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Feminspire | July 10, 2014

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Whitewashed Journalism: Why Do Only White-Passing Latinas Make it To Our Screens?

Whitewashed Journalism: Why Do Only White-Passing Latinas Make it To Our Screens?

| On 05, Jul 2013

The embarrassingly low number of Latinas hosting shows on English-language news networks or leading mainstream cable news programs can intimidate any Latina hoping to make a career in news media. But realizing that the bulk of these women could pass as white can deter interested and talented Afro-Latinas from even pursuing a job in the field.

Chicana scholar Gloria Anzaldúa regularly reminded readers that Latinas are mestiza, a mixture of races and cultures. But the diverse range of features that Latinas posses because of their mixed ancestry is repeatedly ignored, with only light-skinned Latinas “graced” with strong European genes capturing the media’s attention.

Colorism, a form of discrimination where one group is treated more favorably based on the color of their skin, is often discussed in its relation to dark-skinned African-American women in the media.

It’s rarely mentioned, however, that this same problem plagues Black Latinas.

Although there’s a dearth of Afro-Latinas in television (Hey, La La!), film (Thanks, Zoe, Christina and Rosario) and advertising (Yay, Joan!), it’s the whitewashing of Latinas in the news media that’s most prevalent.

Last year, the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) announced that Hispanics make up 7.8 percent of the television news force, while the American Society of News Editors’ (ASNE) records showed that the group makes up just 4.1 percent of staff members at daily newspapers.

While representations of Latinas in the news media have increased over the past decade, the images viewers see when they flip to their favorite local or cable news stations are often the same: white.

Although the Latino culture and identity is a mix of its Spanish, indigenous and African roots, the Latina anchors are typically lighter skinned with more European phenotypes.

Does this just mean that Black Latinas aren’t really interested in broadcast journalism?

Gwen IfillGwen Ifill, an Afro-Latina of Barbadian and Panamanian descent, is a moderator and managing editor of “Washington Week” and senior correspondent for The PBS NewsHour.

I don’t think so.

And there are several Afro-Latina bloggers and citizen journalists on my Tumblr dashboard who could confirm that.

So why is it so difficult to find dark-skinned Latinas in the news media?

My theory: colonial ideas of power and beauty.

In the U.S., Latinos in power are rarely dark-skinned. In fact, studies and articles repeatedly show that skin tones and racial features frequently determine who gets ahead and who doesn’t.

Cristina Saralegui, one of the most influential Latina talk-show hosts, and Jennifer Lopez, one of the highest-paid actresses in the world, were both able to break barriers that Black Latinas have not even been close to shattering.

Also worth noting is the fact that lighter-skinned Latinos in the United States make $5,000 more on average than darker-skinned Latinos.

From media, to business, to politics, Latinos in positions of power are predominately light-skinned. The phenotype of these women, and men, resemble the most powerful, revealing that whiteness still prevails.

The mainstream beauty ideal, which is almost exclusively white, I believe, also inhibits Afro-Latinas from making strides in broadcast news media.

In a 2001 study done by the University of Florida, researchers found that the greatest barrier facing women anchors was the “overemphasis of their physical appearance.”

In other words, writing and editing abilities, ethics, journalistic content and newsgathering skills are all, according to the 246 local news anchors surveyed, second to image and beauty.

We inhabit a society that idealizes light skin tones, straight hair, thin bodies and European facial features, meaning that Black women – including Afro-Latinas – with their dark skin, kinky hair and African phenotypes, don’t fit the dominant idea of beauty that news directors are looking for.

Feeling the pressure to fit this unattainable, colonial idea of beauty, more and more Afro-Latinas are resorting to dangerous measures like using daily skin bleaching creams and chemically straightening their hair.

But the white ideal even affects Latinas in the journalism field who are closest to the standard. Light-skinned Latina journalists like Cecilia Vega, Natalie Morales and numerous others regularly straighten and lighten their hair, making them appear almost indistinguishable from their white female colleagues.

Highlighting these Latina journalists is not an attempt on my end to pit dark-skinned Latinas and light-skinned Latinas against each other. In fact, I’m a light-skinned Latina with naturally straight, light hair and relatively European features trying to make it into news media.

My point is to spotlight the unearned privileges afforded to women with more European aesthetics and to remind media critics that Black Latinas, like all Black women, are impacted by colorism, too.

Latinos are the largest ethnic minority group in the United States. It would seem that now, more than ever, we’d have diverse newsrooms with writers, anchors and news directors reflecting the country’s racial and ethnic makeup.

As a Latina and young multimedia journalist, I am overjoyed each time I see Latina journalists like Cecilia Vega, Natalie Morales and Michelle Caruso-Cabrera make strides in news media. But knowing that Afro-Latina Soledad O’Brien’s major cable news show was recently kicked off of CNN while the network’s new white, male hire Jake Tapper became “the face of the new CNN” reminds me of how much more needs to be done for all Latinas trying to make their mark in journalism.

I want to see more Latinas like Elizabeth Vargas, as well as Mimi Valdes and Gwen Ifill writing and presenting the news.

I want to see blonde, faired-skinned women like my cousins, olive-skinned, straight-haired women like me, and dark-skinned, thick-haired women like my mother representing the spectrum of Latinas in all areas of the media, especially in the influential and inspiring field of news media.

Are you an Afro-Latina journalist or journalism student? If so, what do you think about colorism in journalism?

Written by Raquel Reichard
Follow her on Twitter!

  • Alicia V. Perez

    I’m an Afro-Latina journalist and I’m still in shock that someone actually mentioned this problem. It really does go un-noticed. This is true even on Primer Impacto, and other Spanish news stations.

    • Raquel Reichard

      This problem came to my attention early in my j-school career. I come from a highly populated Latino community, but I was noticing that all of the Latina news anchors were light-skinned and had straightened and dyed their hair blonde. I’ve been wanting to write about it for a while. I’m happy you found the piece :).

  • Sully

    I feel that in Latin America as well it is usually lighter-skinned people in the media and in power, so it doesn’t just become a problem when people from Latin America move to the United States. I’ll always remember when an African-American classmate in my Hispanic Marketing class was surprised that there were black people in Latin America too. Having grown up in Panama to me it seemed obvious, but thinking about it, how could she have known if the image Latin American media imports tends to be of lighter-skinned people?

    I have mid-tone skin and curly hair, and neither in the US nor in Latin America have I ever seen a Latina news anchor leave her hair curly. Panama at least seems to have an obsession with making hair as straight as possible.

    • Raquel Reichard

      Absolutely. As I noted in the article, I’m light-skinned with naturally straight hair. A lot of the members of my father’s family have green eyes, light, straight hair and very slim body types. While my mother and her family are all Afro-Latinos with dark skin, thick (wavy, curly or kinky) hair and are more curvy. I literally came out right in the middle of these two types, so I’m very aware of the range of Latino aesthetics. It’s always crazy to me that others are not and think that Latina equals Jennifer Lopez; but, as you said, if that’s the only image they see, then how would they know otherwise? That’s particularly why I tend to write on these topics so often.

      Thanks for your commentary!

  • BellaVida

    Great article. Definitely an issue that requires more attention.

  • Evil Unicorn

    Some “Latinas” are naturally white looking with light brown/dark blonde straight hair and very fair skinned. Not all Latinas are dark or light brown with curly hair.

    • terrence

      Well the best latinas are the ones with color