What is colorism? According to the Oxford dictionary, it is “Prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group.” Colorism in particular, favors lighter skin due to its proximity to whiteness. Like racism, colorism involves prejudice and discrimination, but because it can occur within the same racial group, it often flies under the radar of important -isms that are discussed today.
In an age where racism is such a prevalent facet of society, many people of color feel the need to unite their communities and take pride in their race and culture, but what happens when there is color discrimination within these communities of color? Although some communities of color might point out that they are all the same at the end of the day, it is important to look at the impact colorism makes on societal aspects such as beauty standards, employment rates and representation in the media.
The impact of colorism on beauty is the idea that lighter skin tones are more beautiful than darker skin tones. The beauty industry is often able to capitalize off of this. In the Guardian article, “Skin-whitening creams reveal the dark side of the beauty industry,” journalist Tansy Hoskins said, “Skin-whitening cosmetics are a multi-billion dollar industry pushing the idea that beauty equates with white skin and that lightening dark skin is both achievable and preferable.” In countries like India and Thailand, Hoskins said, it is common to find beauty products that have lightening or skin whitening properties.
In “Dancehall and Bleaching at Caribbean Fashion Week,” Vice delved into the trend of skin bleaching in Kingston, Jamaica. In the video, it was shown how common it is for people, women in particular, to bleach their skin because lighter skin is seen as more fashionable.
Aside from beauty, another facet of colorism is that it affects employment. In 2006, Matthew Harrison, a doctoral student at the University of Georgia, did research on colorism in the American workplace. He found that, “a light-skinned black male can have only a bachelor’s degree and typical work experience and still be preferred over a dark-skinned black male with an MBA and past managerial positions.”
It is because, Harrison said, “expectations of the light-skinned black male are much higher, and he doesn’t appear as ‘menacing’ as the darker-skinned male applicant.” This study shows how skin tone and proximity to whiteness is oftentimes favored in the workplace.
In examining the effects of colorism in other realms, one not-so-subtle example of colorism is the way it shapes the media and the way movie roles are cast to favor light-skinned people over dark-skinned people. In “How Colorism In The Media Really Affects Black Women,” Odyssey Online journalist, Bre’Anna Bivens, cites the television sitcom, “Martin,” as an example of colorism in the media. In the show, the character Gina, Martin’s love interest, was light-skinned and portrayed as “beautiful, kind and silly.” Whereas Gina’s friend, Pam, was a dark skinned woman, and her character was portrayed as “loud, belligerent and annoying.”
Although this may not be clearly recognized at first, the media enforces subtle stereotypes that shape the way we perceive people based off of skin tone. In the 2011 documentary, “Dark Girls,” directors Bill Duke and D. Channsin Berry, explored the ways in which colorism affects dark-skinned black women and the perception of their own beauty. In the documentary, it was also pointed out how frequently magazines will whitewash darker-skinned celebrities on the front cover, further reinforcing the negative perception of dark skin.
In recent times, Hollywood has made some strides to show better representation for dark-skinned people in the media. The Oscar-winning movie, “Moonlight,” and the recent Marvel hit, “Black Panther,” for example, are movies which showcase this representation.
The manifestation of colorism within any racial or ethnic group is important to examine because it shapes the way society perceives others. Colorism builds negative stereotypes and prejudices in communities of color, so becoming more aware of the subconscious biases that society has can break down present and future barriers for dark-skinned individuals.