Saving Face? Colorism, Colonialism, and Sammy Sosa

Recent pictures of baseball player Sammy Sosa show a really dramatic change in his appearance:


(Photo credit: Zalubowski/AP, Djansezian/Getty via NYDailyNews)

Sosa, a retired baseball player born in the Dominican Republic, has openly acknowledged using skin-lightening creams that account for this drastic difference in his appearance (he plans to market a skin-lightening cream). His decision to do so—and the effects of this use—highlight in a rather dramatic fashion one of the more insidious influences of white colonialism and racial hierarchies in the global arena.

Scholars have long documented that in the U.S., particularly among black Americans, a color hierarchy is one of the vestiges of institutionalized racial inequality and a slave system that rewarded white slave owners for raping black women slaves. Under the slave system, children followed the status of the mother. Thus, white slave owners could actually increase their profits by fathering children with slave women, a process which often came about through forcible rape. In some cases (but not all), the children of these unions were favored by white men.  On rare occasions, they even went so far as to free these children or treat them in a completely humane fashion. Ultimately, this established a system where lighter-skinned blacks sometimes received more favorable treatment than their darker-skinned counterparts. (It is important to put this in context, however. Favorable treatment within a slave system would still have been dehumanizing, cruel, and brutal.)

As the U.S. has remained a society profoundly shaped by racial inequality, the vestiges of colorism have remained largely intact. Interestingly, however, researchers often discuss this in the context of colorism’s impact on women. A small but significant number of research studies indicate pretty uniformly that lighter skinned black women are more educated and have higher prospects on the marriage market than their darker-skinned sisters. More generally, lighter skinned women are often considered more attractive than darker skinned women, a bias that has been noted as early as St. Clair Drake and Horace Roscoe Cayton’s 1945 study of black urban areas in Black Metropolis, and as recently as Margaret Hunter’s 2005 book Race, Gender, and the Politics of Skin Tone. In other words, lighter skinned black women receive measurable advantages that are unavailable to darker skinned women, due to the heightened emphasis on physical attractiveness for women and the ongoing nature of racism in society.

Sammy Sosa’s transformation highlights two important things. First, that this issue of colorism is not limited to women. His newly lightened face, green eyes, and straighter hair indicate pretty clearly that men are not exempt from the societal messages that lighter is better. Most of the research suggests that men are influenced by these messages vis-à-vis their preference for lighter skinned women, and in fact suggests that darker skinned men are sort of “in vogue,” because darker skin on men is viewed as a symbol of masculinity, virility, and sexiness (although this also connotes racialized, gendered stereotypes of black masculinity). Sosa’s new skin, hair, and eyes bring to light—no pun intended—that men are subjected to, and internalize, the messages of colorism in a myriad of ways, and that they should not be overlooked simply because they don’t trade in beauty currency in the same ways as women.

Secondly, Sosa’s case highlights the international influence of white supremacy (as Joe noted recently about China) and the history of colonization. Sosa is from the Dominican Republic, but is reproducing an ideal of whiteness that is probably present in virtually any country with a history of colonization where race became a central issue. In other words, these issues of colorism—where lighter skinned people of color receive more opportunities, social rewards, and resources than darker skinned people—are at least anecdotally present in Cuba, Mexico, Brazil (as Ed noted here recently), India, South Africa, and numerous other countries where there has been a history of racial conquest and colonialism. Throughout the world, this is one of the consequences of colonialism—centuries later, those who are lighter (even if it is as a result of a history of forcible rape and institutionalized oppression) benefit from living in a global society that mostly devalues darker skin.

In this context, I think Sammy Sosa’s new appearance takes on important sociological significance, as a reminder of how intersections of race and gender impact men of color, the ongoing impact of colonialism, and perhaps most importantly, the all encompassing influence of white racial framing. After all, it is within this broader context of whiteness as a signifier of virtue, goodness, and beauty, that the desire to lighten one’s skin takes on meaning and significance.  Sammy Sosa’s new “look” isn’t just a change in appearance, but one that draws attention to the broader social structure where light (and by extension, white) is right.