Simone Puff: Skin Color in Ebony Magazine

Colorism, a form of intra-racial prejudice and bias, is an age-old hierarchy within communities of color. It generally favors light skin over dark skin and adheres to other white Eurocentric beauty ideals. This dissertation sheds light on the significance of skin color in Black America as reflected in a study of articles and advertisements of Ebony magazine.

Over a period of forty-one years (1970-2011) discourses of skin color are studied and ambiguities between celebrating Blackness and commodifying (Black) beauty are unveiled. While feature articles encompass the primary unit of analysis, letters to the editor and a few selected examples of advertisements for skin bleaching products are also analyzed. The central aim of this study is to evaluate in what respect the print coverage of the discourse of skin color mirrors its significance in society. By performing a critical discourse analysis modeled on an approach by German linguist Siegfried J├Ąger, the written and the visual discourses surrounding skin color in the selected texts are analyzed. The complex entanglements of skin color discourse with discourses of beauty, identity, and status, as well as ever-present economic pressures produce evidence for conflicting messages.

The study shows that even though the magazine’s editorial content heralded Black beauty in all its shades, some of Ebony‘s advertising content has consistently been promoting narrowly-defined Eurocentric standards. Overall, the analysis indicates that because white society continues to make distinctions based on skin shade, and, at the same time, continues to grant advantages to people with light(er) skin, Black people in the U.S. continue to be socialized with the idea of “light is right.” The study also shows that race is a commodity and that light skin color comes with a distinct value in U.S. society which allows upward social mobility. Ultimately, it becomes clear that colorism is not yet an issue of the past, in the sense that the Black community is no more “post-color” than the American society at large is “post-race.”

(University of Klagenfurt)