Insights and Impact

AUdacious Changemaker: Fleshing Out Skin Tone

SPA professor TaLisa J. Carter 


Photo­graphy by
Jeff Watts

Professor TaLisa Carter

Even as a child, criminologist TaLisa Carter had the makings of a researcher.

“Both of my parents worked at the Wayside Home School for Girls,” says the Long Island native. “I went there after school, a super quiet kid who was always more interested in watching people than in people watching me. That exposed me to the reality that one decision can change a path.” 

Carter’s own path led her to the University of Pennsylvania, where she became the first in her family to earn a college degree, then to the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office in Savannah, Georgia, where she got a different kind of education as a corrections officer, observing how people on both sides of the bars suffered systemic discrimination.  

“The system is racist, sexist, and homophobic,” she says. “It doesn’t matter what color uniform you wear, whether you’re pulling a check or paying for phone time, or whether you get a lunch break or get served chow.”

Although she only worked at the jail for a year, the experience will likely inspire a career’s worth of scholarship. “Snitch. Snake. Mole. Books.: Examining Reponses to ‘Insider/Outsider’ Research in Corrections,” coauthored with Chelsea Thomson, SPA/MPP ’21, was published in February in Qualitative Criminology, and a book manuscript, The Thin Brown Line, is in the works. 

Carter’s research also focuses on colorism, a concept largely unexplored in criminology, and how skin tone—which she fleshes out using a visual guide based on 25 makeup swatches, the first application of its kind in an academic context—influences a person’s decision to pursue a career in criminal justice. In 2020, she launched Shades of Justice, organizing a team of AU student investigators to ask just that of 100 US college students majoring in fields related to criminal justice.

Her findings—chronicled in a forthcoming article for Qualitative Criminology—reveal that dark-skinned respondents are driven more by the need to right wrongs they have experienced or observed, while lighter-skinned respondents are more likely to pursue a career based on interest or enjoyment. 

Carter hopes her research will help improve the recruitment and retention of those who hold the same position she one did. “Institutions need to be able to quantify what people consider success in their careers. That’s [how] you turn CO from a job into a career.”