above and make something of themselves. But when these same celebrities are writing songs and playing parts in movies that mimic colorism, the public is going to view it as something that is perfectly fine to do. Here the cycle continues. Some could argue that music and television are simply for entertainment purposes and not to be taken literally and imitated. But if colorism was not spoken of in music, or portrayed in television, especially in such a comical way, by African-Americans, there would be nothing negative to copy. Out of sight, out of mind. It could become a thing of the past, something that is taught in history as an obstacle that was overcome. Celebrities know how much influence they have over the masses. Therefore, it is hard to understand why they continue to spread harmful messages. When celebrities begin to take a stand against colorism and decide to display positive messages instead, then will begin to see a difference in the progression of the African-American race. Singer August Alsina said it best in his song Dreamer (2015):
Why does it seem like nobody else want to be lawyers and doctors?
Nowadays everybody out here trying to be dealers and models,
Just a thought.
I guess that’s how it goes when it’s all you know.
If the youth is shown something positive, something different, something truly awe inspiring, the issues of today will become memories of the past.
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