Kiara Lee, ’12, grew up knowing that colorism — discrimination within an ethnic group where a person’s value is measured by his complexion — was an issue with roots back to slavery, but it wasn’t something she had ever personally experienced. However, while watching a model being interviewed on TV, Lee was shocked to learn the woman felt unattractive because of her skin color.

“[The model] was talking about her childhood, and she started to cry and said, ‘I never felt beautiful because I was dark skinned,’” Lee says. “She’s a model and she’s on television — you would think that she had all of this self-esteem, but the reality is, she doesn’t. She still carries these bones from childhood, when she didn’t feel beautiful because of her complexion.”

In response, Lee was inspired to start her own website, the Blacker the Berry, aimed at motivating and empowering women. The site features a column about issues related to women; resources for education, health, LGBTQ support, and family programs; and stories about successful women in the Richmond area. “To me it serves as an inspiration if [the woman featured] has a story of struggle,” she says. “It gives something for people to look up to — like if she had to go through that adversity and still came out on top, maybe I could do that, too.”

Lee also felt it was important to raise awareness about the issues surrounding colorism, beginning with a children’s book, “Light-Skinned, Dark-Skinned or In-Between,” which she self-published in August 2010. The book tells the story of two friends — one with lighter skin and one with darker — and how they are treated differently based on their complexions.

“In the end, my message is that we all should feel beautiful no matter how we look or what our complexion is, and we should embrace others who look different,” Lee says. “We have to start with children and educate them on how colorism began and reaffirm that no matter what complexion they are, they’re beautiful. Complexion has nothing to do with how much you’re worth.”

In February 2011, Lee brought her message to the streets of Richmond where she interviewed residents about their own experiences with colorism, resulting in a documentary film of the same name as her book. She also replicated a test from the early 1900s that asks children about a series of dolls with different skin tones to determine how they correlate beauty with race. “The kids say the African-American doll is bad and ugly,” she says. “Then you ask which doll looks most like them, and they pick the African-American doll — the same doll that had the negative connotations.”

Lee’s personal exploration of colorism ties back to her experiences at the University of Richmond, where she’s majoring in sociology and Latin American and Iberian studies. As a Bonner Scholar, she is partnering with local organizations to promote self-esteem and self-worth in women. “[In the fall,] we’re going to be meeting twice a week, and I have different topics for every day that we meet,” she says. “Things like how to treat your body; how to eat healthy; how to treat others; and how to deal with bullying, etiquette and public speaking.”

She is also taking her message to the national stage. This summer, she won a national keynote contest coordinated by Campus Progress and will speak about colorism at their national conference in Washington.

Armed with both an academic understanding and a real-world perspective, Lee hopes to eventually become a public defender — ideally continuing her education at the University's School of Law. “A lot of public work speaks to injustice and discrimination, so hopefully it will all come together for me,” she says.

In December 2012, Lee's work as a colorism activist was featured in a Soledad O'brien's CNN special, Who is Black in America?