University of Michigan community members gathered on Nov. 8 for the speaker series at the School of Social Work. Led by Mara Cecilia Ostfeld, assistant professor at the Ford School of Public Policy, the speaker series was about her recent book co-authored with Nicole Yadon, “Skin Color, Power, and Politics in America.”
Ostfeld’s research focuses on the relationship between gender, race, the media and people’s political opinions. Her book discusses the importance and history of skin color in the United States, as well as the connections between skin color and political identities.
The speaker series, titled Real World Perspectives on Poverty Solutions, was accessible to anyone, free of cost. Some U-M students engaged in these talks as part of a one-credit course, SWK 503. Participants involved in the series had the opportunity to learn about the impacts of poverty in America from various speakers such as Ostfeld.
Ostfeld discussed different methods of evaluating skin color and its relationship to political identity. The machine-rated skin color method, Ostfeld described, measures how much light is reflected off a surface. It is used to identify skin color as lighter and darker skin colors vary in how much light is reflected. Cosmetic stores often use these machines to assist customers in finding a shade that matches their skin tone. Self-assessed skin color, on the other hand, is when individuals choose how they identify themselves, Ostfeld added.
“Measurement matters,” Ostfeld said. “Machine-rated skin color was capturing lived experiences whereas the self-assessed color was capturing how people wanted to position themselves in response to the ways that skin color is politicized in America.”
LSA freshman Devanshi Shah came to the talk as a part of Trevor Bechtel’s class on Poverty Solutions. She said an eye-opening moment was when Ostfeld discussed the pattern of how Latin Americans often follow conservative politics.
“There is a pattern of (Latin Americans) feeding into conservative politics — I never really stopped to think about why,” Shah said. “(Dr. Ostfeld) talked about how she was able to learn how skin color was at play in this phenomenon through the talk.”
Bechtel, student engagement and strategic projects manager for Poverty Solutions, commented on the presentation and the connection between human prejudice and American politics.
“I thought that Mara gave an excellent talk connecting enduring human prejudice to our political climate,” Bechtel said. “We have learned throughout the speaker series about how unfair structures in our society — criminal justice, medical and municipal debt, markets for coffee and cannabis — impoverish people and reduce economic opportunity … Mara Ostfeld connects these concrete structures to our implicit biases and showed what a significant challenge overcoming that lack of fairness is but also how important it is that we strive to do so.”
During the session, Ostfeld also discussed the results and implications of her research pertaining to skin color and its significance in society.
“Skin color matters,” Ostfeld said. “Skin color measurement matters. Skin color is playing an important tool in how Americans negotiate shifts in radicalized power structures. As the meaning and location of boundaries between ethno-racial categories become less clear, the significance of skin color will likely increase.”
Luke Shaefer, professor at the School of Social Work and the associate dean for academic affairs at the Ford School of Public Policy, commented on Ostfeld’s presentation and the importance of Ostfeld’s work.
“I thought Mara’s presentation was fascinating, and her work is an important contribution to a growing body of literature documenting the importance of the spectrum of skin color in understanding a host of critical social and economic outcomes,” Shaefer said. “I hope everyone will watch the presentation. The entire series has brought in an amazing slate of speakers with expertise across a diverse range of issues impacting poverty. I have learned a lot!”