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A majority of African American students polled at a Midwestern university say lighter complexions are more attractive than darker ones, according to a study conducted by researchers from two Louisiana schools.
The results, taken from a sample of 100 students, indicated that 96 percent of the men preferred a medium to light complexion in women while 70 percent of women found light skin of value in men.
This latest analysis of mating preferences explored a number of probable causes, all of which were rooted in the “colorism” prevalent from slavery through the 1960s, where lighter skin typically meant more privilege. The results were published in 2006 in the journal Race, Gender and Class.
Ashraf Esmail, a sociology and criminal justice professor at Delgado Community College in New Orleans, and Jas M. Sullivan, an assistant professor of political science and African American Studies at Louisiana State University, conducted the study.
According to Sullivan, its purpose was to test whether the color line continues to be a problem for the African American community.
The researchers asked 50 African American men and 50 African American women, all students at a large Midwestern university, to participate in semi-structured interviews. The university was not named in the study and Sullivan declined to provide the name for this story.
The students were all between 18 and 19 years old with complexions ranging from light to dark. Each subject was shown pictures of light, medium and dark-skinned men or women from fashion magazines and asked to rate the images based on attractiveness. In addition, each respondent was asked questions about their mating preferences in terms of skin color and about the value of skin color in the African American community.
One reason for the difference in answers between African American men and African American women, according to the authors, is that women tended to take more characteristics into account, such as lips, hair, eyes, height and style of dress, when determining a man’s attractiveness.
The interviews pointed to slavery and a social stigma attached to darker skin.
Both men and women cited media as a driving force in the preference for lighter skin.
“When you talk to a guy, he thinks that he wants a perfect girl he sees on the videos. Usually, the women portrayed in the videos are light-skinned and have long hair,” said one respondent.
Still, another participant argued that African Americans don’t divide themselves based on light and dark complexions. Rather, the greater issue is color prejudice in the United States as a whole.
Analysis for the Esmail-Sullivan study took place in 2000. Though it is the most recent on the subject, its results differ dramatically from an earlier study of African American college students conducted in 1997.
Louie E. Ross, then associate professor of sociology at Fayetteville State University in Fayetteville, N.C., interviewed 149 African American men and 236 African American women for his study, “Mate Selection Preferences among African American College Students.” His research was conducted on the campuses of two historically black institutions in the Southeast; one public and one private.
The Ross study indicated that only 16.4 percent of women would prefer to date a person of a lighter complexion and 16.8 percent of women would want to marry a person with light skin. The study showed that 33.3 percent of men preferred to date a person of a lighter complexion and 38.3 would prefer lighter skin in a marriage partner.
The New York Times reported on May 30 that the most popular cosmetic products among modern Indian women are those that lighten the skin. Didier Villanueva, country manager for L’Oreal India, said in the article that “fairness creams” account for half of India’s skin care market.
In the 2005 book “Fair Women, Dark Men: The Forgotten Roots of Color Prejudice,” Canadian anthropologist Peter Frost reports that lighter women were preferred in medieval Japan, Aztec Mexico and Moorish Spain, even before there was significant contact with Western ideology.
Other studies published by Esmail and Sullivan include: “Black Candidates in Search of Electoral Support: Is Success Dependent on Residential Integration and Social Interaction?” (2003), “Interaction Patterns between Black and White College Students: For Better or Worse?” (2002), and “From Racial Uplift to Personal Economic Security: Declining Idealism in Black Education” (2002).
(Posted on June 14, 2007)