Elle’s Photo of Gabourey Sidibe: The White Racial Frame is Everywhere

Serious public discussion about how magazines and other mainstream media sometimes darken or lighten the skin of black Americans is relatively rare. Periodically magazine covers lighten or darken as that suits the editors’ white racial framing. You may remember how some magazine pictures of O. J. Simpson were darkened to make him fit the white racist framing of black men as dangerous. Now we have Elle magazine significantly lightening the skin of prize-winning actor Gabourey Sidibe on its recent cover. Over at yahoo, there is this commentary(with a very revealing photo backing it up) on that editorial action:

For its special October edition, ELLE produced four separate covers, each one meant to celebrate a different mid-20’s female star–in addition to Sidibe, 27, it included actresses Amanda Seyfried and Megan Fox and reality star/fashion entrepreneur Lauren Conrad…. While each of the other three (all oft-used, not to mention skinny and Caucasian) cover girls are shown off in full-body glamour shots wearing stylish clothes, Sidibe is cropped at the mid-chest, with a swath of ruched green fabric hiding her curvy frame. Plus, her skin appears to be [much] lighter than in most photos of the actress we’ve seen, which has stirred reactions on the Web. …. This is the first big fashion magazine cover for Sidibe…. Similar claims about skin lightening were made in 2008 about the possible whitening of Beyonce’s face for a L’Oréal Paris ad and in 2009 for an ad with Indian actress Freida Pinto.

The analysis of this in the mainstream media is amazingly rare and often weak as here, as with “appears to be” and “claims” type language. Such skin lightening and white or whiter skin preference can be found in a great many nooks and crannies of this society. The white racial framing of what is “beautiful” skin color and what is not is centuries old. This racist framing and preference go back well past the racist diatribes on the “lovely white” color that one finds in our founding fathers such as Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

Such constantly recurring events raise many deeper questions that are not touched in the media, or even by much mainstream social science. Dr. Edna Chun recently mentioned the white racial frame concept that I have been working on for a decade or more. One reason I think that it is important is because we need as social scientists today to move well beyond the white-social-scientist-created and typically individualistic concepts of stereotype, prejudice, bigotry, and assimilation—which are OK for analyses as far as they go but which are ultimately rather weak–compared to the great and deeper ideas from the (mostly black) critical racial tradition, concepts such as institutional racism and racial oppression.

In work since the 1970s I draw on this critical black tradition with concepts of the “white racial frame” and “systemic racism.” In my view the white racial frame idea is far better in making sense out of such things as these media actions, as well as much else about “racial relations,” than “stereotypes” or “prejudice” because it includes not only stereotypes, but also much else. It is a whole white-generated racist worldview that is actually imposed on all folks in the United States and in many other areas of the globe. Systemic racism and institutionalized racism are also much better than those traditional “racial and ethnic relations” concepts because they can make the uninformed to think about the foundation of this society in racial oppression (246 years of slavery and 100 years or so of Jim Crow segregation).

In the book Systemic Racism I developed the concept of a white racial frame. I expanded the discussion in a book in last year titled The White Racial Frame. Since its development in the 17th century, this racial frame has been a dominant frame, a pervasive framing that provides a generic meaning system for the racialized society that became the United States. In this racial framing, whites have long combined racial stereotypes (the cognitive aspect), metaphors and interpretive concepts (the deeper cognitive aspect), dramatic images (the visual aspect), deep emotions (feelings), and inclinations to discriminatory action. This frame buttresses, and grows out of the material reality of racial oppression. The complex of racial hierarchy, material oppression, and the rationalizing white racial frame constitute what I term systemic racism.

In our book, Two Faced Racism Leslie Picca and I give many examples of the white racial frame. We collected journals from 626 white students at 28 colleges and universities in various regions. They were asked to record (for, on average, about 6-9 weeks) observations of everyday events in their lives that revealed racial issues, images, and understandings. In these relatively brief diaries these white students gave us got more than 7,500 accounts of blatantly or obviously racist commentary and actions by white friends, acquaintances, relatives, and strangers, much of it in backstage areas. In addition, about 300 students of color at these same colleges gave us another 4000 accounts of clearly racist events that happened to them and their friends or relatives.

Their everyday accounts offer many insights into how the white racial frame works today. Here, for example, is one of thousands of extended racial events from the diaries, this one about an evening party of six white students at a midwestern college. Trevor, a white student, reports on a typical evening gathering:

When any two of us are together, no racial comments or jokes are ever made. However, with the full group membership present, anti-Semitic jokes abound, as do racial slurs and vastly derogatory statements. . . . Various jokes concerning stereotypes . . . were also swapped around the gaming table, everything from “How many Hebes fit in a VW beetle?” to “Why did the Jews wander the desert for forty years?” In each case, the punch lines were offensive, even though I’m not Jewish. The answers were “One million (in the ashtray) and four (in the seats)” and “because someone dropped a quarter,” respectively. These jokes degraded into a rendition of the song “Yellow,” which was re-done to represent the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. It contained lines about the shadows of the people being flash burned into the walls (“and it was all yellow” as the chorus goes in the song).

There is nothing subtle about these racist performances. Trevor continues with yet more performances:

A member of the group also decided that he has the perfect idea for a Hallmark card. On the cover it would have a few kittens in a basket with ribbons and lace. On the inside it would simply say “You’re a nigger.” I found that incredibly offensive. Supposedly, when questioned about it, the idea of the card was to make it as offensive as humanly possible in order to make the maximal juxtaposition between warm- and ice- hearted. After a brief conversation about the cards which dealt with just how wrong they were, a small kitten was drawn on a piece of paper and handed to me with a simple, three-word message on the back. . . . Of course, no group is particularly safe from the group’s scathing wit, and the people of Mexico were next to bear the brunt of the jokes. A comment was made about Mexicans driving low-riding cars so they can drive and pick lettuce at the same time. Comments were made about the influx of illegal aliens from Mexico and how fast they produce offspring.

All white male participants here are well educated. Notice the great “fun” these educated whites are having as part of this recurring social gathering–backstage racism. Racial stereotypes, images, emotions, and action orientations are all on exhibit here. Note too the different roles played by whites in this one racialized evening. There are the protagonists performing assertively for an all-white audience. Some appear also as cheerleading assistants, with the recording student apparently acting as a passive bystander or perhaps a mild dissenter. No one, however, openly remonstrates with the active protagonists. The contemporary white racial frame as revealed in such everyday performances has great implications.

Indeed, much has been made lately about how “liberal” on racial matters the younger white generations are, presumably including numerous magazine editors. But how true is that when you get thousands of examples of blatantly racist joking from just 626 white college students in short diaries they kept for just a few weeks?


  1. Seattle in Texas

    This is sad in many respects, perhaps most of all in the message that is sent to young black women. And it’s sad that the essence of her very own beauty was robbed in the final product of her first appearance on a magazine cover. If I were her parent, grandparent, or even sibling, I would be throwing a fit demanding the magazine to correct the color. But being curious in the response of her family, I did find this article: http://www.radaronline.com/exclusives/2010/09/exclusive-interview-gabourey-sidibes-mom-speaks-out-about-her-daughters-magazine . From the mother’s perspective, I can see why she would say her daughter is beautiful no matter what skin color she is–that’s straight from the heart of a mother.

    Regardless of the position one takes on the issue, at least there’s dialogue on it. My guess though is the dialogue overwhelmingly downplays the racist undertones of this seemingly harmless visual manipulation. So what, black’s not beautiful? Oh no no no that’s not what we’re saying they’d insist. Then why’d you do it? And they’re response would be…fill in the blanks….

    Some time ago I had dressed up a white friend as Madonna for Halloween so he could “Vogue”. With that, I am personally guilty of lightening somebody’s skin color also. Not only was he a fine hair stylist, cutting edge in terms of style and fashion, but boy could he lip sync and dance to Madonna in the day. I was never personally a huge fan of Madonna, but whatever. For that, with make up and powder I lightened his skin then did the make up and hair. But that is so different from the situation above in so many respects. So I guess the purpose behind manipulating the appearance of skin tone is key, as well as the underlying messages it sends to the group of the person whose skin tone is being changed….

    When I think about celebrities being victims of the white racial frame in this sense (including face lifts), at the moment two come to mind. Mariah Carey (I don’t care what anybody says, she was so beautiful before she began making all of her changes) and Beyonce’. Today when I was in the store I saw Beyonce’ on the cover of a magazine and from afar I thought she was a white woman with a dark tan–Charlie Sheen’s ex-wife actually. It makes no sense, white women trying to darken their skin and women of color trying to lighten their skin. The latter is more disturbing because of the devaluation this society and the entertainment industry has for natural black beauty. Either way folks are profiting big time off of people trying to change their skin tones…which could be another reason why Ms. Sidibe’s skin tone was lightened up for the shot? Latent consumer effects that are highly profitable for the manufacturers of beauty supplies that involve lightening skin tones…. Sort of my thoughts on that topic….

  2. Will

    Those who need to learn about this don’t or won’t find anything wrong with what’s going on. As long as there’s money to be made from the white racial frame, it will continue.

  3. No1KState

    Unless you’re familiar with Gabby, you don’t notice – I didn’t. But looking at a side by side, they lightened it and unneccessarily so. It’s a really nice pic that could’ve been better had they maintained her skin tone. And dialed down the wind blowing in the hair. I know long straight hair is one of the basic beauty rules of the white racial frame; but her hair blowing that way just looks stupid.

    The only other possibility is that there was bad, ie standard, lighting at the shoot. Oprah’s remarked on several shows that her lighting is specifically for her complexion type, ie people of color, and white guests look better, too. So, maybe they used the standard, white model lighting – which speaks to a possible whole ‘other angle of this issue, no pun intended.

    I wish it were possible to talk about this nationally in a serious way. What’s more oppressive? Paying taxes or being told that “you’re pretty but would be sooo much prettier if you’re skin were lighter and hair straigter and longer?” (As an aside, if the admins could do a post explaining the logic equating oppression and slavery to taxes, that’d be great. If someone would be willing to guest-post for my blog, that’d be great, too.) I think the white racial frame is so pervasive that it’s hard to have an honest conversation about almost anything. Once something or someone is called-out as racist, supporters demand to know what makes it racist, then they demand to know how else to express their feelings about the particular issue. Of course, I’m all for keeping your feelings to yourself if you can’t express them without referencing racial/racist language. But to the point of Joe’s post, that fact that without racial/racist language, apparantly many whites find it difficult to describe their feelings about, say Pres Obama, speaks to how ingrained racism is.

    Moreover, it’s really insulting to know that these conversations go on and still, many whites scream bloody murder whenever we talk about institutional racism. Can anyone seriously suggest that these conversations aren’t in the back of the minds of white employers when they have to make hiring decisions? Or white loan officers when deciding whether and at what rate to give a black couple a mortgage? Or, conservative activists of any color who compare our president to a witch doctor?

    NYT did a piece on the power of language a week or so ago. One example the speaker used was the word “bridge” in Spanish and German (or maybe French. But anyway). In one language, “bridge” is feminine and in the other, masculine. So when asked to describe the ideal bridge, one speaker group says it should be long and slender while the other uses masculine terminology like strong and sturdy. Point is, I would guess that the fact that so much of what’s African American, whether presently or historically, is linked to shame, ugliness or violence and something to fear, we end up with situations that are racial/racist where the participants can’t explain their use of racial imagery or their feelings any other way. Ie, tea partyists, this ELLE cover, FORTUNE’S cover essay by D’Souza (which, btw, would probably receive an F by any credible teacher or profressor). I could go on.

    Lastly, I still don’t understand what kittens have to do with black people. Is the juxtaposition that the kittens set the person’s expectations for a really sweet card only to be lamblasted with the slur? If so, that I get. Otherwise, that’s one of obviously many racist jokes I’ve never heard.

    • ThirtyNine4Ever

      I think the “logic” that people use to equate paying taxes to slavery is really just a string of logical fallacies. After having read this blog for a few months now I have realized, man I have it pretty good!

      • Joe

        Yes, good point. That use of slavery as a metaphor for the white condition goes way back in our history. The founding “fathers” often compared their situation versus the british as one of “slavery.” They hated that thought for themselves, even as they created one of the world’s most advanced, and fully racialized, slavery systems.

      • No1KState

        So . . . it’s kinda less about paying taxes, whether or not there’s been representation, and more about maintaining a social status above blacks?

        I thought so. Just wanted to be sure.

        • ThirtyNine4Ever

          That is right, I thought about this more and I think it’s mostly about trivializing slavery. Just one of the many ways that white people can maintain our unequal society.


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