Q&A with Dr. Naeemah Clark, Elon University professor of cinema and television

Dr. Naeemah Clark, a nationally recognized expert on economics, programming, and diversity in media and entertainment, remembers that her academic thinking on colorism in media was initially shaped by what she saw on TV as a young girl in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

“Most of my day is spent thinking about how to recruit and retain faculty who can help move the needle at Elon in terms of equity and equitable thinking.”

Her work on diversity, equity and inclusion in teaching and hiring was further developed after experiencing racism and sexism on the campus of Elon University, where she has served as chair of the Cinema and Television Arts Department and currently teaches as a distinguished professor.

Clark thought her career path would be in TV news. But the opportunity to tackle colorism through teaching drew her to academia and her Ph.D. Her focus at Elon is aimed at implementing initiatives designed to bring deeper awareness about identity and inclusion to students at the predominantly white North Carolina school.

Staci Saltz, who became department chair at Elon last year, said Clark has made her mark as a hard worker who leads with humility. “She’s kind-hearted beyond most people that I know,” Saltz said. “She does not know how amazing she is.”

Clark—who calls herself a workaholic, sometimes to the “point of illness”—has seen representation increase in American television and movies television. But she said there’s deep need for further change: “The people who are making decisions are still by and large white, most of them male.”

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

When did you begin to understand what colorism was?

It’s funny. My mother is a lighter-skinned African American woman. She still is clearly a Black woman. She doesn’t look like Megan Markle, but she’s lighter-skinned. And I remember saying [at 4 or 5 years old, “Oh my gosh, my mother is white,” which is a weird thing. Because she is in no way a white woman. But it would hurt her feelings.

And my dad is darker skinned, a really lovely “chestnutty” color. And so my sisters and I are sort of in between those two. And my cousins also. But there’s one cousin who’s a little bit lighter. And so, there was always sort of thought, well, she was the prettier one…so that was sort of something in my [mind] growing up. But also, my mother would tell us that sometimes people would not treat us kindly because we didn’t have darker skin. And that was always weird to me ‘cause I never thought of myself as being targeted in that way.

When I was in middle school and high school, it became a thing. Colorism is a very odd psychological phenomenon.

When you were growing up, what did you want to be? Did colorism have any role to play in this?

When I was getting my undergraduate degree at Florida State in English education, it took me a while to settle on that major…I had developed a teacher’s voice, and I had done my student teaching and was really, and did a really good job with it. And I was interviewing for a job at a school board in Duval County in Jacksonville. And the woman said, “What would you do if you could do anything?” And I said, “Oh, I’d probably be a reporter.” So that was pretty much the end of that interview.

And so I went back to school. I enrolled in the master’s program at the University of Florida because they offered assistantships and I didn’t really have any money. I was working at the campus television station and I was [not doing well.] And one of the news directors kept saying, “You know, you really should think about being a producer.” But I was like, but I want to [be] on air. And he was like, “Well, you really should think about being a producer,” which I thought was the most insulting thing. Why is he saying that? I don’t have the look for TV?

I’ve always been very aware [and self-conscious] about my nose. And so I thought that’s what it is. I got really frustrated with that and I wasn’t really doing any on-air reporting. I was doing a lot of editing and learning how to shoot and edit and that kind of thing.

I really hated working in the newsroom because it was making me doubt myself. I went to one of my professors and I said, “I don’t think this is the right thing for me. Tell me what I should do.” And so he met with another one of my professors, Millie Rivera Sanchez, and they, I guess, decided that I should be a professor.

What was your path to Elon?

I came to Elon because everyone told me Elon’s great. And I got here and found it to be a school with tons of privileges. The students are very, very privileged, among the wealthiest in the country.

I thought, “I gotta get out of here.” Like this isn’t who I am. I didn’t grow up wealthy. These students would not have been people I would’ve gravitated to when I was a student. But I also found that there were a lot of really great students, [faculty and] staff here. I thought, maybe I’m judging it too harshly. The first week a student called me a bitch. When I would tell other students that story, they would become incensed. That was when I started realizing I don’t like these people. I would ask my colleagues, “What do I do?” People would say, “That doesn’t really happen here.” But it did happen because it just happened to me.

I started to tell the story and people started listening and started asking me questions and started putting me on committees. And now much of my work at Elon is dealing with diversity, equity, inclusion in our curriculum and faculty development, and faculty support.

Tell me about the colorism initiatives you’ve undertaken at Elon.

The one that the president wanted me to work on was intercultural competence among our faculty, staff and students. One element of that was…developing an equity mindset in our classroom and in our teaching.

Then we also have a requirement, an advancing equity requirement. Students incoming in 2023 also have to take a course focused on racial equity. I’m working on cluster hiring and cohort programs where we can recruit faculty who have strong knowledge of racial equity and equity development. But not only recruiting them, but keeping them.

So, most of my day is spent thinking about how to recruit and retain faculty who can help move the needle at Elon in terms of equity and equitable thinking.

How have these initiatives been received on campus?

Some are very ready for it. Very ready to do the work. And then other people are like, “Are we still talking about this?”

I’ve gotten emails from faculty saying, “Why do we have to do this? Only a few of you care about this.” Well, because we want to be better for our students. We have to help them create a strong foundation so that when they go out in the world, they can be problem solvers as opposed to problem makers, right?

I think that most of my students get that. Students were graduating, and then in the summer of 2020 when George Floyd happened, they’re like, “Elon has never talked about this,” which wasn’t necessarily true. We have tons of classes already talking about race and racism. And, I had a student say, “Well, I’ve been at Elon for four years and I never had a black professor.”

I was like, “You were in my class last semester.” So I think that sometimes students don’t recognize it’s right here. I also am very aware that my students of color…I don’t want them to feel like, “Oh, great, I’m in this class that I could have taken last year that would’ve been about racial equity and would’ve been fascinating for me, and now I’m in here with a bunch of guys who have to take it and are ugly about it.”

It has created some tension for students of color that we’ve got this requirement because those were safe spaces for those students for a long time. And they still can be. That’s where the faculty development piece comes in.

Why do you think the media still has so many colorism issues and what can be done to change the looks on our screens?

There have been some shifts and looking at who’s been successful, that plays a role. Someone like Lupita Nyong’o, who has been extremely successful and talks about the color of her skin as being sort of a prize, that’s changed the narrative in terms of skin tone. But at the end of the day, the people who are making decisions are still by and large white, most of them male.

As someone who grew up [studying] broadcast television, you hear it’s easier to put lights on set with lighter skin people. Well is that how we’re defining it and how we’re justifying it?

The biggest thing I would do is work toward more inclusion behind the scenes. More inclusive film sets, more sets where people felt comfortable in raising questions and challenging what’s being done. Writers rooms that are just more diverse in general, not just more people of color. More women, more, LGBTQ+ people, more people who did not go to Harvard.

What would you say to people trying to enter the entertainment industry yet still experiencing racism and colorism?

What I always stress to my students is that sometimes you have to create your own content.

Think about Quinta Brunson or even The Weeknd creating their own platforms online and then other people see what they have to offer. You can’t really be a one-note in Hollywood anymore.

You have to be a creator and an actor and a writer. You have to really make sure that you’re working to do all of them.