Unlearning the Harmful Impacts of Colorism

Featured Illustration: ‘Shade Cards’ by Muskaan Gupta


Often in our society, we view discrimination towards someone’s skin color as a form of racism. However, it should be noted that discrimination against one’s skin color can also be a factor of colorism as well. Colorism is the prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group. While colorism is focused on the shade of your skin color, racism focuses on discrimination directed towards the cultural implications of it. For instance, racism would identify a “brown” person perhaps as Indian, and direct racial stereotypes and discrimination towards the identified race. Colorism does not associate one’s skin color with a race but rather places preference towards a member of that community with a lighter skin tone.

Colorism was conceived in society during the time of slavery. It was subtly inflicted in society when slaves with lighter skin were assigned domestic tasks while those with darker skin were subjected to harder labor in the fields. Lighter-skinned slaves were favored because they were often the product of a slave owner raping a slave, thus creating a lighter-skinned child. Colorism continued to manifest in the 19th and 20th centuries. The “paper bag test” was often utilized pertaining to the hiring of Black people. If someone was the same color as or lighter-skinned than a paper bag, they would be considered for hiring, unlike those of darker skin color. 

Although conceived during the time of slavery, colorism is still prevalent in modern society. Research has linked colorism to “smaller incomes, lower marriage rates, longer prison terms, and fewer job prospects for darker-skinned people.” Things as simple as marriage have colorism factored in. For instance, according to a study, lighter skin people are subjected to a 15% greater probability of marriage.

Colorism is also pervasive in the work field. A law professor at Vanderbilt University conducted a study of over 2,000 immigrants from around the world and found that those with the lightest skin earned on average 8-15% more than similarly qualified immigrants of darker hues. In Brazil, we find that those with skin colors that are darker than most are found to secure 63% of the poorest sectors. Colorism does not simply limit itself to marriages, and economic and financial security, but extends itself into courtrooms as well. Those with lighter hues are sentenced to 12% less time behind bars than their darker-skinned counterparts. Research by Stanford psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt adds on to this finding, by stating that darker-skinned Black defendants were twice as likely as lighter-skinned Black defendants to get the death penalty for crimes involving white victims.

Colorism is often difficult to identify in a society, being a form of implicit bias.

One can find themselves subtly pre-programmed to view certain ideas in specific lights, with the pre-conceived notion that “dark” is bad. Although one would perhaps not explicitly have racial contempt towards those of darker skin color, we can find that dark skin is often perceived as “inferior”, which is simply not true. 

Subtle forms of colorism can be found in common phrases such as, “don’t stay out in the sun or you will get darker.” Products in countries such as India also promote colorism in a society with people of darker complexion. For instance, the brand Fair and Lovely “promises an even tone of glowing skin with skin lightening” and supports 38 million users worldwide.

Colorism extends itself to the movie-making business as well. In the movie Straight Outta Compton, it can be noted that the filmmakers divided potential actresses into four categories, with those in the A category recognized as “the hottest of the hottest” with “light skin” and the D category who were labeled as “African American, poor, not in good shape, must have a darker skin tone.”

To further add on to manifestations of colorism, a study conducted by Anderson and Cromwell (1977) led to the discovery of how 11-12-year-old African American children associate different qualities with dark and light skin tones. The study concluded that these adolescents associated “darker skin tones with negative personality traits and associated positive personality traits with lighter skin tones and light brown skin tones.” (Fultz, 2013). These examples demonstrate how colorism is subtly affecting our thought patterns and the way we address those of “lighter” and “darker” skin tones. Although one can consider themselves not explicitly racist, an implicit form of racism such as colorism can often alter our perspective and change the way we treat those around us.

The repercussions of colorism can be damaging by creating a divide between people in the same cultural groups, with those who are “darker” and those that are “lighter.” Colorism is the culprit of psychological issues including low self-esteem, lack of self-confidence, self-loathing, excessive skin bleaching, economic disadvantages, educational disadvantages, familial issues, poorer health outcomes, and political disadvantages (Bryant, 2013; Dawson & Quiros, 2013; Duke & Berry, 2011; Howard, 2011; Hunter, 2007; Njeri, 1988).

It is crucial to constantly introspect and understand the source of our thoughts to determine if it is colorism that is programming them. Companies are beginning to recognize their contribution to colorism and are withdrawing their unconscious forms of promoting the issue. For instance, French cosmetics giant L’Oreal stated that it will stop selling Neutrogena’s fairness and skin-whitening lines altogether. Other forms of supporting the abolishing of colorism include the “Dark is Beautiful” campaign, founded by Kavitha Emmanuel, which counters perceptions that lighter skin is more beautiful than naturally darker skin.

Promoting the ideology that colorism is a prevalent issue in our society and constantly evaluating our thought patterns to make sure we are not falling prey to this issue are some ways we can decrease its impacts on our society.