Check Out This In-Depth #LongReads on ‘Colorism” – How Skin Color and Discrimination Walk Hand in Hand

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Check Out This In-Depth #LongReads on ‘Colorism” – How Skin Color and Discrimination Walk Hand in Hand

Gabrielle Hrung

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Ever heard of the word ‘colorism’? Well, the word ‘colorism’ doesn’t really exist, but the concept of colorism is definitely real. Coined by Alice Walker in 1982, colorism is a form of prejudice based solely on skin color, stemming from social interpretation and stereotypes. Colorism is different from racism, which is prejudice against a race or believing that one race is superior to another.

All throughout history, there are many examples of colorism. Usually it’s the preference towards those with lighter skin. Not only white people, but also lighter-skinned African Americans, Latinos/as, Asians, Europeans…all around the world.

In America, back in the times of slavery, slave owners were more favorable towards lighter-skinned slaves than darker-skinned slaves, according to this study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information. The lighter-skinned African Americans, who worked indoors, were more likely to have an education than the darker-skinned African Americans, who worked outdoors.

Even after slavery was abolished, African Americans with lighter skin had more job opportunities than darker-skinned African Americans.

Additionally, people used many colorist tests. The ‘brown paper bag test’ was used on slaves. If a slave’s skin is lighter than a brown paper bag, they would work indoors. If not, they had to work outside. The ‘door test’ was often used for African American clubs and churches. The door was painted a shade of brown and if the person’s skin was lighter than the door, they were allowed to enter. These examples of colorism are horrendous, but they’re only the beginning.

Colorism in East Asia dates back to the ancient times. Back then, people with lighter skin were wealthy as they did not have to work outside and therefore were not affected by the harsh sun. In Korea, “jade” white skin was ideal. In Japan, as early as the Edo period, women began to whiten their faces with rice powder. Chinese women swallowed powdered pearls because they desired a “milk white” complexion.

According to a Washington University paper on colorism in India, light-skinned Indians are favored over those with dark skin. More lighter-skinned Bollywood actors and actresses are hired than darker-skinned actors and actresses. Sometimes, actors and actresses are even photoshopped to have a lighter skin tone.

In Brazil, biracial or multiracial people with lighter skin are favored over darker skinned people. A 2016 Oxford study found that in Brazil, skin color determines social inequality more than ethnicity.

The number of examples of colorism around the world are astounding. I interviewed two psychologists about colorism.


What are your experiences with colorism?

Psychologist 1: I identify as Latinx. I was born in Mexico but I moved to the U.S. when I was five years old. I wasn’t aware of colorism till college as I only knew about discrimination and racism, but I was shocked when I learned about it and realized how I had faced it. I lived in a central state in Mexico. A desert state, like Arizona, where it’s hot and dry. My mom and grandparents told me to come back inside when I spent too much time in the sun because otherwise I would get too dark. I wondered why is that a problem; I formed ideas like “Why is this mean good? Why does this mean bad?” Tanning and being too dark was viewed as not good. My skin color is visibly not white, and even within my family, there is a preference for lighter skin. My family members will say things like “Oh, I wish I had your skin tone”, which has a connotation that their own skin color is not attractive. When coming to the U.S., I heard about minorities being pitted against each other. Within minority groups, lighter skin is more attractive, better.

Psychologist 2: My earliest experiences with colorism started in grade school. In a first grade assignment, we drew pictures of our best friend. My best friend was white and I used a peach crayon for her skin. For my picture, my best friend used a black crayon for my skin and a red crayon for my lips. I was upset and thought the picture looked like a monster. It was the first time seeing myself through someone else’s eyes. My mother told me that when I was in second grade, I came home and told my mother, “white is better.” I’m not sure what specific experience prompted me to say that, but I do remember always wanting lighter skin, lighter eyes, and longer hair. I think I was influenced a lot by images of beauty that I saw in media and what was portrayed as beautiful with my peers.

How have those experiences impacted you? Has there been a positive or negative impact?

2: I think those experiences negatively affected my self-esteem and as a dark-skinned, African American woman, I internalized the belief that I was not beautiful. It always seemed like a personal problem and I used to be ashamed about the way I viewed myself. A significant moment for me was when I first saw the Sudanese model Alek Wek, because it was the first time I saw someone who looked like me being celebrated as beautiful. I think these experiences also had a positive impact in that it shaped my worldview and pushed me to question my thinking. I felt less ashamed when I realized that colorism is systemic and we are all influenced by society. In college, is when I started to seek out information and classes that explored the complexity of racism. I took several African American literature classes and was influenced by writers and critical thinkers like Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and James Baldwin.

How do people react when they learn about your ethnicity?

1: People are very shocked. People often mistake me for Middle Eastern or Filipino. I don’t fit the stereotype of people coming from Mexico, from Latin America, and it throws them off because they already have assumptions before they learn about my ethnicity. I’m quite tall, for being Mexican. I speak English but I don’t have an accent. Now, I’ve gotten used to their reaction and it doesn’t come as a surprise.

2: My family is from Ghana, West Africa. When people usually hear my name or see me, they assume that I was not born in the United States. Often times, I feel like I’m being treated like an other and don’t know where I belong. With my African relatives, I feel like I’m viewed only as an American.

Are you treated the same way as other people of the same ethnicity as you?

1: It goes both ways. I’ve been treated better as I’m not darker than some people and I don’t fit the Mexican stereotype, like having an accent. But sometimes, I’m treated worse because I’m the only minority there. I don’t have the same struggles as others because I’m Mexican and people know a bit about Mexican culture. Others, however, are treated worse from where they are from. For example, one of my friends is from Argentina and he moved to the U.S. as an adult. He has a white partner and when he hangs out with his partner’s family, they don’t know how to talk or what to say to him. When he mentioned he’s from Argentina, they asked “Where in Mexico is that?”

What are some of the misconceptions about race and racism? Skin color and colorism?

2: I think a common misconception about race is that it is clearly defined and that it can be easily based on how someone looks. The impact of race is real and it is a complicated between biological and social factors. Racism is often portrayed as only overt, personal prejudice and it is important to recognize how racism can be systemic and unconscious.  I think a misconception about colorism is that it is about personal preference and historical context is not taken into account.

Why do you think it’s important to raise awareness about colorism?

1: We live in a society where we receive these messages and we internalize them, even if they are from other minorities. When we internalize them, these messages can impact mental health, self-esteem, how people view themselves, and can lead to self-hatred. We are perpetuating these messages in our own communities and we need to be aware of it to stop it.

 2: I think raising awareness about colorism is important because it sheds light on how ingrained these beliefs and prejudices are in society. For example, the Clark Doll Experiment administered by Kenneth and Mamie Clark, was an experiment that reflected how children perceive race at a young age and how whiteness was often viewed as the norm. Raising awareness is one of the steps to work toward challenging the negative impact of colorism.

What is one way for people to take action against colorism?

1: One way is to become aware of your own biases and stereotypes. Reflect on your interactions with minority groups and ask yourself “Do I have a diverse group of friends?” and “Who are the people I feel more comfortable around and why?”. Realize that we internalize these messages and question why it’s like that.

2: I think that encouraging critical discussions about colorism and raising awareness about the impact of colorism. It is also important to discuss societal factors and understanding colorism within a historical context, such as exploring colonialism and slavery. I think that diversity and representation matters in media in challenging whiteness as the norm.


Colorism has had and continues to have a huge impact on people and society. Discrimination against those with darker skin still goes on today but raising awareness about colorism is the first step to its end.


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