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.


  1. Really interesting post, Adia ~ thanks for that!
    Two additional thoughts: 1) there's also research that indicates colorism is associated with negative health outcomes (there is a link between darker skin-color among U.S.-born blacks and hypertension that doesn't hold for those outside the U.S. – Troy Duster talks about this in his work on genetics).
    2) Given this context, I struggle to make sense of white people rushing to tanning salons and getting spray-on tans. I mean, seriously.

    • Joe

      Adia, thanks for posting this. The Dominican Republic reportedly has high levels of sales of skin lightening products, as well as other whitening products. India and other Asian countries also have huge sales of such products now too. White-conformity on a huge scale.

    • Adia Harvey Author

      Hey Jessie, thanks for your thoughts. I started to include this in the post but didn’t, b/c I figured it would come up in comments. But regarding whites and tanning, Margaret Hunter addresses that in her book on colorism. I quote her here: “White women who tan and want to make their lips bigger are not engaging in the same racial change practices that women of color are at all. White women are free to dabble in cosmetic procedures without ever losing their racial status as white. A tan white woman is still a white woman. A light skinned or Anglo-featured woman of color, however, can expect different treatment, and a greater share of resources, because she seems closer to white or may be perceived as mixed race” (Hunter 2005, 66). I think this is an excellent point that underscores the racial hierarchy of these procedures–one that is easy to overlook and forget. It’s easy to think, whites tan, blacks lighten, so everyone wants to change, and thus put it in a de-racialized context. However, as research shows, tanning can be simple fun and aesthetics for whites, b/c they never lose their privileged racial status. For blacks, however, lightening has established material consequences. So it’s hardly a raceless decision or one that indicates post-raciality, but a decision that reflects and reinforces the existing racial hierarchy.

      Btw, I really love this new format for the site.

      • I see what you (and Hunter) are saying about the way that whiteness and tanning are ‘dabbling’ with aesthetic choices in ways that don’t carry the weight of social rewards attached to them – and I completely agree. I guess the point I’m wondering is about is the aesthetic choices themselves. I mean, Sammy Sosa has internalized the white-is-alright aesthetic ideal so completely, as you point out, that he’s taken these extreme steps to lighten his skin. And, I see that lots of other places, too and don’t doubt the power of white privilege. Yet, within that context, why then do white women and men make the aesthetic choice of darkening their skin? Why ‘dabble’ at all if whiteness is the coveted standard? I don’t know – the irony of white people seeking out tanning beds has always struck me as counter to the logic of white skin privilege, and yet still part of it. Clearly, I’m going to need to read Hunter’s book. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  2. Seattle_in_Texas

    Oh Sammy. 🙁 He looks better before. There's been questions on if Sammy Sosa is following Michael Jackson's ways and I'm curious what others think. I think there's some overlaps, but some major differences in that Jackson had a skin condition, was an entertainer that lived on the edge/front of popular culture, seemed to be in a way making a statement that race is only “skin deep” since he removed his “race”–even white people have “color”, was extremely antiracist and didn't promote the whitening of the skin, and was proud of Black culture, roots, and so on. Like Jessie above, he noted the irony of how he was being made fun of–though he said he was doing it because of skin condition while white people spend billions of dollars per year trying to darken their skin…not to mention perms and so on. Though in some ways, particularly during his last 15 years or so it becomes more difficult for me on Michael Jackson–maybe this is where that overlap with Sosa is? With Sammy Sosa, I don't think it's because of a skin condition…and while an athlete–a different type of entertainer…as if pop culture says whitening the skin is okay? not saying that either. And I don't know of Sammy Sosa being antiracist(?) or being proud of his Black roots(?)–seems to be a symptom of deeply internalized pains of racism….

    On a different point, this post reminded me of a comment a student said in a seminar class a while back about how Jack and Jill used to have a brown paper bag test. They would take a brown paper bag and hold it up to the skin of children and if the child's skin was darker than the brown paper bag, they weren't admitted. In a way, this is the same thing that I think is tied or related to Sosa's devaluation of darker skin and “Black” society. While a bit different, still related in that the devaluation and attempted regulation/control of skin tone.

    I'm curious on what others think about this?


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