Student Project, Pitt Programs Confront Colorism

When Blya Krouba’s family moved from Abidjan, Ivory Coast, to the Philadelphia suburb Upper Darby when she was eight years old, she noticed differences between the two lands went beyond language and landscape.

“When I got to America it became very prevalent that I was Black. It was something I always knew but I would run into instances where people would find the need to remind me,” she said.

When the reminders she was an outlier weren’t verbal, they were visual.

“In terms of representation, even the statues are different here,” she said. “Santa Claus is White. All the angels and statues at church are White.”

When she entered elementary school and was ridiculed by Black American classmates for her ebony skin and African features, she realized if there was any representation of darker skinned Black people in America, it couldn’t be positive.   

Today, the 21-year old senior, who is on a pre-med track with a major in the Department of Studio Arts in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, explored the phenomenon of colorism and how it has impacted her art during a video she created over summer break. Krouba was a recipient of a 2020 Summer Undergraduate Research Awards (SURA), a program out of the Dietrich School, provides $4,000 stipends to students to conduct independent research projects on a range of topics.

The project was Krouba’s second deep dive into the topic of colorism, which is prejudice against individuals with darker skinned tones that occurs within racial and ethnic groups. At Upper Darby High School, she dedicated her senior AP Art project to the topic through a photo installation featuring models covered in black paint. The work was designed to imitate the style of artist Kerry James Marshall, whose acrylic paintings highlight Black people painted in deep dark shades, contrasted in whites and grays, interacting in a variety of colorful settings.

Krouba’s work received high acclaim from administrators, and in 2017, one of the pieces was selected as part of the Congressional Art Competition showcased in the U.S. Capitol for a year. The affirmation was encouraging, but Krouba said she returned to the topic for her SURA project because of the personal impact colorism has had in her life.

“I am a dark-skinned woman, so these are things I’m always noticing coming up, whether it’s in the media or just daily life. Also, the reaction I got wasn’t always positive, but the positive feedback really stuck with me because I felt like people were actually being impacted by it and it resonated with them,” she said.

Pitt experts on colorism

Robin Brooks, an assistant professor in the Department of Africana Studies who has published articles discussing colorism in works of fiction, affirmed that colorism is indeed an international phenomenon with historical and real-world implications beyond perceptions of beauty.

During slavery in American, enslaved people with lighter skin, loosely coiled hair and more European features were given positions working inside plantation homes and often received more favorable treatment than those with darker skin who remained in the fields.

Brooks cited studies showing those with darker skin face harsher criminal justice penalties than those with lighter skin. This, in addition to the absence of dark-skinned people with African features in certain industries, show how colorism has evolved over time.

For instance: “People are strategically chosen to sit in front of a camera as a newscaster. A lot of times, physical features play into that. Skin tone and hair texture matter. How many newscasters have you seen with an afro?” she said. “This extends beyond just being perceived as looking better—there are real consequences and impacts on people’s lives and experiences.”

I am a dark-skinned woman, so these are things I’m always noticing coming up, whether it’s in the media or just daily life.

Blya Krouba

For Americans, negative perceptions associated with dark skin can begin to form as early as preschool. In a 2016 study, “Positive Racial Identity Development in Early Education: Understanding P.R.I.D.E. in Pittsburgh,” published by the Race and Early Childhood Collaborative in the School of Education, the researchers found that children begin to attribute more positive traits to the dominant social race at three years old and attribute negative traits to non-dominant races by age five.

That study spawned the creation of Pitt’s P.R.I.D.E. (Positive Racial Identity Development in Early Education), a program in the School of Education Office of Child Development dedicated to helping Black children understand race and embrace their ethnicity and heritage.

Program Director Aisha White said the group works with parents to provide the resources and skills to engage in what she referred to as “racial socialization.” The program includes a session called “Happy in my Skin,” that specifically addresses the history of colorism. 

“The work focuses primarily on giving parents the knowledge, resources and skills to talk to their children in ways that celebrate the way they look like and what it means to be part of a racial group. Much of that is focused on giving parents the tools they need to help children feel good about their physical features and the words to protect themselves from ‘racial bullying.’ The hope is that those skills and tools will help children who are also victims of colorism,” she said.

During a moment when difficult conversations surrounding race are taking place across the country, Krouba said it is important to address colorism in the same manner.

“I feel that because colorism is so engrained in racism, it’s one of the pillars that holds it up,” she said. “In order to conquer racism, we have to conquer colorism.”