Colorism: Discrimination based on skin color, also known as colorism or shadeism, is a form of prejudice or discrimination in which people are treated differently based on the social meanings attached to skin color. Colorism, a term coined by Alice Walker in 1982, is not a synonym of racism.

Thai company Seoul Secret’s ad showing White skin bias

Colorism may not be an actual word, but it is a definite presence not just in American society, but around the world – Latin America, Africa, East and Southeast Asia, and the Caribbean in particular. Bleaching creams are wildly popular in Asia (especially India), Africa, and the West Indies. I have light skin and have been told by several people – most of them young Black women – that they wished they had my skin color, or that I have a ‘pretty skin color’ – this from a middle aged White woman. I’ve even had someone tell me that she ‘hated me for my skin color’. I have also heard from Blacks that White people like me better ‘because of my skin color’.

My maternal grandparents looked like an interracial couple because my grandmother was very pale, and my grandfather was darker-skinned, but not what one could call Black, more like a Tootsie Roll than a Hershey’s Special Dark. My mother and aunts are all brown-skinned, none of them got their mother’s light shade nor her hazel eyes. I’m the only child in the family with my grandmother’s eyes and have always been made to feel special because of it. My family is mostly light to brown skinned, no one is very dark, and I know colorism plays a role in the selection of mates. One of my younger female cousins has been in an interracial relationship with a White guy for more than 12 years, and my brother was married to a Mexican woman (he is now in a relationship with a White woman who lives in Kazakhstan). My youngest sister dates dark-skinned men whom my mother considers ‘ugly’, my other sister likes them light-skinned, and I mostly have dated White or Hispanic males though I do find Black men (those with skin shades close to Will Smith through Denzel Washington) a turn on.

I am highly aware of colorism and the role it plays in our interpersonal relationships. Lighter skin is prized, darker skin demonized. It hearkens back to the ‘white is angelic, heavenly, pure’ and ‘black is evil, gloomy, and Satanic’ beliefs that are still with us in this modern age though the roots lie in times when people were far more superstitious and fearful. I know that I have been accepted by Whites more than darker Blacks because of my skin tone. I have even been mistaken for White – not sure how the hell that happened – and lately, Hispanic. (My first ID, the White woman who typed in my info actually put my race down as ‘W’. I was so ashamed and often covered it with my thumb when I had to present it to the banks in order to cash my checks.)

Both my grandmothers – I didn’t have much to do with the one on the sperm donor’s side – were very color-conscious. I had Black teachers when I was in grade school who clearly preferred the little White girls over the Blacks. I have had employers who showed favoritism towards Whites and light skinned Black workers, most of them usually Black themselves. I have had Black men to tell me that they only date light skinned or White women. A White guy once told me that he had never dated a Black girl of my ‘background’ before. In Europe, I rarely receive stares from the White natives unless I am in an area that is mostly rural and then I only get funny looks when I speak American accented English. One African man in Brussels told me that I couldn’t possibly be an American! I am often mistaken for a native in Belgium, France, Germany, and the Netherlands.

From an online Time article: In the U.S., it has been repeatedly proven that skin tone plays a role in who gets ahead and who does not. Despite the fact that the word colorism doesn’t exist, researchers and scholars are now systematically tracking its existence. A 2006 University of Georgia study found that employers of any race prefer light-skinned black men to dark skinned men regardless of their qualifications. Sociologist Margaret Hunter writes in her book, Race, Gender and the Politics of Skin Tone that Mexican Americans with light skin “earn more money, complete more years of education, live in more integrated neighborhoods and have better mental health than do darker skinned …Mexican Americans.” In 2013, researchers Lance Hannon, Robert DeFina and Sarah Bruch found that black female students with dark skin were three times more likely to be suspended at school than their light-skinned African-American counterparts.

A light-skinned woman wrote: Black women are victims of some of the harshest stereotypes. Collectively, we are demeaned and mocked. Separately, light skinned women get a pass over dark skinned women in terms of romance, work and overall perception. Light skinned black people are deemed more attractive, more successful and smarter than dark skinned black people. Clearly, this is false. But the effects of these delusions are all too real. Light skinned women are even more likely to be married over dark skinned women. One misconception of light skinned black women is that we are stuck-up. Another fallacy is that we are not “black enough”. We usually hear this from other black friends, and mistakenly we blame our friends for reinforcing this idea when in reality the bigger monster at fault are the people pulling the strings.

Try this experiment: darken your skin and go out in the world for a time, see how others react to you, much the same way as John Howard Griffin did (Black Like Me) and Grace Halsell (Soul Sister) back in the 60s. Their experiences were horrific. I’m sure yours will be just as bad, even out of the South. I’d love to live as an Asian, Hispanic, dark-skinned Black, or a White woman for a week. I think I may just try this experiment later in the year and report my observations in this blog as well as a video journal. I’m sure doing this will not only be eye opening, but a real shock to the system too.



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