Gradients of Racism

Learn about Colorism

What is colorism? Colorism is prejudice or discrimination toward people of color that specifically focuses on the relative darkness of an individual’s complexion. I wasn’t quite sure what it really was until I watched a documentary called Dark Girls. Even though I have experienced colorism first hand, Dark Girls reveals experiences of colorism in the U.S. and around the world.

Colorism is a real problem­. It can be damaging to self-esteem, and it contributes to infighting between and among communities of color.

Colorism's roots go back to slavery in America. Black slaves with lighter skin were selected for more desirable positions like working in the house rather than on plantations. Their lighter complexions were seen as more attractive and even cleaner. On the other hand, black people with darker skin had harder jobs such as cotton picking in the hot sun or building railroad tracks.

Even today, lighter-skinned black people are often considered more attractive than darker-skinned people. This idea is even ingrained in young children. Dark Girls included a study that referred to the “Clark Doll Experiment,” involving children examining darker-complexioned and lighter-complexioned dolls. When a five-year-old black girl was asked which doll was nicer, prettier, or smarter, the girl picked the light-complexioned doll. When asked which were the ugliest and dumbest dolls, the girls more often picked the dark-complexioned doll.

Today, colorism is evident in the media, movies, billboards, magazines, and even song lyrics. Unfortunately, colorism is all around us. Its effects can be very damaging. Colorism in the media inculcates the idea that light-skinned women are more beautiful. Its harmful effects can even be seen in how people of color are cast in movies. Every day when we listen to music, we hear rappers sending messages about their love interests—often, light-skinned, or white women. Such songs and rhetoric perpetuates negative stereotypes towards black women.

However, there are a few performers sending positive messages towards dark-skinned women. The legendary Tupac Shakur rapped, “I say the darker the flesh then the deeper the roots.”

Still, the flood of negative stereotypes and images around people with dark complexions soaks into young people’s brains, and they begin to believe them. The division between lighter and darker skinned people is exemplified by hashtags such as, “team dark-skinned” and “team light-skinned,” which are used as a competition between people of different complexions.

Professor Evelyn Nakamo Glenn of the University of California-Berkley's Gender & Studies and of Ethnic Studies department further argues that “the ideology of white supremacy that European colonists brought included the association of blackness with primitiveness, lack of civilization, unrestrained sexuality, pollution, and dirt.”

In Dark Girls, black men who were interviewed about their opinion of dark-skinned women exemplify Professor Glenn's claims. Some responded with phrases like, “they look funny beside me,” or “black women with a good body is okay for me,” or even, “their attitudes, they’re not nice people.”

In Oprah Winfrey's words, “[Colorism is] an issue that wreaks havoc among African-American, Asian, Indian and Latin American communities.”

Colorism’s effects extend beyond Black communities; in fact, its reach is global. One of its most physically harmful effects in the U.S. and other countries is skin bleaching. This practice was first established by female European settlers.

According to Dr. Yaba Blay, researcher and ethnographer, “much of the history of European aesthetic practices is a history of whitening skin.”

Queen Elizabeth I made her skin appear ghostly white, for example, which became known as the “Elizabeth ideal of beauty.”

Skin bleaching is advertised around the world. In 2012, Indians made up the largest portion of the skin bleaching market, consuming 233 tons of bleaching products. Further, about 52 to 77 percent of women use skin lighteners in African cities. The World Health organization reported that Nigerians are the highest skin bleach users overall with 77% of Nigerian women using skin bleaching products daily, followed by other African Countries: Togo at 59 percent; South Africa at 35 percent; and Mali at 25 percent. Bleach is harmful for skin. This obsession with lightness is in itself another form of racism.

Colorism is an important issue that is often overlooked amid broader issues of systematic racism against all minorities. It is crucial to understand what it means and its consequences. When you are on social media, watching television, or having conversation among friends, see if you can recognize colorism. If you do, tell someone about it and see how you can help stop it in your own community.

[Sources: “Dark Girls” Documentary; Skin Bleaching Around the World- Colorism Healing; Gender and Society]

Thank you for this article. It's very interesting to hear about the roots of this problem in the US. It is a huge problem in India, too, with different nuances, of course. Great article, Amie! – AarushiMadison (2016-12-31 00:59)
This is an enlightening article- very well written. In my African American experience class we studied the doll tests by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark and I remember cringing at how each child interpreted the different dolls. I also learned a great deal about this in "The Color Purple" by Alice Walker- I think you'd like it. People like to believe that today there are no stereotypes enforced by the media and literature but the truth to that false reality is that we are constantly surrounded by-and absorbing- the whitewashed color preference of society. I always wondered why it is light skin that people like best- what it symbolizes... I admire that you are writing such an important issue. I would have liked to hear a bit about what you would do to stop it and steer away from this dangerous mindset. Thank you for writing such a thought-inducing piece. Keep up the great work! – Jacqueline Zuniga PaizWest High School (2016-12-31 18:44)
Excellent work, Amie! You worked diligently on this article, and it shows. – MckennaMadison, WI (2017-01-02 17:07)
Great editorial, Amie. It was very thought-provoking! – TaylorUW-Madison (2017-01-03 11:26)
Great job! I really liked how you examined colorism from all different angles. It's a really important issue and you did a great job explaining it and promoting introspection and activism in the reader. – SylvanMadison (2017-01-05 17:35)
This is awesome Amie! This is very eye opening and a topic that needs to be discussed. – Cynthia AvilaEdgewood College (2017-01-05 19:04)
Thank you for writing this. – AshleyVerona HS (2017-11-04 09:01)