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

Cecilia Vega, ABC News Correspondent
Cecilia Vega, ABC News Correspondent

By Raquel Reichard

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 possess 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 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.
Gwen 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 news-gathering 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.

Raquel is a Latina feminist, multimedia journalist and social media strategist based in Orlando, Florida. In just a few months, she’ll be trading in her sandals for boots to work on her MA in women’s studies and new media at NYU. Follow her on Twitter @raquelreichard.

Originally published at Feminspire on July 5, 2013; cross-posted with permission. 

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

  1. the same could be true for fat woman (of any color). how many fat women are in the media? it’s all about young, thin, and upper class.

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