Colorism in the black community, not a new concept, but also not acknowledged as much as it should be. The black community is well versed in racism, but are often oblivious to colorism. Colorism is the prejudicial or preferential treatment of people of the same race, solely based on the color of their skin [1]. Typically, individuals of lighter skin are preferred in the black community. Not only is it a preference, it is almost a fetish. Colorism is so detrimental to the community because not only are we dealing with racism, prejudice, and oppression from other races, we must deal with the prejudice and stigmas within our own race.

An old children’s rhyme captures the definition of colorism and its inner workings in a nutshell.

“If you’re black, stay back;

if you’re brown, stick around;

if you’re yellow, you’re mellow;

if you’re white, you’re all right.” [2]

  • Origin
    • Today
  • Why it matters?
    • Perceptions
    • Representations
  • Alterations
    • Skin Bleaching
  • Relationship to bodylore
  1. Origin

Colorism can be dated back to slavery. When lighter/fairer skinned slaves were in the house doing domestic work, the darker skinned slaves were outside in the fields. The lighter skinned slaves were often preferred in the house because they were children or grandchildren to the plantation owner due to the sexual assault that slaves often experienced. Although these mixed race babies were not freed or claimed by their white fathers, they were awarded privileges like being in the house and doing less labor intensive work. As a result, light skin grew to become a positive attribute in the black community.[2]

1.1 Today

Unfortunately, the end of slavery in the United States did not mean the end of colorism. Light skinned people (LSP), were awarded better employment opportunities over dark skinned people (DSP). This can be one explanation as to why a lot of upper-class blacks were of lighter skin. Brent Staples often recalled reading newspaper ads in the 1940’s were job seekers would list that they were ‘light skinned’ before even listing their experience and qualifications. Even within the community, DSP were excluded on the basis of their skin colors. Often times is people were darker than a brown paper bag, they were not invited into certain social circles [2].

  1. Why it matters?

2.1 Perceptions

One study revealed that people tend to associate positive attributes with lighter skin tones. Students were shown a word, either “educated” or “ignorant”. They were then shown a picture of man. The researchers also showed the students six other pictures of the man. Three of the photos were darker, and three were light. When shown the word “educated”, people tended to recall the photos with the lighter skin tones than the one that they were originally shown [3].

A similar study was conducted using images of former President Obama with photoshopped skin tones. People who agreed with his political views selected images of him with lighter skin. People who disagreed with his views tended to select the images of him with darker skin [4]. These two articles show an association between light skin and positive attributes. It also goes to shows how even though it may happen subconsciously, there is an underlying stigma towards DSP.

2.2 Representation

Many girls of darker skin tones are under represented on camera. Black women on TV shows, magazines, and the big screen are oftentimes light skinned. Actress Zendaya, who is of light skin, even admitted to ”have a bit of a privilege compared to [her] darker sisters and brothers” [5]. Even in movies where the original characters were meant to be dark skinned, Hollywood chose to opt for a ‘light skin version.’ For example instead of casting a DSP for the role of Nina Simone, whom was a darker skinned woman, they casted light skinned actress Zoe Saldana and used makeup to make her appear darker [5]. Actions like this are what cause little boys and girls of darker skin to believe that they aren’t beautiful. They see and notice how these LSP are chosen over them on the TV shows, the movies, and even in their own classrooms. This can lead to a low self-esteem and have them believing that they are ugly because of the amount of melanin in their skin [6].

  1. Alterations

3.1 Skin Bleaching

This lack of preference and representation for DSP can affect someones self-esteem and induce serious self hate. One form or serious self hate that has been on the rise is skin bleaching. This is when someone takes measures to lighten their skin using bleach. This bleach is typically a topical that they apply all over in efforts to make them more beautiful, in their mind. Even celebrities like Michael Jackson, Sammy Sosa, Lil Kim, and Azaelia Banks have skin bleached. Not only is this psychological warfare on the individual, but warfare on other people of color, especially those of darker skin. It influences the black community as a whole. It sends a message that “____ didn’t want to have brown skin, so why should I? I want to be like ____”. Fill in the blank [7].

  1. Relationship to bodylore

From information obtained during Dr. Milligan’s class I can state that bodylore is the way we communicate with our bodys and how our bodies affect our social meaning. Bodylore is how we tie our bodies to our identities. Skin color is something that identifies us, that is a fact. Someone can look at a person and tell if they are a LSP or a DSP. Though perception of light and dark may differ from person to person, skin tone is something that can be seen with the naked eye by a person. People don’t have to ask each other what their skin tone is. They don’t have to get to know each other to know what their skin tone is, you can see it on the surface. And although one might not internally or externally express their privileges a as a LSP, the privileges still exist. A DSP may get the short end of the stick in several sectors of life such as employment, sentencing, and social gatherings [8]. If DSP feel like white America won’t accept them, and their own community oust them and ranks them below their light skin counterparts, it is no wonder as to why some may resort to skin alterations and expensive procedures to change their skin tone. Yes, there are many DSP that are completely comfortable in their skin but this article shows evidence of many that are not happy. This should open some sort of dialogue or discussion to people of all ages and genders to ensure that they feel welcomed in wanted in the black community.


Things to check out:

1- Shades of Black – Colorism, Skin Color Discrimination

2- McKenzie, Joi-Marie. 2017. “Student Showered With Compliments After She

Courageously Admits to Low Self-Esteem.” ABC News.

3 – Cake Soap…. Skin Bleaching in Jamaica (Full Documentary)



[1] Tharps , Lori. 2016. “The Difference Between Racism and Colorism.” Time.

[2] Nittle, Nadra Kareem. 2016. “The Origin of Colorism and How It Persists in America Today.” ThoughtCo.

[3] Byng, Rhonesha. 2014. “Study Reveals The Unconscious Bias Towards Dark Skin People We Already Knew Existed.” The Huffington Post.

[4] O’Callaghan, Tiffany. 2009. “The politics of perceiving skin color.” Time.

[5] Onyejiaka, Tiffany. 2017. “We Need to Talk About Hollywood’s Colorism Problem.” Teen Vogue.

[6] McKenzie, Joi-Marie. 2017. “Student Showered With Compliments After She Courageously Admits to Low Self-Esteem.” ABC News.

[7]Hall, Roland. 2018. “Black Americas bleaching syndrome.” The Conversation.

[8] Starr, Terrell Jermaine. 2017. “STUDY: Light-Skin Blacks Preferred Over Dark-Skin Ones.” News One.

Keyondra Wilson is studying Applied Sociology at Old Dominion University. She is particularly interested in inequalities in race and social class. She works as a Graduate Research Assistant at the Social Science Research Center at Old Dominion University. Her life goal is to someday own her own charity specializing in helping disadvantaged individuals and families. Her life motto is, “Don’t Survive. Thrive.”