Discrimination based on skin color

Discrimination based on skin color

Colorism is prejudice or discrimination in which human beings are accorded differing social 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 refers to when lighter skin tones are preferred and darker skin is considered less desirable or darker skin tones are preferred and lighter skin is considered less desirable. In the United States, the phenomenon also occurs in other populations, such as among Chicanos and other Latinos, Indian immigrants and Caucasian Americans.

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.

Many historically favored and continue to favor lighter skin in women. In his foreword to Peter Frost's 2005 Fair Women, Dark Men, University of Washington sociologist Pierre L. van den Berghe writes: "Although virtually all cultures express a marked preference for fair female skin, even those with little or no exposure to European imperialism, and even those whose members are heavily pigmented, many are indifferent to male pigmentation or even prefer men to be darker."[1] A consequence of this is that, since higher-ranking men get to marry more physically desirable women, the upper classes of a society generally tend to develop a lighter complexion than the lower classes by sexual selection (see also Fisherian runaway).[2]


African-Americans in the United States

Colorism in the United States is a practice that began in times of slavery due to white slaveowners' 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.[3]

Scientific studies conclude natural human skin color diversity is highest in black/sub-saharan African populations therefore many blacks/sub-saharan Africans or people of sub saharan African descent are naturally light skinned.[4]

Brown paper bag test

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 that of 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.

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.[5]

Media and stereotypes

While stated less explicitly, colorism has been portrayed in episodes of the NBC drama Homicide: Life on the Street.[6] 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".[7]

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.[8]

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[clarification needed] 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."[8]

The perception of beauty can be influenced by racial stereotypes about skin color; the African American journalist Jill Nelson wrote that "to be both prettiest and black was impossible"[9] and elaborated:

As a girl and young woman, hair, body, and color were society's trinity in determining female beauty and identity, the cultural and value-laden gang of three that formed the boundaries and determined the extent of women's visibility, influence, and importance. For the most part, they still are. We learn as girls that in ways both subtle and obvious, personal and political, our value as females is largely determined by how we look. As we enter womanhood, the pervasive power of this trinity is demonstrated again and again in how we are treated by the men we meet, the men we work for, the men who wield power, how we treat each other and, most of all, ourselves. For black women, the domination of physical aspects of beauty in women's definition and value render us invisible, partially erased, or obsessed, sometimes for a lifetime, since most of us lack the major talismans of Western beauty. Black women find themselves involved in a lifelong effort to self-define in a culture that provides them no positive reflection.[9]


Skin whitening products sales grew from $40 to $43 billion in 2008.[10]

In the African-American community, light skin is considered more attractive than dark skin. During slavery, light-skinned African-Americans were perceived as intelligent, cooperative, and beautiful.[11] They were more likely to work as house slaves. Light-skinned Blacks were also given preferential treatment by plantation owners and their henchmen. For example, they had a chance to get an education.[12] Dark African Americans worked in the fields and did not get an education.[13]

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 person's 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 similar political preferences that benefit the African Americans as a whole.[8]

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 regarding Affirmative Action. Studies show that most African Americans that benefit from 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]

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.[14]

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]

In Latin America

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.[15]

There are a disproportionate number of mostly European descent elites than those of visible African descent. There are large health, education and income disparities between the races in Brazil.[16]

In Latin America, light skin is seen as more attractive.[17] In Mexico and in Brazil, light skin represents power.[18] A dark skinned person is more likely to be discriminated against in Brazil.[19] Most South American actors and actresses have mostly European features - light or light-mixed eyes, protruding narrow noses, straight hair and/or pale skin. A light skinned person was considered to be more privileged and have a higher social status. A person with light skin is considered beautiful and it means that the person has more wealth. Skin color is such an obsession in these countries that specific words describe distinct skin tones from "hincha," Puerto Rican slang for "glass of milk" to "morena," literally "brown."[20]

Generally, those with dark skin and frizzy hair tend to be among the region's poorest and most disenfranchised. Nevertheless, many Brazilians disregard straightening on afro-textured hair as an attitude of shame of their own ethnic and racial origins, and say that persons of African descent should accept themselves as such rather than trying to be "whiter" i.e. fitting in the colourist beauty standards of Latin America. If this reflects more colourism (racist Brazilians perceive straightened afro-textured hair as ridiculous in a risible way, especially in a man, which is often labeled as viadagem, or a greater politicization with respect to race relations and racism, varies greatly with the person.

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 (source needed), 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.[21] 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.[22] Vinay Lal's History of India Course at UCLA states otherwise.

The study does go on to 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, Hinduism has never shown a preference for skin color and dark skinned people can be found in all castes of Hindu society. In the Mahabharata, the character known as Krishna 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. 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[who?] to have a more affluent status. These individuals gained preferences[clarification needed] in education and in employment. Darker skinned individuals were socially and economically disadvantaged due to their appearance. (Beyond the South Asian subcontinent, persons who were dark-skinned, "black" or "colored" faced a disadvantage in most European-held colonies.) Most Indian actors and actresses have light skin.[23]

A documentary entitled Shadeism looks closer at how skin color effects the mindset of women.

In East Asia

In eastern parts of Asia, including Southeast Asia, a preference for lighter skin remains prevalent. In ancient China and Japan, for example, pale skin can be traced back to ancient drawings depicting women and goddesses with fair skin tones. In ancient China, Japan, and Southeast Asia, pale skin was seen as a sign of wealth.[citation needed] Thus, skin whitening cosmetic products are popular in East Asia.[24] 4 out of 10 women surveyed in Hong Kong, Malaysia, the Philippines and South Korea used a skin-whitening cream, and more than 60 companies globally compete for Asia's estimated $18 billion market.[25]

In the Arab world

Arab culture beautifies the white color.[26] A popular phrase in Northern Sudan is "al-Husnu ahmar" (beauty is red)[26] whiteness is the ultimate standard color in most Arab societies. The second ranking is called "asmar" (light tan), followed by "dhahabi" (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 questionable nobility whose color, for one reason or the other, was black. Last and least is azraq.[26] which literally means "blue", but it is used interchangeably with aswad to mean "black".

In Africa

Skin bleaching is popular in Senegal and all across West Africa, especially among women.[27]

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.

See also


  1. ^ see Steve Sailer, Blondes Have Deeper Roots (2005)
  2. ^ Peter Frost "Fair Women, Dark Men: The Forgotten Roots of Color Prejudice," (2005).
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ Human skin color diversity is highest in sub-Saharan African or Black African populations (Relethford 2000).
  5. ^ Kerr, Audrey E. "The Paper Bag Principle: Of the Myth and the Motion of Colorism." Journal of American Folklore 118.469 (205): 271-289.
  6. ^ Mascaro, Thomas A. (2004-03-22). "Homicide: Life on the Street: progress in portrayals of African American men". Journal of Popular Film and Television. ISSN 0195-6051. OCLC 4652347. http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G1-115399891.html. Retrieved 2007-09-23. 
  7. ^ http://novemberrain.free.fr/GlossaireHLOTS.htm
  8. ^ a b c d Hochschild, Jennifer L. "The Skin Color Paradox and the American Racial Order." Social Forces 86.2 (2007): 643-670.
  9. ^ a b Jill Nelson (1997). "Straight, No Chaser—How I Became a Grown-Up Black Woman— WHO'S THE FAIREST OF THEM ALL?". New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/n/nelson-straight.html. Retrieved 2009-11-06. "As a girl and young woman, hair, body, and color were society's trinity in determining female beauty and identity... We learn as girls that in ways both subtle and obvious, personal and political, our value as females is largely determined by how we look." 
  10. ^ "Bleaching Creams: Fade to Beautiful?". Northwestern University. 03-10-2010. http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=161243. Retrieved 09-08-2010. 
  11. ^ "What Are "Good Looks"?". Kenyon College. http://northbysouth.kenyon.edu/2000/Beauty/goodlooks.htm. Retrieved 09-08-2010. 
  12. ^ "The Paper Bag Test". St. Petersburg Times. 08-31-2003. http://www.sptimes.com/2003/08/31/Columns/The_paper_bag_test.shtml. Retrieved 09-08-2010. 
  13. ^ "For Light-Skinned Only?". 08-16-2007. http://www.npr.org/blogs/newsandviews/2007/10/for_lightskinned_only.html. Retrieved 09-08-2010. 
  14. ^ Russell,K., Wilson, M., & Hall, Ronadl. "The Color Complex". HBJ, 1992, p. 27.
  15. ^ Hernandez, Tanya K. (2006). "Bringing Clarity to Race Relations in Brazil". Diverse: Issues in Higher Education 23 (18): 85. 
  16. ^ Santana, Almeida-Filho, Roberts, Cooper, Vilma, Naomar, Robert, Sharon P.; Almeida-Filho, Naomar; Roberts, Robert; Cooper, Sharon P. (2007). "Skin Color, 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. 
  17. ^ Johnson, L.A. (12-26-2006). "Documentary, Studies Renew Debate About Skin Color's Impact". Pittsburg Post Gazette. http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/06360/748295-51.stm. Retrieved 09-08-2010. 
  18. ^ "Is Light Skin Still Preferable to Dark?". Chicago Tribune. 02-26-2010. http://newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/race/2009/02/in-many-different-cultures-and-countries-around-the-world-skin-color-plays-a-huge-role-in-the-concept-of-beauty-lighter-ski/comments/page/2/. Retrieved 09-08-2010. 
  19. ^ "Racism Takes Many Hues". Miami Herald. 08-24-2007. http://www.miamiherald.com/multimedia/news/afrolatin/part5/index.html. Retrieved 09-08-2010. 
  20. ^ Jones, Vanessa E. (08-19-2004). "Pride or Prejudice?". Boston.com. http://www.boston.com/news/globe/living/articles/2004/08/19/pride_or_prejudice/?page=2. Retrieved 09-08-2010. 
  21. ^ Indians are one people descended from two tribes
  22. ^ Aryan-Dravidian divide a myth: Study, Times of India
  23. ^ "Blackout". Newsweek. 07-03-2008. http://www.newsweek.com/2008/07/02/blackout.html. Retrieved 09-08-2010. 
  24. ^ "Skin Deep: Dying to be White". CNN. 05-15-2002. http://edition.cnn.com/2002/WORLD/asiapcf/east/05/13/asia.whitening/. Retrieved 09-08-2010. 
  25. ^ http://www.pri.org/world/asia/skin-whitening-big-business-asia.html
  26. ^ 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.. 
  27. ^ http://abcnews.go.com/International/story?id=6625808&page=1
  • 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.

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