Sailaja N. Joshi

The Good, The Bad, The Dark

In American Dream, Erwing Goffman, Social Change on May 19, 2010 at 8:07 am


Much of my Master’s research focuses on skin color and its subsequent impact on beauty, social capital and cultural values. Of the studies I’ve read on the subject of skin color (and believe me, I’ve read a lot of studies on this) the conclusion largely remains the same.

Dark skin is bad and light skin is good. (No surprise there!)

CNN.com is the latest agency to feature a story about racial prejudice and how it is still an ingrained part of society, especially among young children.  The pilot study talks to young,  African-American and Caucasian children, who when asked a series of questions about a series of dolls who were identical except for their skin color. Continuously throughout the study children identify dark skin ‘dolls’ as dumb and ugly while light skin dolls are smart and good-looking.

Dr. Spencer, a lead on the study notes that what is alarming about this study is that children, regardless of age, continue to have the same racial stereotypes that civil rights leaders fought against in the 1960s. Generations after the civil rights movement and in an age where we have a black, albeit light skinned, president these children are still internalizing racial stereotypes of yesteryear.

In looking at this study through sociological lens, I turn to my main theoretical crush, Erwing Goffman and his idea of the Presentation of Self, which is worth bringing up again in order to look at this cultural construct that is still apart of a child’s identity.

In looking at the reaction of the children in this study in the lens of Goffman’s Presentation of Self one might consider skin color as the costume we wear. The difference of course here is that, skin color cannot change. Ok, sure you can go tanning or buy lightening creams, but at the end of the day those are just temporary change to one’s skin color.

Skin color, much like a prop such as a diploma, only has significance once a society ascribes it any significance. It is not until we change the conversation, both at home and through the media that the significance of skin color can be shifted. Cultures and societies take time to change their ingrained values, and so while it has be fifty years since the Civil Rights movement has taken place, the ideologies of dark as bad and white is good are still enduring.

As we become more aware of the disturbing ideas our society has surrounding skin color, we are able to discuss these issues and slowly change the significance skin color represents. Within in this study itself, children already demonstrate the ideology that skin color does not matter when it comes to who is smart or who we want to be our friend.

I think the challenge here for the United States is multi-fold. On the one hand, while we are having the conversation about racial stereotypes, we still only look at race as a binary. I mean, for heaven sakes, what is it going to take to get a brown kid into one of these racial studies and ask them what they are thinking and feeling?

Second, it seems as though that, even in this study, we are coaxing our children into thinking that dark is bad and light is right through our questions. I wonder what doll the children in this study would have picked if asked, “Which of these children looks like a good athlete?” or “Which of these children looks like they are good at math?” The conversation then, may have shifted to a place where dark skin was seen as a ‘good’ quality, perhaps even desirable.

We as a society have the opportunity to change so much of this conversation, but that change must start from the individuals and permeate through our media and beauty industry. Until we change this conversation, we are liable to continue to have children who are still living in a world where things are only black and white.

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  1. I think you touched a good point albeit towards the end. That is the role of media and beauty industry. Probably you should explore how their role can be redefined to handle the stereotyping issue.

  2. Hey Sailaja,
    I just happened to read your Blog. What you are studying is SO interesting. Would love to hear more about it. Interesting read btw.

    Lakshmi from Chyk class

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