Why Isn’t Hurdler Dawn Harper Getting Her Due?

by Stacia L. Brown

In a recent interview with KNBC-TV’s Michael Brownlee, U.S. hurdles champion Dawn Harper lamented the fact that her competitor Lolo Jones gets a ton of press, while she gets very little. “Since the ['08 Beijing] Olympics, [Jones] hasn’t really beaten me outdoors at all,” Harper pointed out.

If Harper’s the more consistent athlete, ousting all competition, including Jones, on a regular basis, what reasons might there be for her comparatively low amount of media attention?

Have we gotten to the point where every athlete needs a human interest hook in order to gain media attention for their athletic performance? Has being in the top one percent of the population in terms of speed, strength, and endurance stopped being interesting enough? Jones has gained notoriety in recent months for discussing her virginity — and dating woes related to it — in interviews. Before this, only fans who followed her events were familiar with her.

Is it possible that, because Harper (or her publicist) hasn’t found a way to market her effectively to the press and the public, her athletic successes are being eclipsed by Jones’ personal life? Or is the reason even shallower: Does Jones fit the U.S. media’s standard of mainstream beauty more than Harper does? More specifically: Might colorism be to blame for Harper’s media snubs?

It’s no secret that, in terms of marketing and advertising, complexion factors into casting. In an April 2012 article in The Philadelphia Tribune, A. Bruce Crawley reports that a recent casting call for an Acura television commercial specified its desire for an African-American man, “friendly, but not too dark.” The incident was leaked and a larger discussion ensued about the public’s persistent associations with dark skin as untrustworthy, suspicious, and unfriendly:

In a 2008 doctoral thesis, “Effect of African-American Skin Tone on Advertising Communication,” Yuvay Jeanine Meyers set out to determine how the “skin tone” of a black model in an advertisement affects specific outcome measures of advertising.”

According to the study, “More favorable attitudes were formed when the black model’s skin tone was ‘light,’ as opposed to when the black model’s skin was ‘dark.’”

The author cited earlier studies, including one from 2005, on the subject of “colorism,” i.e., the process of discrimination that gives privilege to people of a lighter skin tone over their dark-skinned counterparts.

Meyers’ scientific analysis considered the fact that the advertising industry, in trying to make the most favorable and productive use of black models and actors, certainly needed to have a clear understanding of “colorism” and its potential impact on its clients’ sales.

Could the pervasiveness of colorism in advertising be a factor in rerouting the endorsement deals that could be Harper’s to the lighter-skinned Jones? It’s an idea worth considering, as is the idea that she isn’t “interesting enough” off the track to warrant the non-sports enthusiast’s notice. The Philly Tribune article went on to note:

… In a study done in 2006, a majority of African-American college students at a Midwestern university said that, “Lighter complexions are more attractive than darker ones.” Indeed, 96 percent of the men preferred a medium-to-light complexion in women, while “70 percent of women found light skin of value in men.”

These stats could be used to account for how seldom brown-skinned women are featured in sex-selling sports spreads like Sports Illustrated‘s Swimsuit issue and ESPN the Magazine‘s Body issue (the latter of which featured Jones in the nude in 2009. Though the issue also featured a nude Serena Williams on its cover, the tennis phenom was considered an anomaly, while women with complexions closer to Jones’ appeared in abundance).

What do you think? Is Dawn Harper’s publicist to blame for not marketing her with a “human interest” angle? Or is the public’s colorism at the core of Harper’s dearth of endorsements and acclaim?

  • AJ

    “might colorism be to blame for Harper’s media snubs?”

    Not even. Not in this case. I don’t think colorism has anything to do with it, in this case. There have been wayyy too many Black women track and field champs to justify that. FloJo and Jackie Joyner got equal coverage when they were in their prime, and Jackie Joyner probably got even more than Flo Jo, even though Flo Jo was lighter. Also, the newest Olympian, Gabby Douglas, got a lot of coverage and talked about as having great “covergirl” looks, and she is also dark-skinned. And finally,although racists continue to try to trash athletes like Serena and Venus, they get major media coverage, with much of it positive.

    Don’t let the racists and the haters get you with their head games. As much as they hate Black women, particularly dark skinned, when you’re good enough all they have left is their jealousy and anger, so yes, they hate, but are still forced to appreciate. Dawn Harper just needs to do some better advertising of herself. Lolo Jones is making waves because she’s willing to be extra personal in a public manner about her virginity, life, etc.

  • YB

    Does the question even need to be asked? Black folks need to stop acting brand new, and acknowledge that colorism is an issue in our community, and has been for centuries.

    Denial solves nothing.

  • Jess

    I agree. What I find amazing is that these views are not only still pervasive in this day and age, but common, ie the norm. Happened to run in to a friend of a friend recently at an event, and she proceeded to point out all of the “fine” men in the room to me. Low and behold all her so called “fine” choices were light bright. So I asked her what the deal was, how about that fiiine chocolate brother with the pretty skin across the way? She let me know in no uncertain terms that he was much too dark for her. I had to get away from her after that, in case ignorance is indeed catching.This is a highly educated woman, not a backwoods hood rat. If we can’t appreciate the beauty in the varying shades of Black, if we still perform the paper bag test ritually, how then can we complain when White people do?

  • Akosua

    I agree. In a white supremacy system it is expected. Sadly, it is within the AA community that it is most insidious. The broader society is actually taking its’ cues from for the AA community (specially from AA men).

  • Kenzy

    I am not sure it is colorism in this instance but more so beauty standards of our society. Im sure if she were an attractive lady (by society standards not mine) then she might receive more attention then. She has strong manly facial features. I have not seen her body as this is my first time hearing of her where as Lolo Jones still has a feminine face. Also, sadly now-a-days you do need a “gimmick” or a “side story” to tell. Its not right but it is what it is. Did you grow up poor? Struggle through college? Break a toenail and almost lost a toe in 2nd grade?? any sob story sells and makes the public want to root for you and choose you. On this one I am actually going to blame it predominately on a weak publicity team. Do you think we all needed to know or cared Lolo Jones was a virgin?? NO but that was her “angle” and that her publicity team did what they were suppose to do…take a minuscule bit of information and turn into something big to get the public interested in her.

  • YB

    If that this woman is masculine then you have a warped sense and femininity and masculinity, or perhaps associate masculinity with black features. If any thing Lolo Jones is more masculine with her thin lips and strong chin, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that Jones is still a pretty girl. Masculine features on women doesn’t not equal ugly.

    Funny how you noticed masculine features on this woman but not Lolo. I guess light skin takes the focus off of ones facial features.

  • d

    Thanks Yb

    This lady does not have masculine features at all. Ignore the kenzys of the world.

  • df

    LOL…what strong, manly features does she have? Google her pictures look closely at her and please pin point the strong, manly features……

    btw here’s a link to a picture with both dawn and lolo:http://www4.pictures.gi.zimbio.com/Damu+Cherry+Dawn+Harper+2008+Olympic+Team+mXDIhhTKq_cl.jpg

    If dawn has strong manly features like you say, then well so does lolo…her jawline is even stronger….

    anyway…too easy…if you can’t see beauty beyond what’s flashed at you, that’s your own problem…

  • df

    Yeah this is happening all because of The media and therefore society’s (because let’s face it we are population full of sheep) narrow spectrum of acceptable beauty…what’s new? I hope she doesn’t let it get to her, the people that matter know her athletic abilities and she will prove her strength as an athlete. I hope and bet she knows she beautiful as she is…she definitely knows what is at work though…

    Either way, let’s keep celebrating hte FULL spectrum of our powerful black beauty. Others are starting to catch on but it honestly doesn’t matter because it’s what we think about ourselves that matters the most.

  • http://gravatar.com/womenar4 womenar4

    I think it has a lot to do with being “trendy” and she is a great athlete. But that’s not enough. Think about all the people ie “celebrities” and athletes we hear about. They all have some type of drama. Drama sells now. People just living their lives with little to no drama gets no love. That’s the bad part. I would love to see more of Dawn especially since the Olympics are next month.

  • http://twitter.com/veezworld Vee Edwards (@veezworld)

    I agree with AJ, this particular story isn’t about colorism, it’s about the publicity machine. Lolo Jones has a compelling backstory that many people know through her effective use of social and traditional media. In addition, we all saw her fall apart after her stumble in the last Olympics and we want to see her triumph. As an avid track and fan, I know Dawn Harper’s name and face and have seen her run, but know nothing else about her. It takes effort, but putting yourself out there on social media will reap rewards.

  • rando

    All this time I thought Lolo was white. I also don’t care about what she does with her vagina so I hate her public interest story. It’s so stupid.

  • beezy

    Lolo Jones getting more coverage than Dawn Harper is a credit to Lolo’s team. It’s simple. It’s an Olympic year. Which means a big year for a sport that doesn’t get full season coverage. And it may be the last time Lolo will qualify for an Olympic team, if you factor in age. If she wasn’t doing well throughout the season than she needs to make money off of other things, like endorsements, tv show appearances, etc. So a good marketing team is going to find outlets to market their client. And that’s what they have done all season.

    In 08, she was favored to win and in a second she went from first to last and lost to who…Dawn Harper. Ask someone what happened in the 08 hurdles final and everyone remembers Lolo losing, not Dawn winning. Whenever something happens like that, the focus remains on how the favorite didn’t win instead of how an underdog did. Lolo team probably understands that, outside of the track world, she is known more than Dawn Harper and they are taking advantage.

    Not everything is colorism. Yeah it happens but keep thinking its the root of everything and your going to begin to internalize it. The author of this article didn’t mention Carmelita Jeter, a beautiful brown skinned girl who is favored to win the 100m, being in the ESPN body issue that was just released. Same thing. Her stock as an athlete is rising so take advantage. It is not so much a company/sponsor reaching out to athletes. Its more so the representation reaching out to a company saying. “Get my client on board.” Maybe Harper needs a bigger push.

  • Kenzy

    well i see people like to pick and choose what they read and not on the main issue or even read in context. Ignored a whole paragraph to focus on one sentence (things will never change smh) At any rate, as my comment came to the conclusion First, I believe its due to a weak publicity team not manly features or colorism. 2nd, I have ONLY seen both of these women via clutch articles (Dawn in video Lolo in pictures) and in my eyes (sorry im afraid I cannot share that particular vantage point) Dawn has manly features… TO ME, the pictures I saw of Lolo she did not. And honestly it was NOT that serious to me to go researching pictures of the both of them as you all seem to have done. 3rd, I never said Dawn wasnt beautiful, in fact I made sure to say society standards NOT MINE, but that was ignored too (which makes me realize I dont even know why I am responding to people who cant read but since ive typed this much). In the end, just as some women find Morris Chestnut fine and other do not “beauty” or in this case manly features IS in the eye of the beholder, everyone will not find everyone else beautiful or see the same traits. you all dont think she has manly facial features, great throw a parade about it, however I do. I will go back to my “problems” now and refrain from anymore responses. Good day

  • Pseudonym

    I never heard of Lolo Jones until she announced to the world that she is a virgin. I think THAT’S why she’s getting more press. (Just look at what coming out as bi/gay did for Frank Ocean. EVERYONE I know was listening to that album today.)

  • http://afrikanmami.blogspot.com African Mami

    In as much as colorism may have or rather is playing a role in the marketing of Ms.Harper, ultimately, her marketing team is responsible for getting her endorsements,

  • Jess

    Is that Jason Momoa in your pic? Khal Drogo himself? Dammnnn he fine.

  • who run the world?…GOD

    I think Dawn Harper is gorg!!

  • simplyme

    There may be some colorism involved… but thats definitely overshadowed by Lolo Jones’ story. So we will never know. If Lolo Jones had a darker skin tone I’m pretty sure she would still have more press.

    I haven’t updated on this in a while so correct me if I’m wrong, but Lolo holds the American record in 60m hurdles. She went from not even being in the top 8 for the US to that. That automatically made her an olympic favorite in Beijing, but she tragically hit the 9th hurdle when she was about to win and Dawn Harper won instead. It was a big story at the time. She also had medical issues including spine surgery I believe…. So its all sort of an “underdog/comeback” story. It also helps that shes very active on twitter where she can garner fans and press by sharing her personal life…maybe a little too much..the whole virginity thing etc.

    However, I’d love to learn more about Dawn Harper. I think she may need a new publicist or… maybe her story is just not as interesting. Some times consistently good is boring….see the San Antonio Spurs.

  • Pingback: Is Olympian Harper Being Ignored Because of Colorism? | OTS Networks

  • http://jenellejones.com Jenelle Jones

    It’s not about colorism… We are all American. We want a gold medal. She got us a gold medal. She needs to get a new publicist.

  • http://www.facebook.com/InthenameoftheRose Chris Allen

    I googled a bunch of images of Ms. Harper, and while *some* of the media’s “attention for the other person” may be because we’re a culture addicted to sensationalism, etc. so they went with the scandal/sex instead of the athletic prowess of Ms. Harper… skin tone *may* be part of it, but I doubt it’s all of it. In looking at her pictures, I noticed something else:

    Ms. Harper is a beautiful lady, but her features fall a bit outside what some dumb people are comfortable with: NOT the relative “African-ness” of her features—it’s gender. Specifically, like mine, her features often show as more angular than rounded; and certain expressions in her face create even more straight lines. In short, she has one of those faces that, in certain expressions or from certain angles, may trigger a response of “she looks more ‘masculine’ than feminine,” especially when she grimaces during exertion. Given the strong reaction and outright uneasiness a (dumb) chunk of our culture feels toward GLBT people, the “masculine tone” her features take on sometimes, may play into the lack of media attention she gets. She also has a very wide, bright smile that tends to go toward straight lines.

    I think she’s beautiful. I think she has a unique face, terrific skin tone, very happy and confident grin, and a strong, lanky physique that shows her power in her sport while also being feminine. But, our culture has a bias against darker skin tones (as the writer observed), and it *also* has a bias against people of one gender who display (through genetics or through deliberate clothing choice etc.) physical characteristics they attribute to the opposite gender.

    In short, some of it may be racial bias, but some of it may be gender bias and our culture’s inability to see real beauty when it’s right *there*—because we’ve stuck “beauty” into a narrow little box containing a tiny number of extremely specific characteristics. I’m an artist, so I noticed and studied the straight lines and angles her face sometimes displays (her body too), and realized that some people would call those “masculine” and then be uncomfortable with her. It’s silly, it’s stupid, (she’s gorgeous)—but there you go: people are often silly and stupid when it comes to whether another person looks “feminine enough” or “masculine enough” to them. *rolleyes*

    (FYI, beginning portrait artists are often told, “men’s faces tend to have many more angles and harder straight lines; women’s faces tend to have softer, more curved lines.” In general, this is true (and we subconsciously look for what our brains have tagged as “masculine” and “feminine”)—BUT, that doesn’t take into account the terrific diversity of nature, nor how a great many people have some kind of mix of straight lines and curved lines in their features, regardless of gender.)

  • Jess

    I agree with AJ. Dark skinned Olympians and track stars have always gotten abundant media coverage,and usually for their successes in their sport. They rarely ever had to talk about being virgins or their sexuality to gain coverage. In this case, the media wants sensationalism (and to compete with the popularity of the dumb topics of reality tv) and Lolo Jones provides it. Just because the light skinned girl gets coverage this time does not indicate colorism. Yes, usually the media DOES practice colorism and blatant racism but they are not doing it here.

    Harper is making her self look bad by complaining and coming off as sore loser, jealous or needy attention hog.

  • Chabie

    It is denial to say its Harper’s marketing team. They’re up against it BECAUSE she’s dark, if anything. First, most blacks in general do sports that are, shall we say, “more affordable”–doesn’t cost much to run … there you will find, just by numbers, more dark skinned people/women who make it to track/field fame, because black people do “running”. THAT accounts for the variety of skin tones, and if you HAVE to endorse a track star, the star is most likely not pale, but brown or dark. Just the numbers. When it comes to male athletes, the media coverage is balanced (let’s call them a ‘control’, attention based on athletic merit), but when it comes to women … things get spliced up in all kinds of ways. Harper’s instincts are correct: she’s not seen as appealing, but is it because she is not, or because she is dark? I think its because she’s dark, because there are plenty of unappealing athletes who get media attention and endorsements, and sports tends to USUALLY make it about what they DO, not how they look, but not with women. Next, let’s look at that infamous “doll test” again: Researchers noticed that black kids picked the white dolls MOST of the time for ALL positive attributes, yes. But what they rarely point out is that they have 3 to 5 dolls, all different colors. When asked about ALL (I mean ALL) negative attributes, they skipped all the dolls in the middle (tan, red, brownish) and pointed straight at THE DARKEST DOLL without a thought, just as they automatically picked the white doll for good stuff. This is why lighter skinned and even brown-skinned blacks can holler racism, but have trouble relating to the multi-dimensional, every-aspect-of-life weight of color on their own darkest sisters and brothers. its the same thing: racism and colorism are the same, and just as whites play dumb (or are) when it comes to black needs, light and brown-skinned black folks act clueless when someone like Harper is ignored or even maligned. Think Jackie Robinson and Jesse Owens, death threats. We’re beyond that now (maybe), but rhetorical and cultural assasinations still happen to our darkest … unless you believe darker IS dumber and uglier and that’s your reason for explaining the media imbalances. Dating, work, associations, you name it: Colorism IS subjective based on who you’re around (some folks I know call themselves dark because everyone in their house is pale, but they are brown, not “Sudanese” black–Alek Wek is truly one in a million …), but its gradations are consistent: whether you are perfect and gorgeous and the best at whatever, line a darkie up and they’ll find something wrong with her, or something more interesting in the lighter skinned “dolls” even if its lame. That’s why my D+ grade-making cousin got a fur coat and a wedding ring from and NFL player, and I–who look just like her, but darker–went to grad school on my own dime. Darker women just get subjugated more. I mean, is Beyonce REALLY the best singer on Earth, or just the one people are more willing to accept? Get real negroes. Darkies unite! Tell it! Tell it! And don’t worry about who’s offended … they should be.

  • Chabie

    Unfortunately, so MANY dark-skinned females do let colorism ‘get to them’, for the same reasons racism gets under black folks’ skin: because its WRONG. So quit calling it hypersensitivity (isn’t that what white folks say???? How are our complaints about whites any different? And why did THEY need difference? Now look at yourself …). Most dark people don’t even know there’s some downside until SOMEONE ELSE points it out. Rather its focused ON them while they, like everyone of us, are just trying to be themselves: human. But, as I said, this starts as soon as one encounters public life outside the home, starting with even pre-school (see, the home may or may not be straight or dysfunctional when it comes to color; doesn’t matter. Its still already waiting for them ‘out there’). Its not about being strong of mind; you can be all that, as a proud very black woman and still not get the promotion, or the gig, or the man, after working twice as hard, if you are too dark–and this in only black circles! While plenty of black folks don’t have a problem at all, MOST of us are blind about colorism, while ironically conscious of racism, as if they are different. But when the weight of color on: grades, friends, authority figures, mates, public courtesy, first impressions (can keep going…) is ever-present, in every direction, defining you as negative or less than, whether you fight or not you wake up one day and notice you’re still karate-chopping cement walls to your goals while pale sisters are gliding by on a freaking Vespa and waving as they breeze by. Ever feel this way about white women? Then you’re getting warmer … Whether anyone FEELS this way is not relevant; the fact is these are the effects in society (esp. media–come on! Even if you think Harper is masculine, you can’t ignore that media colorism is real otherwise). It explains NOT just why paler faces are picked, but why so many dark skinned people of great potential never even make it to be considered to be picked. Look at black pageants: I went to a Juneteenth beauty pageant in Texas, and though J19 is about emancipation–of the 25 girls, only TWO were even considered “dark”, 10 were brown, and everyone else was “yella”. How very consistent; its like everyone being a blonde, right? Look around at the dark women around you: They’re the ones you know and you say “She is so smart, pretty, whatever: why did I get promoted over her?” You know why … I can hear folks saying that’s a generalization; but who can ever prove without looking at the numbers. LOOK AT THE NUMBERS. Why are fewer dark-skinned women (not men) at the bottom, even in woman-friendly situations? Because YOU, BLACK PEOPLE–AND THE FREAKING WHITE FOLKS–WERE IN HER WAY, EXPLOITING WITH NO CRED–NOT JUST THE WHITE FOLKS, NOT JUST HER MINDSET (developed from what???). Its both blacks and whites that make it hard for darker women to lift the coffin lid again, over and over again. Its no sob story: its the truth. Those who find true self-determination tend to credit themselves, and its real, but there’s always a support, a buffer, that kept them from falling through the cracks–and that makes them the exception, not the rule, even though there are more dark than light people. I can hear folks calling out an example here or there (and they’re usu. brown, not dark) to equivocate their own complicity in the color caste system (just as whites do …), but the numbers are there. Its an exponentially increased burden that most black folks can’t see, even those who are dark sometimes (or maybe its too difficult to articulate or deal with emotionally), but imagine a “double-racism”, neither of which we need and, if you will x3 if you’re a woman or gay. It has thwarted the destinies of many who fought til their last bit of life force was gone–and even then people just talk of their perseverance for “trying”, or their foolishness for trying–not the thwarted potential, not the narrow spectrum …

  • AMW

    I am voting with my pocketbook. I will never buy an Acura product nor will I support any company that does not support me and my dark sisters.

  • Ming

    If what you say is true about the coverage of Black or Dark skinned women of African descent. You’ve said, you don’t believe Harper’s skin colour has anything to do with it .. . ? Then explain Serena Williams / Venus Williams vs. Maria Sharapova et al. and other paler athletes that don’t even measure up to the Williams’ successes. The only reason Serena and Venus gets the press they do, is because they are extremely good and they will not be denied, besides they play by their own rules. – Ming

  • Ming

    If what you say is true about the coverage of Black or Dark skinned women of African descent. You’ve said, you don’t believe Harper’s skin colour has anything to do with it .. . ? Then explain Serena Williams / Venus Williams vs. Maria Sharapova et al. and other paler athletes that don’t even measure up to the Williams’ successes. The only reason Serena and Venus gets the press they do, is because they are extremely briliant and they will not be denied, besides they play by their own rules. Dawn Harper is also a very Attractive, Beautiful young woman, so too are the Willamses , LoLo , Gabby, Dominique Dawes etc. etc. -Ming

  • Wesley Snipes

    She’s just too black!

  • Don Cheadle

    I agree with Wesley!

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