Preventing prejudice with paintings

by Tori Bilcik / Beacon Correspondent • February 12, 2014

Taylor Jett, co-president of EBONI, an event for African-American Heritage Month.
Taylor Jett, co-president of EBONI, an event for African-American Heritage Month.

In celebration of African-American Heritage Month, Emerson’s Black Organization with Natural Interests, a group that supports black culture on campus, is hosting a number of events over the course of the month. Its primary goal is to educate the Emerson community about issues that still exist today within the race, and what they can do to solve them, according to president Donovan Birch Jr., a senior communication studies major.

One of these upcoming events is the Colorism Student Exhibit, a collection of visual art, both original and collected from popular culture, put together by Birch. The presentation will be on display in the Multipurpose Room of Piano Row Feb. 18 from 6-8 p.m.

“Colorism is kind of like a form of racism within the black race,” said Taylor Jett, a sophomore visual and media arts major and the co-vice president of EBONI. “There’s a lot of discrimination among different shades [of skin tone], so we’re trying to raise awareness about colorism, where we let people know why it shouldn’t be as prominent as it is in today’s society.”

The event, according to Birch, is meant to raise awareness of black history and encourage more of a community of inclusion at Emerson through education. He compiled a combination of student work and images, videos, advertisements, and other works from around the world to put together a display of examples of this problem in a contemporary way.

According to Drexel University assistant teaching professor of Africana Studies Yaba Blay in an interview with Ebony magazine, this type of prejudice dates back to the beginning of American slavery, when African-American slaves with darker skin tones were given worse treatment than those with light complexions. But the problem with this predisposed feeling is far from solved, according to Alexis Bradley, a freshman visual and media arts major and co-vice president of EBONI.

“It still affects people, and it shows that slavery is still affecting us now,” she said. “The fact that it still affects us now shows that we still need to talk about it.”

The source of much of this friction within the black community comes from the media, according to Birch. Oftentimes, Birch said, sexualized and propagandized advertisements, TV shows, movies, and other forms of entertainment associate beauty with how European a person looks, as depicted in the pieces on display at the exhibit.

 “It’s important to see what society continues to perpetuate, and how it affects people,” said Birch. “What people don’t know is that these images are making black people want to be lighter, and it’s detrimental to their physical and emotional health.”

Birch said the organization chooses a specific topic for African-American Heritage Month each year, and that theme changes the inspiration for the events they host.

“The theme for the year is self-reflection,” said Birch, “so we’re looking at [pieces to present that illustrate] all the things that have affected people of color and what still affects us and where we want to go.”

 The idea for the Colorism event came about back in December because, according to Jett, EBONI was looking for a way to educate the community about colorism in a way that’s more interactive than a panel discussion or guest speaker for a lecture.

“We thought this would be a different way to get the word out,” said Jett, “and illuminate the different problems within the race itself.”

The goal is not only to call viewers to action, wrote Birch in an email to the Beacon, but to offer students a chance to expand their minds and provide them with new understanding for a topic unfamiliar to many.

“It’s important for students to become more knowledgeable about this,” said Bradley. “You can’t fight against something if you don’t have the knowledge.”