Concordia's Thursday Report

Vol. 28, No.4

October 23, 2003


From crayons to cinema: Professor Lorna Roth says biases affect how we handle colour

by Jason Gondziola

Photo of Lorna Roth

Communications Chair Lorna Roth’s paper on colour representation in industries received a great deal of interest at Harvard’s Color Line conference this fall.
Photo by Sadaf Chughtai

A paper by Communications chair Lorna Roth received a good deal of interest at Harvard’s Color Lines conference earlier this fall.

The paper, part of a larger study which Roth hopes to turn into a popular book, is entitled “More Than Skin Deep: The Color Balance Project in North American Industries of Visual Representation.” It looks at the embedded bias present in products from Crayola’s “flesh” coloured crayons to “nude” pantyhose coloured for Caucasian skin, and delves into the unique and relatively untouched area of colour correction and adjustment processes in photography, filmmaking and video.

“I’m looking at the moment historically when it became apparent to technology and product designers, film chemists, video engineers, and lighting engineers that not all skin is white,” she said. “The whole phenomenon takes place over a period of time when markets have become more and more global, when companies like Kodak have expanded their market outside of North America and have recognized their product limitations.”

The Harvard conference takes its name from a statement made by W. E. B. Dubois, who 100 years ago said that one of the greatest challenges we will face in the coming century is crossing the colour lines. As part of their Civil Rights Project, the Harvard conference was designed to act as a sort of barometer to determine how far we’ve come in this process.

When Roth submitted her abstract for this conference, the organizers were initially confused about how to classify it. “I got a letter back from the organizing committee saying that they really found my work fascinating, but they didn’t know what to do with it,” she said. “They didn’t know where it would fit into their pre-existing session categories.”

So they built a special session around Roth’s paper, entitled “The Inscription of Race in 21st Century Science and Technology,” which consisted of herself and two other presenters. Her presentation scored positive reviews from the audience, including Harvard president Lawrence Summers, who, in his closing address to the delegates, named her work as one of the three most original and foundational presentations at the conference.

“It was very well received,” said Roth. “I believe it’s quite original in that there are not many people who look at the colour-adjustment process from a technical perspective.”

Colour adjustment is used in professional film and video to ensure that people of different skin colours will be accurately represented on-screen. Roth said that there were biases inherent in the development of film and television and the ensemble of practices surrounding them that have created challenges to be overcome.

“When film developed it was created with Caucasian skin tone and reflectivity in mind,” she said, adding that dark-skinned people would show up very poorly on these films in the absence of compensatory lighting. She gave the example of actress Whoopi Goldberg. “Even today, unless expensive, redesigned cameras are used, the portrayal of Whoopi Goldberg so that she looks ‘normal’ has required a focused attention on compensatory lighting in every single shot. In every frame Whoopi is in, she is lit differently from those with lighter-skin colours.”

The challenge, according to Roth, is to move beyond compensatory lighting and to develop better technologies to represent the variety of skin colours available. This is already being done in places like Japan, where she said that cameras have been specially calibrated, and in Holland, where Philips Electronics has created a camera that is more considerate of issues around skin. And, of course, digital image software such as Photoshop has introduced flexibility in the industry, though it, too, is not without its cultural biases.

Roth was quick to point out that she doesn’t believe these shortcomings stem from malevolence or even intention, but rather from what Joyce E. King has termed “dysconscious racism,” which Roth said arose from a particular historical period when certain unchallenged assumptions were made, and which have been carried forward to this day.

“I think that these things are so deeply rooted in our cognitive systems of thinking that we don’t even recognize that we have these biases,” she said. “They’re so pervasive, so cognitively embedded — ideologically embedded — that most people have no idea that this is what is happening.”

She hopes this work will change these biases, by challenging their underlying assumptions and by encouraging industry people to address their technological and product shortcomings. They can do this by shifting their norm reference from one of whiteness to one of skin-colour ranges.