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Marlen Garcia: Why Latinos look so white on TV

Updated: May 27, 2013 7:02PM

If you watch a Spanish-language telenovela or buy a Latino celebrity magazine, you will see beautiful actors and models.

Almost all of them will be Latin Americans with light skin color.

I was reminded of this last month by reader Ted Manuel of Hyde Park. He wrote in an email:

“The spectrum of complexions in real life ranges from ivory to rich brown. So why is it that in every telenovela and in the photos of every magazine I’ve seen showcasing the star of the moment, or the singer of the moment, they are uniformly white?

“The pattern is too consistent to be a matter of pure chance. Clearly, some cultural impetus is at work. The most obvious is that, quiet as it’s kept, skin-color prejudice is alive and well where such decisions are made, be it among the TV producers, or the casting directors, or the advertisers who pay the bills.”

He was referring to colorism, a form of discrimination in which people with dark skin are, more often than not, disadvantaged socially and economically compared with those with light or white skin.

This goes well beyond a celebrity culture that rewards Caucasians as well as light-skinned Latinos, African Americans, Asians and Indians over those who are dark.

Generally speaking, people with light skin color make more money, receive a better education, find better housing and have a better chance of marrying into higher status than those who are dark.

Margaret Hunter, an associate professor who heads the sociology and anthropology department at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., summed up colorism that way in a 2007 article for Sociology Compass.

Hunter traced colorism for Latinos and African Americans back to slavery and Spanish influence in Mexico. If you had light skin you were treated better. Sometimes much better.

That hasn’t changed over the centuries, and this is a global thing. White is considered more aesthetically pleasing. That’s why skin-bleaching products are hugely successful throughout the world.

“We’re not always proud of our brown skin, brown hair and brown eyes,” Hunter, who is biracial, said by phone.

We hear a lot about racism, which applies to prejudice against or between ethnic and minority groups.

Colorism, on the other hand, also exists within a racial or ethnic group. Caucasian managers, CEOs and Hollywood producers are more likely to hire light-skinned people, but African Americans and Latinos in the same or similar positions often have followed the same path.

That tendency is one reason colorism can be tough to discuss. “It’s definitely universally uncomfortable for people,” Hunter said. “People feel like it’s airing dirty laundry.”

It’s also awkward for white or light-skinned individuals to acknowledge they have an advantage over others of the same ethnicity based on skin color. (This Mexican American speaks from experience on that.)

In America, ethnic groups searching for equality own a sense of togetherness. In that vein, it’s unpopular to acknowledge some within the group have it better than others.

People of the same ethnic group have a common bond, but color will always be a powerful divider.

In her research Hunter has found that within an ethnic group, individuals with light features are viewed as less authentic as those who are dark.

Yet, they are more appealing to society as a whole.

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