Colorism is a type of discrimination where lighter skinned people are treated more favorably than people of darker skin  . This is a phenomenon that happens in a lot of minority communities of color, but for the purposes of this article we are going to focus on colorism in the black community.
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.
It’s important to talk about colorism because it is destructive to the black community. Of course as a whole, we already face oppression and discrimination from other races, so adding that extra layer of hate can cause serious harm to our unity and abilities to evolve as a unit. With social media outlets such as Twitter and Instagram pitting the community against each other with #TeamLightSkin and #TeamDarkskin, now seems like a vital time to create a dialogue about colorism. If we continuously create problems and division within ourselves, then we can never come together and rise against the oppression placed on us by other groups.
This article begins by discussing recent media events that touched on the issue of colorism. I will then present research that shows that colorism can be internalized and externalized. Lastly, I will provide the my own thoughts and suggestions about colorism within the black community.
In a recent episode of the TV show ‘Grownish’, two of the characters (Jazz and Sky) discuss their experiences that they have had with colorism . The characters focused on how they felt that they were overlooked on the dating scene compared to white, foreign, and light skinned women. Jazz and Sky felt that their skin tone put them at the bottom of the totem pole of guys preferences at their college.
This isn’t just an issue that affects one’s preferences in dating. Colorism can have internalizing effects on individuals. Not only do people of darker skin tones internalize it, so do folks of lighter skin tones. A study that examined African American girls between the ages of 11 and 19 found that girls that identified as “lighter” or “darker” tended to report lower levels of self-esteem than girls that said that they were “somewhat in between” . For these girls, sticking them into this category based on something that they can not change creates a challenge for them that otherwise might not have been discovered had it not been for that study. Additional research was found that was conducted on African American women at black colleges regarding their skin tone preference. Only 17% of the women in the study wished to be darker while 36% wished to be lighter .
These internalized feelings can also become externalized and be casted onto others, paving a foundation for individuals to make prejudice assumptions about others based on their skin tone. Another study tested children’s memories to see how good they were at pairing certain attributes from a story that was told to them to the story characters. The character selection was composed of lighter or darker skinned African Americans. The results showed that on average, children paired the negative attributes to the darker characters and the positive attributes with the lighter characters. Later research took it a step further and asked kids to simply pair groups of characters with traits such a mean, ugly, clean, and smart. One group of characters was composed of darker skinned children and one of lighter skinned children. Once again, the participants were far more likely to pair the negative traits with the darker characters. Sixty-four percent of the children said that the dark skinned group was “ugly” and 54% said that they were the mean group. Only 12% said that the lighter group was mean and 8% said that they were ugly .
So often we (the black community) comment on skin tone, that it becomes normal. Our families talk about it when we are born, our peers talk about it, and the media shoves it in our face. But just because it’s ‘normal,’ that does not make it right. Something that others may not think about long after they say it, such as comments in regards to ones skin tone, can actually cause a serious impact on an individual.
Colorism is wrong and in my opinion, it is a form of self hate. As stated earlier, the lighter skin is fetishcized because it shows closer ties with whiteness. Black people should love the skin that they are in, no matter what the shade. All people have the right to feel comfortable and confident in their own skin, but it seems to be those with darker skin that have the stigma and stereotypes aimed at them. How can one feel comfortable in their skin when they are wearing all of these stigmas and stereotypes just because of their skin tone?
So what can be done? First, we, the black community, must come together and collectively acknowledge that colorism is a thing. Because some people are still in denial. Second, we need to have a sense of solidarity. Because, no matter what your shade of black, you are still black to those outside of the community. Lastly, we need to stop the hate speech. Stop with the ‘nicknames’: light bright, darky, midnight, high yellow, amongst several others. Not only does this cause division but it belittles us down to something so simple as our skin color. We don’t have any control over that. What we do have control over is our actions and the way we treat people.
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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.”