March 11, 2021 - The 2021 University of Houston Law Center Spring Workshop Series, “Race, Social Change, and the Law,” featured Professor Trina Jones of Duke Law School last week. Jones presented her project, “Racialized Appearance Norms: Testing Law’s Limits,” and discussed with Dean Leonard M. Baynes, students, and faculty the implications of and possible legal remedies for discrimination based on skin color and hair.
Jones began by citing high-profile examples of colorism, or the differential treatment of same-race individuals based on skin color, noting that Beyoncé is viewed differently than contemporary artist India Arie, for example. She also cited discussions in the media that centered on shadism, with everything from comments about former president Barack Obama’s appearance to actress Lupita Nyong’o’s.
“Colorism is practiced by both whites and nonwhites,” she said. “Lightness is associated with pureness and good, and darkness is associated with dirt and death.”
Jones noted this also exists in language. For example, there’s a multitude of terms with negative connotations that include “black,” such as “black market” and “blackmail.” She said advertisements for skin-lightening products are still prevalent today around the world, even though they contain harmful elements like mercury. Notable figures such as former MLB player Sammy Sosa, were known to use these products.
In her project, Jones said she will seek to examine the legal frameworks for and the implications of this discrimination. She noted that hair incites discrimination since natural, kinkier hair is often viewed as nonwhite, unkempt, and unprofessional. Jones said she’s most interested in the intersection of skin color and hair.
“Hair is used to not only distinguish between racial categories but also among people of the same race,” Jones said. “Black individuals who wear their hair straight are less likely to be subject to discrimination than those with natural hair or natural hair styles.”
During the question-and-answer period, topics such as gender expectations, social climbing, cultural appropriation, and the effectiveness of anti-discrimination law were raised. The difference in the color perspective among racial and ethnic groups was also discussed, as well as who judges and makes distinctions. Jones cited Brazil as an example of a place with many varying skin colors and more nuances among them.
Jones also made a point about gender, saying for women there’s an emphasis on beauty and physical appearance, whereas with men their money or status is viewed as more important.
With a rise in EEOC claims, Jones said the proposed CROWN Act would ban race discrimination based on natural hair or natural hairstyles. She noted that at least seven states have passed the legislation and hopes that more states, and ultimately the U.S. Congress, will do so as well.
As far as the future, Jones cited a theory by Professor Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, who predicts the U.S. is shifting toward a more nuanced three-tiered racial hierarchy of white, light-skinned and biracial, and darker tones.
“We’ve seen the ‘it’ girls become Beyoncé, Rihanna, Shakira, and Cardi B,” she said. “But there’s not been much of a shift with darker tones.”
Jones teaches Civil Procedure, Employment Discrimination, Race and the Law, and Critical Race Theory at the Duke University School of Law. She focuses her scholarly research and writing on racial and socioeconomic inequality and is a leading legal expert on colorism. Jones is a graduate of Cornell University and the University of Michigan Law School, and her notable works include “The Law of Skin Color, Aggressive Encounters & White Fragility: Deconstructing the Trope of the Angry Black Woman,” “A Different Class of Care: The Benefits Crisis and Low-Wage Workers,” and "Law and Class in America: Trends Since the Cold War.”
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