December 7, 2018

Skin color discrimination (colorism) in the United States

(Originally posted on Facebook in 2014)

My intention in sharing this information with you all is not to act as a spokesperson, but to share the words of people who know much more about this subject than I could ever begin to understand. Here I will provide direct quotes from the articles and papers I used as resources in preparation for my video on colorism. I’ve tried to arrange them in an order that will facilitate ease of understanding for anyone who is beginning to learn about this important issue. The information is not chronological, or otherwise in order of any priority. There is a lot here, but this collection of articles only scratches the surface of this issue, and I encourage those of you who may not have personal experience with colorism and racism to take some time to educate yourselves. Greater understanding benefits us all.

The purpose of sharing this information is not to judge any individuals for their decision to use skin lightening products, nor to suggest that all individuals of a race or culture have the same experience with discrimination or the same discriminatory attitudes. Like with any other cosmetics and appearance modification (hair dye, tattoos, cosmetic surgery, body piercing, etc.), using skin lightening products is a personal choice, and there are a variety of reasons why individual people may choose to do so. Those personal reasons are none of our business. Instead, I aim to share broader information to examine the culture of colorism and skin color shaming in general, which may or may not contribute to an individual’s decision to use skin lightening or anti-hyperpigmentation products.

Please feel free to share any of this information, but please cite the original authors, who are noted with links to the sources I used in this research.

Colorism in the United States:

What Is Colorism? by Nadra Kareem Nittle

"In sum, colorism refers to discrimination based on skin color. Colorism disadvantages dark-skinned people, while privileging those with lighter skin... Slave-owners typically gave preferential treatment to slaves with fairer complexions. While dark-skinned slaves toiled outdoors in the fields, their light-skinned counterparts usually worked indoors completing domestic tasks that were far less grueling.”

Pigmentocracy, by Trudier Harris

“During slavery, black people who were fathered by their white masters often gained privileges based on their lighter coloring. Indeed, one reported pattern is that blacks of lighter skin were reputedly selected to work in the Big Houses of plantation masters while blacks of darker hues were routinely sent to the fields. Moreover, one of the origins of the Dozens, the ritual game of insult in African American culture, is reputed to have developed as a result of slurs darker skinned blacks who worked in the fields hurled at lighter skinned blacks because their mothers had given birth to children sired by white masters.”

“The politics of skin color, therefore, has some disturbing prongs. On the one hand, it enabled some persons legally classified as black to enhance their educations because of their lighter skins. On the other hand, it encouraged darker skinned blacks to devalue their black skins in imitation of lighter hues and whiteness. Racial pride thus became tied up in ambiguous ways with racial self-hatred.”

Perceptions of and Preferences for Skin Color, Black Racial Identity, and Self-Esteem Among African Americans, by Stephanie Irby Coard, Alfiee M. Breland, Patricia Raskin (

“While many dark-complexioned African Americans view their skin color proudly, others are ambivalent and view their blackness as a ‘mark of oppression’. Conversely, many light-complexioned African Americans have been belittled because they do not look ‘black enough’ (i.e., their phenotypes are more typical of those associated with European Americans than those associated with African Americans.”

Schools’ Discipline for Girls Differs by Race and Hue, by Tanzia Vega (

“An analysis by Villanova researchers of data from the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth and the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health indicated that black girls with the darkest skin tones were three times more likely to be suspended than black girls with the lightest skin.”

Documentary, studies renew debate about skin color's impact, by L.A. Johnson (

“In the seven-minute documentary ‘A Girl Like Me,’ 18-year-old Kiri Davis interviews teenage African-American girls about the beauty standards society imposes on them and how those standards affect their self-esteem.

‘You're [considered] prettier if you're light-skinned,’ says one teen, Glenda, in the film.

‘I used to think of myself as being ugly because I was dark-skinned,’ says another teen, Jennifer.” (To view the film -- visit:

Colorism: Light-Skinned African-American Women Explain The Discrimination They Face (HuffPost OWN Videos:

“Though one of the women has seen first-hand how some of her darker-skinned family members are treated, she says that she, too, struggled with discrimination. ‘Being a light-skinned girl, you get called names… You get called 'lite-brite,' you get called 'high yellow,' 'redbone.' This is a reality every day.’

Having longer hair or lighter skin, she continues, makes others in her community assume she thinks she is prettier than them -- something she says simply isn't true. ‘You're alienated from your own people. You're never black enough,’ she says. ‘But we're still black in America. None of us feel advantaged.’”

Colorism in Our Culture, by Marita Golden (

“’As a light-skinned woman, brown-skinned women tell me all the time that I'm not a ‘real sister,' and sometimes even that I can't be trusted because I'm light.’”

Studies of color bias:

The Science of How We See Obama's Skin Color, by Andrew Romano (citing study by Eugene Caruso -

"...we showed people several different photos [of Barack Obama] and asked them to rate each one on how much they represented who he really is. What we found was that participants who told us that they had a liberal political orientation rated the lightened photographs as more representative of Obama than the darkened photographs, whereas participants who told us they had a more conservative ideology rated the darkened photographs as more representative of Obama than the lightened ones."

Skin Color Is in the Eye of the Beholder, by Eugene Caruso, Nicole Mead, Emily Balcetis (

"In a separate study, Caruso and colleagues invented a racially ambiguous politician they said was being considered for a position at the U.S. Department of Education. A different group of students, again about 90% white and 10% black, saw an unaltered photo of the candidate and read his biography. The researchers then asked the participants about their positions on education reform. They told half that the candidate mostly agreed with them. The other half were told that the candidate mostly disagreed with them. When asked to pick which altered photo of the candidate was more representative, students who thought the candidate agreed with their views were two-and-a-half times more likely to chose the lightened photo. Those who thought the candidate disagreed with them were two-and-a-half times more likely to choose the darkened photo.

The findings don't appear to hold for racially unambiguous candidates, however. When participants were presented with three versions of John McCain--each with different skin colors--skin tone had no effect on their choices. The more racial ambiguity, Caruso says, 'the more room there is for judgmental bias.'"

Study Proves Subconscious Bias Against Dark-Skinned Blacks, by Chris Hoenig (

“Researchers at San Francisco State University divided study participants… into two groups, subliminally ingraining the word ‘educated’ into the minds of one group and the words ‘ignorant’ and ‘athletic’ into the minds of the other. Participants were all then shown a picture of the same Black man. Later… they went through a process where they were shown four different pictures or groups of pictures, which included the original picture and/or up to six others, each one altered to change the skin tone—three were lighter… three were darker. After seeing each [group of pictures], participants had to identify whether the original photo had been on the screen.

“[T]he students in the ‘educated’ subset [were] more likely to not only select the wrong photo, but roughly twice as likely to select the picture that was 50 percent lighter than the original.”

Shades of Prejudice, by Shankar Vedantam (

“Lighter-skinned Latinos in the United States make $5,000 more on average than darker-skinned Latinos. The education test-score gap between light-skinned and dark-skinned African-Americans is nearly as large as the gap between whites and blacks.”

Reaction to Dark Girls [documentary] From a Light-Skinned Black Man, by Robert West (

“Once while hailing a cab with my best-friend, a brown-skinned brother, we experienced taxi after taxi bypass us only to pick up passengers just beyond us, something most visibly black people can relate to. Finally, he said, ‘Let me back up and let you get the cab.’ I responded by saying that wasn't the reason, knowing good and damn well it was, but did so because I wanted him to know that I didn't enjoy being the one able to get the cab. I didn't want him to think that I reveled in the privilege of my light, bright and damn near white complexion. I'm married to a man shades darker than myself, my heart aches when others choose to look right through him only to address me. Fortunately, my husband has informed me that this type of behavior is not his problem, nor should it be mine. He's made it clear that I don't have to apologize, or get angry for the ignorance promulgated by others.”

It is absolutely the right of any individual to use skin lightening or hyperpigmentation products, and the use of such products is not necessarily the result of colorism or racism. However, the phenomenon of skin color shaming (and racism at large) is well established and well studied. The psychological effects of colorism and racism can be similar to those of body shaming and other forms of abuse. External reinforcement of negative body image impacts upon self-esteem and overall well being in ways that can contribute to depression and anxiety disorders, including eating disorders ( Externally, colorism and racism contribute to discrimination, and can lead to bullying, familial abuse, racial profiling, and other forms of violence.

As the United States moves forward after this painful year, I hope you can take some information from here to help raise awareness of the ongoing reality of racism and colorism that is still unfortunately a part of everyday life for millions of people worldwide.


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