About Kimberly Moffitt, Ph.D.: Kimberly Moffitt is Professor of Language, Literacy & Culture and Dean of the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), where she is also Affiliate Professor of Africana Studies. Dr. Moffitt’s research focuses on mediated representations of Black identity and the politicization of Black hair and the Black body. Her work has been published in influential journals including Women’s Studies in Communication, Howard Journal of Communications, Journal of Black Studies and Southern Communication Journal.
An accomplished editor, Dr. Moffitt has published five co-edited volumes, including Michelle Obama and the FLOTUS Effect: Platform, Presence, and Agency; Gladiators in Suits: Race, Gender, and the Politics of Representation in Scandal; and Blackberries and Redbones: Critical Articulations of Black Hair/Body Politics in Africana Communities. Outside her academic and administrative work, Dr. Moffitt leads workshops on Black hair and colorism, specifically for teenage girls, writes Op-Eds for the Baltimore Sun, and was a founding parent and board member of the Baltimore Collegiate School for Boys.
Dr. Moffitt earned her B.S. in Political Science and Government from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, an M.A. in Communication from Boston University, and her Ph.D. in Mass Communication and Media Studies from Howard University. Prior to joining the faculty at UMBC, she was an Assistant Professor at DePaul University.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you become interested in studying the politics of race, gender, and cultural identity and come to focus your research on how the media represents marginalized groups and on Black “body politics,” especially the politics of Black hair and of colorism?
[Dr. Kimberly Moffitt] I received my Ph.D. at Howard University, and Howard’s communication program clearly specializes in and focuses on the role of race within the discipline of communication. I think that lends itself to some of my interests and how I started researching what I do. For example, my dissertation was about how Black male athletes were represented in print media. It was a comparative analysis of three newspapers here in the United States and three newspapers in England that examined similarities and differences in how these athletes were represented.
I stuck with that topic for about two years after graduate school, and I have not done much research on Black male athletes since. I did teach a Sports and Media class though because I am a huge sports fan, and that gave me the chance to talk about sports with students; but my research did not continue to focus on that area.
The shift in my focus aligns with my personal life. I had two children. Once I had my son and daughter, I started thinking about what was to come for them and the ways I saw the politicization of their Black bodies showing up in the world. For me, it was the fact that they had a mom with natural hair. It also had to do with colorism because my husband is a darker hue than I am, and we had one child who is closer to my skin hue, and one child who is closer to his.
My daughter has his skin hue, which is darker than mine, and I was very keenly aware, especially within the Black community, that her journey and experience as a young Black woman with a darker skin hue than her mom’s was going to create a very different reality for her than I had ever experienced. I became quite invested in those types of realities at that point. It had more to do with me being Mom than me being Professor.
That also lends itself to how I got into researching representations of Disney programming and movies. That, too, was because of my children. I have a media studies background and consider myself a media critic. I watched Disney with my children because I wanted to make sure I could jump in and respond to some of what they might be interpreting and receiving as messages. It sounds a little pejorative, but some of my students used to call me a “Disney Nazi” because I am not a huge Disney fan, because of how children of color, in particular, are represented in their programming. If you followed any of the social media around the new The Little Mermaid trailer, you get what I am talking about.
Disney in many respects helped make my career, though, because that was the work people really gravitated to, liked reading and hearing me speak on. In my capacity as Dean now, I do not get to teach often, but various departments and organizations on campus will invite me to come and speak to students. Just this past Monday, I was talking about The Little Mermaid and Disney and its representation of children of color.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you discuss how your work brings critical perspectives from Africana Studies, Black studies, and Black feminisms into conversation with communication research in areas like media studies and cultural studies? More specifically, in your recent autoethnographic essay on colorism, “Light-Skinned People Always Win,” you write, “I am one of the many women academics of color who claim womanism over feminism.” Could you tell us a little bit about “womanism,” how it differs from feminism, and how this shapes the critical orientation of your research?
[Dr. Kimberly Moffitt] I do not mind this being shared because I think most of my colleagues in the discipline know this — I do not consider myself a feminist. I do embrace and consider myself a womanist, as Audre Lorde discusses it, however. I believe in seeing the uplift of African Americans in this nation. I think it takes all of us to make that happen, and I am not really interested in privileging or prioritizing my own existence as a Black woman over that of a Black man. I go home to a Black man every evening, and I want us to work together to make changes to our community, for our children and for their children. I see myself much more as a “womanist” than I would ever refer to myself as a “feminist.”
I will also be very candid and say that I have struggled with the concept of feminism largely because of whom it has benefited the most, which oftentimes has been privileged, white women who have access to many spaces that many other women do not. I also feel that there is a lot of spaces that white feminists take up in our social conversation that then further marginalizes women of color; even if it is done with the intent of helping the greater good, it still becomes about them, and that is troublesome to me. So, feminism does not sit well with me; womanism does.
The beauty of being in a discipline like communication is that we have space to engage a set of theoretical frameworks and concepts that other disciplines cannot. Some of that is because we are a much younger discipline than most, but it is also because we are dealing with a number of contemporary issues that allow us to speak back to society about things as they are currently going on.
Womanism is from the late 1970s – it is not even something that would be referred to as a “foundational theory.” Yet and still, it offers us an important opportunity to hear from a Black woman who created a particular framework that we can look to in order to better understand representations of Black women in media. That is the other reason I love it.
[MastersinCommunications.com] One key area of your work critically explores media representations of race and cultural difference in a number of contexts, including film, television and news media. Your recent publications include multiple pieces on Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, a co-authored book chapter on Issa Rae’s Insecure, and a co-edited collection on the television series Scandal. Are there key findings from this thread of your research that you would highlight that best reflect the racial and cultural politics of media representations today? What are some of the most trenchant problems we see in contemporary media representations, and are there important examples or trends your research identifies that point toward the possibility of more nuanced or critical representations of race, gender, and culture difference?
[Dr. Kimberly Moffitt] When you look at the scholarship you reference in your question, a common thread is that the people and characters I focus on are all Black women. Again, this was “Mommy Kimberly” looking at her darker-complected daughter and wanting to make sure she felt represented, empowered, and nurtured in society. I want her to feel this way regardless of all the other stuff happening around her and the messaging that tells her that she is less than and not worthy. I want her to be able to move past that, and still do well, and still thrive.
My work on media representations of Black women is really about giving voice to Black women and making sure that I center their experiences. The work that I have done on The Princess and the Frog has been about centering the fact that she is Disney’s 21st-century princess. There was no new Princess in the 2000s before Princess Tiana. What she does for Disney, even though she does not get the credit for it and nor do the merchandising sales and box office revenue confirm it, is allow them to do away with the 20th-century Disney princess that we had become so used to and that many of us had grown up with. In her place, they gave us a woman who felt very powerful because of her abilities, who had her sights set on what she wanted to achieve in the world, and whose narrative was not centered around a man or being a princess.
The narrative was about her journey and what she wanted to accomplish in life, and she happened to find love along the way. If you pay attention, you can see that that is what Disney has been doing with its princesses since then. Immediately after 2009 with Princess Tiana, we get Rapunzel in Tangled in 2010, and she’s swinging a frying pan around and telling the prince she is not interested because she is focused on getting out of the tower.
There are so many examples after Princess Tiana, another being Moana, that show you that Disney wanted to make a shift and they did it on Princess Tiana’s back. That becomes another important thread in my work: making sure her voice [Princess Tiana] and Black women’s voices are heard and their lived experiences are being shared.
At the same time, I did not like the film. My daughter would be very upset with me sharing that with you [laughs], because she is definitely a fan. My daughter was three years old when that film came out and is now 17 and still watches it on a regular basis.
I was very critical of the film because it was an opportunity for Disney to do something very different with the representation of Black women, and they decided to reduce her back to the stereotypes they were most comfortable with. This is true even though there were Black creators responsible for Disney’s representation of Tiana, particularly how they drew her. There was a deliberate attempt to make sure her skin was darker hued, but Disney made so many other missteps along the way.
They [originally] named her Maddie, and then they had her as a housekeeper. There was so much ickiness in how they reduced her to the traditional tropes of what they “knew” about Black women. She even used to have a different look before she got on screen. I think there was enough pushback and advocacy that they decided to go in a different direction.
Princess Tiana is very important in terms of how she ushered in the 21st-century Disney princess. At the same time, it’s done using traditional tropes and also by hiding her Black body for the majority of the film. For close to 90 minutes of this 100-minute film, she was in what is referred to as “green face.” She was a frog for the majority of the film. That, in my opinion, worked to placate majority audiences so they could accept this new princess in some respects.
In another piece I wrote about that film, I discuss how there was an opportunity to give us a new image of what Black love looked like on film, and they just could not do it. They had to give us a racially and ethnically ambiguous prince — the actor who voiced the prince is originally from Brazil, the name of the character sounded Southeast Asian, and his skin hue looked like he might have been from the Middle East. That was a deliberate attempt to make him as ambiguous as possible so folks could not pinpoint him and say he was one particular race.
The problem is that it took away an opportunity to show Blackness and Black love. They took the easy way out to say, “We’re not going to do a Black man, we’re going to create this figure who is ambiguous enough so nobody is going to comment on it.” That is the ambivalence I wrote about in that piece in particular.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Another key area of your research is on Black body politics and, in particular, the politics of Black hair and skin tone. For example, you coedited the 2010 volume Blackberries and Redbones: Critical Articulations of Black Hair/Body Politics in Africana Communities with Regina E. Spellers, and one of your recent publications is “‘Light-Skinned People Always Win’: An Autoethnography of Colorism in a Mother-Daughter Relationship.” Could you introduce us to your research on Black hair and skin tone? How does your work examine the cultural and political meaning of these aspects of Black embodiment, particularly through the critical vocabulary of “colorism”?
[Dr. Kimberly Moffitt] Again, it is definitely motherhood that drew me to this type of work. Black body politics really aims to raise the conversation that for us to exist or to live in a body that is known as Black is highly politicized. I think of this in the vein of Erving Goffman’s work, where he talks about scripting and how we script things onto people’s bodies by virtue of what is in our heads, conscious or unconscious.
In terms of hair, I sometimes tell an anecdote about when I decided to lock my hair and my very southern, traditional parents lost it. They worried about whether I would get an academic job, and said people would think I was a Rastafarian from Jamaica, that I smoked weed, all of these things, because those were the “scripts” written onto a body that is Black and wears their hair in this particular way.
I was not offended by it, partly because it was my parents, but it also gave me the sense of wanting to explore why we do this, and how we can move to start to challenge this. In my co-edited collection Blackberries and Redbones, with Regina Spellers, we talk about wanting to have the hard conversations around colorism and body politics while at the same time trying to celebrate the Black bodies and Black culture. We were trying to say, “Here’s why you don’t judge people like this. We can critique this, push back against it, and not hold onto those scripts so we keep reading each other along these same lines.”
Colorism is a huge issue in the Black community. It exists outside the Black community, too, because, if we think for example about the media, the way media representations would engage my lighter-complected son is very different than how they would engage a darker-skinned Black male. Colorism means something to other people, too. The problem with colorism in the Black community is that we begin to mistreat one another as a result of these stereotypes; we create this color hierarchy about who is better. There is literature in psychology that talks about how someone who is lighter-complected has better educational opportunities, has better potential to be married or partnered, and has greater earning potential.
These are real, material consequences to how people respond to someone’s skin hue. If this was just about one person saying, “I don’t like dark-skinned women” that would be one thing, but for that person to say, “I’m not going to give her a job because of her skin hue” is another. This happens both outside and inside of the Black community. My goal — which has much to do with my daughter who has a darker skin tone than me and some of the experiences we had together — was to talk about those issues within our community and how we can shift the paradigm in terms of how we think about it so it does not have the same long-term impact on us.
Outside of the research component, I have also done middle school workshops with teen girls to talk about colorism. It was my daughter who said, “You need to bring the moms into these conversations, because they are probably telling their daughters certain things and that’s why their daughters feel a certain way about skin hue.”
It was a brilliant idea. We found out she was exactly right. But because I am now Dean, I have not had the opportunity to write up these findings [laughs]. But that is what we found out — that we can blame colorism on the media, but all of these middle school and high school kids reported that it is coming from their family members: the jokes being made, the way Grandma treats one grandchild versus another. So much is being interpersonally disseminated to children, and then it gets compounded with what they see in the media.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Would you discuss in more detail the unique methodological perspectives to critically examine Black body politics — for example, in the collaborative autoethnographic work with your daughter “Light-Skinned People Always Win”?
[Dr. Kimberly Moffitt] In my 22 years as an academic, that is the hardest piece I have ever had to write, largely because it was deeply personal. It is an autoethnography between my daughter and me, where I essentially shared these different stories with her of moments I struggled as a mother, and I allowed her to speak back to them. As in my research more broadly, I wanted to empower her voice and make sure she was centered as the person speaking back to those experiences.
I stumbled upon collaborative autoethnography. My training in autoethnography was about the individual, but seeing the number of people who were starting to do collaborative ethnographic work gave me the opportunity to include someone else who is not an academic but has lived experiences to share. For me, it was really about making that connection and doing that work together.
I will say that my daughter, in telling her stories and providing ideas for how we should respond to the issues we were describing, could have easily been a co-author at 13-years-old. But I was very clear that I did not want that to become something that would end up harming her in some way in the future. I did not want her sitting in a college classroom and being asked questions by professors about the piece. I was very deliberate about changing names and trying to protect her, while also trying to amplify her voice.
Interestingly, “Light Skinned People Always Win” was a quote from her. I wrote this piece four years ago, so a 13-year-old said this to me. During our back and forth, she said, “It just always seems like light skinned people win. I look at you, and what you’ve been able to accomplish in life, and wonder if it’s because of your skin hue or how hard you worked.” I said, “I’d like to believe it’s because of how hard I worked, but I’m very cognizant that it certainly helped that I’m lighter skinned because of how pervasive colorism is in our culture.”
It tore me to shreds, but it was so very important for me to share that so that other teenagers and mothers could learn from it. I ended up using that article to have the mom and daughter workshops I mentioned. We wanted to say, “We did it, and you can too.” That piece was so personal to me, so difficult to write, but it means the world to me because it gave me the opportunity to center my daughter’s voice and her lived experience while at the same time hopefully giving others an opportunity to engage in those types of conversations.
You don’t have to own it. You are reading something that is separate from you, and get to say, “They said this,” and allow that conversation to unfold between mother and daughter, or in family units, or groups of friends.
Truthfully, I think all of us need therapy; especially after the pandemic, every single one of us needs therapy. Issues of colorism have created a context where a number of African American girls and women, in particular, have traumatic experiences they struggle with and try to overcome. There were 40-year-old women in the workshops who said reading this piece was difficult to get through. That has a lot to do with them having unresolved challenges associated with their prior experiences with colorism.
[MastersinCommunications.com] You were recently appointed Dean of the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at UMBC. Could you tell us a little bit about your experience becoming Dean? How does your critical background shape your approach to this position and what you hope to accomplish in that role?
[Dr. Kimberly Moffitt] I was Interim Dean for about 18 months because my predecessor left for a professional society opportunity. I took over in August 2020, in the midst of the pandemic. I had to go through a national search and was selected as Dean in March 2022. Without a doubt, this communication degree has paid itself off many times over, because what I think has been most beneficial in my leadership style is the concept of “grief leadership.” This is what I felt like I embodied for the first full year of this position because people were grieving loss of so many forms–loss of human life, loss of the life that they remembered, and loss of control to do anything about it.
Embodying “grief leadership” meant people both saw and heard my empathy. Every meeting, I started and ended with, “Maintain grace and patience for ourselves and each other.” That was my mantra. One of my chairs ended up making me a hat that said, “Grace and Patience.” We were definitely going through a difficult time, like everyone else. Everything I learned as a communication scholar was reflected in my decision to approach leadership like that.
We scholars are not always good listeners, but that is a part of what it means to be good at what we do. That serves me well also. I am constantly listening before I make moves. I am not walking into a space and telling people exactly what we are going to do. I am responsible for 25 departments, five research centers, and three undergraduate scholar programs. I am far more interested in seeing what bubbles up by listening and then giving that information back to my colleagues, saying, “This is what I heard, and based on that this is how I’d like the college to move forward.”
In the meeting I just left, we had a conversation about needing to do a cluster hire next year. They asked, “What area?” and I said, “That’s your job. I need you to talk across your departments about what areas we think are of most interest, are innovative, and have big ideas that will make us stand out, then tell me what you decide.” I could easily have said, “We’re doing a hire on this issue,” and then have to contend with all of the folks that feel like they do not have a connection to that topic. It is much easier for them to be committed to it if they talk to each other and come up with the idea.
I cannot say enough about how being a communication scholar is invaluable to a role like this. In 2022 I received a three million dollar Andrew W. Mellon grant. The Mellon Foundation surveyed the lay of the land in higher education and realized that the majority of high-level administrators — the Presidents, the Provosts, and the VPRs — at every institution were STEM folks. They did not understand how that was possible and wanted to shake it up and do something about it.
The program that I proposed with a team of five other principal investigators was to develop a leadership program specifically for arts and humanities scholars to help train them in the skillsets they need to be leaders such as Deans, Presidents, and Provosts. It is so very clear that people who come from those disciplines, that level of critical thinking skills, that are used to working interdisciplinarily, that are talking about what is happening in their society in their work, are the people we need at the helm right now. For me, having a communication degree centers all of that.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Do you have advice you would give to students interested in critical perspectives on race and gender, critical media scholarship, or any of the other topics we have discussed today who are considering pursuing a graduate degree in communication or a related field?
[Dr. Kimberly Moffitt] What I love about where we are in our discipline now is the recognition that the way we used to do scholarship looks very different today. We have created a space, which is not fully embraced, but I feel like we are close, to carry out research in different ways and to focus on different individuals in that work and not apologize for it. When we do faculty searches on campus, all of the candidates have to be interviewed by the Dean. They give me 30 minutes, but I get to meet every candidate.
As I have been doing this, I have loved seeing the number of folks who are of various religious faiths, genders, sexual orientations, races, and ethnicities, doing work that is specific and unique to those identities and not apologizing for it. That is not how it was before. So many of my graduate school colleagues at predominantly white universities were told that they should not do work on those parts of their identities. They needed to be on the straight and narrow to make sure they were seen as marketable and could gain access to an academic job. What I see now is the willingness of graduate students to say, “This is where I’m committed, this is what interests me, and this is where I’m going to stay.” They are unapologetic about it, which I think is beautiful.
How do we get to the point of hearing and knowing about different narratives if we never allow people to do research on them? We need those voices. Seeing graduate students doing the work they are committed to or which gives them space to feel worthy I think is just fabulous. Communication as discipline has had its hiccups along the way of course. The failure of the National Communication Association to name people of color as “distinguished scholars” for most of its history says something about what scholarship and which individuals the discipline values.
But, with organizations like NCA and with communication departments across the country, there is a shift to be more open to hearing about, for example, what is happening with transgender folks in this country. How else do we know the story? We need folks doing that kind of research. I really like seeing that part of where we are and what we are doing.
In fact, as an extension to that, what I tell my graduate and undergraduate students is that, because work is ongoing and will be with us until we become independently wealthy or die, it is important to do the work that is important to you. That is what helps you wake up in the morning and go into work. If you are doing work because someone said it would get you a job, that is going to fizzle out real quick for you.
I am about trying to live this life as fully as possible. I lost both of my parents over the last ten years, and losing my biggest cheerleaders like that rocked my foundation. It is so very important for me personally to maintain and keep their legacy alive by demonstrating how cool they were as a couple and as people. They were able to pour into me what I am able to now do for the rest of society. I cannot do work that is not going to fulfill me, because that is not going to shine the light of their legacy for me.
I do this job because it gives me the opportunity to influence policy and change at a university. That would also be something my parents would enjoy seeing me do. That helps me get up in the morning and say, “Yeah, we’re gonna do this. There’s exciting things that can come out of this. Let’s go.” To that end, I think for graduate students it is so important not to just chase the paycheck, but also chase your passion.
Thank you, Dr. Moffitt, for sharing your insights on colorism, mediated representations of Black identity, your work as Dean, and more!
Please note: Our interview series aims to represent the diverse research being pursued by scholars in the field of communication, which is often socially and politically engaged. As a result, all readers may not agree with the views and opinions expressed in this interview, which are independent of the views of MastersinCommunications.com, its parent company, partners, and affiliates.