Colorism: Wikis


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Colorism is discrimination in which human beings are accorded differing social and treatment based on skin color. The preference often gets translated into economic status because of opportunities for work. Colorism can be found across the world. The term is generally used for the phenomenon of people discriminating within their own ethnic groups.

The term colorism usually refers to when lighter skin tones are preferred and darker skin is considered less desirable or vice versa. In the United States, the phenomenon also occurs in other populations, such as among Chicanos and other Latinos and Indian immigrants. While colorism still exists in the U.S., it has diminished since the Civil Rights Movement.

The name pigmentocracy is given to a group-based social hierarchy based largely on colorism. Also labeled as colorism, which is more discussed than others, is the phenomenon of lighter-skinned people discriminating against darker tones within the same ethnic group.


African-Americans in the United States

Du Bois in 1946, photo by Carl Van Vechten

Colorism in the United States is a practice that began in times of slavery due to white slave owner's assertion that any person black (African) or associated with blackness, was inferior or lowly. Common practices of the time were to allow the slaves with the lighter complexion (more commonly the offspring of the slave masters and their slaves) to engage in less strenuous usually domesticated duties, while the darker, more African looking slaves participated in hard labor, which was more than likely outdoors.[1]

The "brown paper bag test" was a ritual once practiced by certain African-American and Creole fraternities and sororities who discriminated against people who were "too dark." That is, these groups would not let anyone into the sorority or fraternity whose skin tone was darker than a paper lunch bag, in order to maintain a perception of standards. Spike Lee's film School Daze satirized this practice at historically black colleges and universities.

The “brown paper bag test” form of colorism is also believed to have been used in the application process to the prestigious Historically Black College Howard University. The University once required students to submit a photograph of themselves, most likely to ensure that the majority of the Universities students were of lighter complexion. Along with the "Paper Bag Test," guidelines for acceptance among the lighter ranks included the "comb test", which tested the coarseness of one's hair, and the "flashlight test," which tested a person's profile, to make sure their features measured up, or were close enough to those of the Caucasian race.[2]

Colorism is prevalent in the job application process as well, research shows that a light skinned African American male with a bachelors degree and mediocre experience is more likely to be hired for a typical job than a dark skinned man with a Masters in Business Administration and past experience in the field.[3]

While stated less explicitly, colorism has been portrayed in episodes of the NBC drama Homicide: Life on the Street.[4] Lighter-skinned African American superior officers Deputy Commissioner of Operations James C. Harris and Colonel George Barnfather appear to discriminate against main character Baltimore Police Lieutenant Al Giardello, a darker-skinned African American. Additionally, African American women have discriminated against Giardello on the grounds that his appearance is "too black".[5]

Along with the above example, a major issue in American society has been the fact the majority of media outlets (television, movies, advertising, etc.) choose to portray lighter skin people, because on average, that is the national preference. The (light to dark) hierarchy within the African American race is one that has existed since the time of slavery, but its problems and consequences are still very evident. Darker skinned blacks are more likely to have negative relationships with the police, less likely to have higher education or income levels, and less likely to hold public office. Darker skinned people are also considered less intelligent, less desirable (in women mostly), and are overall seen as a lesser people. Studies have shown that when measuring education and family income, there is a positive sloping curve as the skin of families gets lighter. This does not prove that darker skinned people are discriminated against, but it provides insight as to why these statistics are recurring. Lighter skinned people tend to have higher social standing, more positive networks, and more opportunities to succeed than those of a darker persuasion. Scientists believe this advantage is due to not only to ancestors benefits, but also skin color, which coincides with the belief of colorism affecting peoples lives from past to present. In criminal sentencing, medium to dark-skinned African Americans are likely to receive sentences 2.6 longer than those of whites or light-skinned African Americans, and when a white victim is involved, those with more "black" features are likely to receive a much more severe punishment, reinforcing the idea that those of lighter complexion are of more "value."[6]

Colorism also adversely affects the relationships between African American men and women. Darker skinned African Americans are less likely to get married, and those that do are more likely to marry beneath their own socioeconomic status, perpetuating the challenges that darker skinned blacks face.[7] Also, as education levels rise, the preferences in attraction also change, with most college students believing that their lighter skinned racial counterparts are more attractive than darker skinned people. The preferences of children and adolescents were not that different, meaning education level is important. This problem seems to be more evident when discussing the lives of African American women, seeing as they have more to overcome with the more pronounced differences in the body type, facial features, and hair. The constant exposure to European traits in American media, such as Advertising, movies, television, or even children's dolls, provides an explanation as to why this comparison to Caucasian-like traits is perpetuated. Those of lighter complexion are also known to have higher education and socioeconomic status, meaning their social skills are more "refined," which can be seen as more attractive to other educated people. The idea that darker African American women do not stand up to their lighter counterparts may cause them to lose self confidence or esteem, which could in turn decrease their self worth, making them less likely to want to overcome the boundaries before them. Since the majority of a man's self worth is not related to their level of physical attractiveness, men are not as adversely affected as women. The theory of the "sacred white womanhood" also affects perceptions of attractiveness in that women whose complexion is closer to the pristine "fair" skinned white woman are considered more desirable and at times more attractive. This goes against the typical historical view of dark skinned women, who were expected to be comparable to men in their ability to work, constantly looked at as dirty or as property, and in a sense emasculate their femininity. The backlash from these altering views is that African American women are forced to imitate the actions and lifestyles of white women, by doing such things as bleaching their skin or straightening their hair, in order to gain affection of their male complements.


Skin Color Paradox

The Skin Color Paradox is an idea that deals with the issue of "being black," meaning how African Americans identify themselves, as well as others with the same experiences or lifestyles. A major issue in this paradox deals with the inconsistencies between a persons socio-economical and cultural preferences and their political preferences. Going along with the colorism issue, the paradox exists due to the fact that lighter skinned and darker skinned African Americans seem to have different experiences (socioeconomically and culturally), yet in the past, and theoretically in the future, will continue to have political preferences that benefit the African American race as a whole. Political scientists would suggest that skin color is a characteristic perhaps as equally important as religion, income, and education, which explains why the paradox is so surprising, but studies show that skin color (or shade) has no real implications on actual political preferences. Another issue with the paradox is the issue of affirmative action. Studies show that most of the people that receive affirmative action come from families that are better educated and more well off, and historically this means that the lighter-skinned portion of the black race is receiving the majority of the aid, making it appear as if the race as a whole is being benefited.[8]

Americo Liberians

In Liberia, descendants of African-American settlers (renamed Americo-Liberians) in part defined social class and standing by raising people with lighter skin above those with dark skin. The first Americo-Liberian presidents such as Joseph Jenkins Roberts, James Spriggs-Payne, and Alfred Francis Russell had considerable proportions of European ancestry. Most may have been only one-quarter or one-eighth African American. Other aspects of their rising to power, however, likely related to their chances for having obtained education and work that provided good livings.

Edward Roye was the first representative of dark-skinned African-American settlers in Liberia.( The light-skinned party was the Republican Party (Liberia) and the dark-skinned party was the True Whig Party.

In addition to rivalries among descendants of African Americans, the Americans held themselves above the native Africans in Liberia. Thus, descendants of Americans held and kept power out of proportion to their representation in the population of the entire country, so there was a larger issue than color at work.

The "Blue Vein Society"

Following the Emancipation, mulatto societies such as "The Blue Vein Society" came into prominence. Its members were often well-connected free-born or freed individuals of mixed African, European, and occasionally of Native American blood. To be eligible for membership, one's skin color had to be pale enough that the "blue veins" on the underside of the arm were visible. Such restrictive organizations allowed its members and their offspring to meet, co-mingle and marry, thereby preserving what small privilege the mulatto elite had enjoyed before all slaves were set free. Uneducated, or economically disadvantaged mixed-race individuals, even those whose skin color was technically light enough to qualify them for admission, were rarely welcomed, demonstrating that there were more than color issues under consideration.

The original "Blue Veins" were said to have been organized in New England. Their primary objective was to establish and maintain "correct" social standards among people who had achieved some social, educational and economic standing.[citation needed]

Colorism outside the United States

Colorism also occurs in other western cultures where fair people are considered to be more superior, affluent, and powerful then those of a darker skin tone. In some Latin American countries such as Brazil, "race" classification is more a matter of skin tone and social status than actual ancestry.

Colorism can be identified as a direct consequence of the social stratification of colonial societies, especially the ones affected by slavery. The phenomenon exists in the Americas from United States to Caribbean countries to South America.

In the French West Indies, new born children can be deemed as "sauvé" (saved) when their skin tone is light enough to represent a chance at better social status.

The same conceptions that discriminate against dark skin are often applied to other physical features that are directly linked to African heritage: hair, face features, etc.

Colorism in Brazil

Brazil has the largest population of African descendants (living outside of Africa) in the world. This large number was a result of the African Slave trade. In Brazil, skin color plays a large role in differences among the races. Social status. Individuals with lighter skin and who are racially mixed generally have higher rates of social mobility.[9]

Like in the United States, there are a disproportionate number of white elites than those of African descent. There are large health, education and income disparities between the races in Brazil.[10]

Colorism in South Asia

Even prior to any interactions between Europeans and South Asians, colorism has been an issue for South Asian cultures. According to Communist revisionist historians, color prejudice was introduced due to Aryans from Central Asia invading India in ancient times and subjugating the "dark" indigenous Indians. This form of negationist historical revisionism was part of the British colonial ideology. Much of these theories were simply conjecture fueled by European imperialism. This styling of an Aryan invasion by British colonial fantasies of racial supremacy was incorporated by Communist revisionists as part of waging a Trotskyist permanent revolution in India between perceived "whites" and "darks", and has no basis in genetic or anthropological studies of South Asian populations. More recent studies have also debunked the British claims that so-called "Aryans" and "Dravidians" have a "racial divide". A study conducted by the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in 2009 (in collaboration with Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Public Health and the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT) analyzed half a million genetic markers across the genomes of 132 individuals from 25 ethnic groups from 13 states in India across multiple caste groups.[11] The study establishes, based on the impossibility of identifying any genetic indicators across caste lines, that castes in South Asia grew out of traditional tribal organizations during the formation of Indian society, and was not the product of any mythical "Aryan Invasion" and "subjugation" of Dravidian people, unlike what British racial-revanchist and revisionist claims would have one believe.[12]

The study does go on state that there were two different populations that originally settled India. They were the Ancestral North Indian (ANI) in the north and the Ancestral South Indian (ASI) in the south. Over time these groups mixed together.

Traditionally, Hindusim has never shown a preference for skin colour and dark skinned people can be found in all castes of Hindu society. In the Mahabharata, the character known as Krishnaa was of dark complexion but was an epitome of beauty. The incarnation of Vishnu, Krishna himself (widely revered by Vaishnavites), was said to be "as black as a full raincloud".

Individuals in South Asia have tended to see whiter skin as more beautiful. This was most clearly visible in British India, where skin color served as a signal of high status for British, who styled themselves as the true "inheritors" of Indian society based on their pseudohistorical narratives of the "Aryan Invasion". Thus, those individuals with fairer skin color enjoyed more privileges and opportunities than those with dark skin. Anglo-Indians with more European features were often more upwardly mobile and were considered to have a more affluent status. These individuals gained preferences in education and in employment. Darker skinned individuals were be socially and economically disadvantaged due to their appearance. Being dark skinned, black or colored constituted a disadvantage in society for most European colonies, the South Asian subcontinent notwithstanding.

Arab world

Arab culture beautifies the red color. [13] A popular phrase in Northern Sudan is "al-Husnu ahmar" (beauty is red)[13] reddishness is the ultimate standard color in most Arab societies. The second ranking is called "asmar" (brown), followed by "dahabi"(golden), gamhi (wheatish), khamri (the color of wine), akhdar (light black/green). "Akhdhar" is used as a polite alternative of the word "black" in describing the color of a dark-skinned Arab. The early Arabs used the word "akhdar" (green) to describe people of unquestionable nobility whose color, for one reason or the other, was black. Last and least is azrag [13]. which literally means "blue", but it is used interchangeably with aswad to mean "black".

See also


  1. ^ Hill, Mark E. "Skin Color and the Perception of Attractiveness Among African Americans: Does Gender Make a Difference?" Social Psychology Quarterly 65.1 (2002): 77-91.
  2. ^ Kerr, Audrey E. "The Paper Bag Principle: Of the Myth and the Motion of Colorism." Journal of American Folklore 118.469 (205): 271-289.
  3. ^ Banerji, Shilpa. "Study: Darker-skinned Black Job Applicants Face More Obstacles." Diverse: Issues in Higher Education 23.16 (2006): 20.
  4. ^ Mascaro, Thomas A. (2004-03-22). "Homicide: Life on the Street: progress in portrayals of African American men". Journal of Popular Film and Television. OCLC 4652347. ISSN 0195-6051. Retrieved 2007-09-23. 
  5. ^
  6. ^ Hochschild, Jennifer L. "The Skin Color Paradox and the American Racial Order." Social Forces 86.2 (2007): 643-670.
  7. ^ Hochschild, Jennifer L. "The Skin Color Paradox and the American Racial Order." Social Forces 86.2 (2007): 643-670.
  8. ^ Hochschild, Jennifer L. "The Skin Color Paradox and the American Racial Order." Social Forces 86.2 (2007): 643-670.
  9. ^ Hernandez, Tanya K. (2006). "Bringing Clarity to Race Relations in Brazil". Diverse: Issues in Higher Education 23 (18): 85. 
  10. ^ Santana, Almeida-Filho, Roberts, Cooper, Vilma, Naomar, Robert, Sharon P.; Almeida-Filho, Naomar; Roberts, Robert; Cooper, Sharon P. (2007). "Skin Colour, Perception of Racism and Depression among Adolescents in Urban Brazil". Child & Adolescent Mental Health 12 (3): 125–131. doi:10.1111/j.1475-3588.2007.00447.x. 
  11. ^ Indians are one people descended from two tribes
  12. ^ Aryan-Dravidian divide a myth: Study, Times of India
  13. ^ a b c Al-Baqr al-Affif Mukhtar (2007). The Crisis of Identity in Northern Sudan: The Dilemma of a Black People with a White Culture. in Fluehr-Lobban and Rhodes, Race and Identity in the Nile Valley. pp. 213–24.. 
  • Neal, Angela & Wilson, Midge (1989). The role of skin color and features in the. Black community: Implications for black women and therapy. Clinical Psychology Review, Vol 9(3), 1989. pp. 323-333.
  • Kerr, Audrey E. "The Paper Bag Principle: Of the Myth and the Motion of Colorism." Journal of American Folklore 118.469 (2005): 271-289.

Books about colorism

External links


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