Harvard Chan course on colorism named finalist for digital education award

STRIPED course on colorism-video
The course uses animated videos featuring stories of Indians encountering colorism.

January 24, 2023 – An online course offered by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health that trains learners to use stories to combat colorism—discrimination across and within racial and ethnic groups around skin shade—was a finalist for the 2022 New Digital Course of the Year award from the UK-based Digital Education Awards.

The three-week online course—titled “Colouring the Narrative: How to Use Storytelling to Create Social Change in Skin Shade Ideals in India”—was produced by the Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders (STRIPED). Launched in late 2021, the course used a case narrative along with animated videos to help India-based students develop skills in media advocacy and strategic storytelling techniques to counter colorism—which privileges individuals with lighter skin shades, conferring higher social status, resources, and opportunities, and portraying them as more attractive compared to those with darker shades.

Bryn Austin, professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences and director of STRIPED, said the team was honored to be recognized. The course aligns with STRIPED’s goal of eliminating toxic beauty ideals.

Austin noted that companies profit from colorism by selling products such as skin lighteners. These products may include steroids, carcinogens, and caustic ingredients that can permanently damage the skin. Using them can also lead to significant mental health risks, reinforcing people’s feelings that they’re lesser because of their skin shade.

“There is no reason for anyone to buy these products unless they’re living in a system in which they’re discriminated against, they’re experiencing stigma, and they’re ridiculed for having darker skin,” said Austin. “That’s what led STRIPED to begin addressing colorism.”

STRIPED teamed up with two Mumbai-based experts—Kritika Tiwari, a physician specializing in adolescent medicine and eating disorders, and Reena Agrawal, a sociologist and storyteller—to co-lead the course. Agrawal wrote the fictional narrative for the course, which was accompanied by short animated films produced by London-based Medical Aid Films, with illustrations created by Mumbai artist Tanvi Bhat. Austin also praised Women Of Worth (WOW), whose lead they followed in creating the online course. WOW is an India-based organization focused on the growth, empowerment, and safety of girls and women, which fights against colorism through its Dark Is Beautiful Campaign, advocacy, and education initiatives.

The case narrative used in the course features three stories of Indians encountering colorism. In one, a medical intern repeatedly encounters “accidental deaths” of rural young wives allegedly burned in the kitchen, even though evidence suggests that harsh skin-shade discrimination led them to use deadly skin-lightening products. Another features a woman, both a lawyer and a columnist, who advocates against colorism and the cultural obsession with fair skin. The third involves two teens who question their own biases and learn about ways they can challenge colorism among their peers and create societal change.

Austin hopes to offer future versions of the online course that are adapted for other countries where colorism is prevalent. For example, STRIPED is working with Harvard Chan student Sook Ning Chua, MPH ’23, founder of Relate Malaysia, a leading mental health advocacy and service group in the country, and colleagues with the nonprofit Teach for Malaysia to create new case narratives tailored for the Malaysian context. That course will launch in March.

Catherine Seraphin

Editor’s note: After this article was published, the STRIPED online course won the 2023 Health Education Technology Innovation Award from the Society for Public Health Education (SOPHE)—a nonprofit association for health education specialists in the U.S.—during SOPHE’s annual conference, held March 21–24. The award recognizes individuals or groups who have distinguished themselves by applying innovative, non-commercial technology in health education.