Colorism is the allocation of privilege and disadvantage according to the lightness or darkness of one’s skin. The practices of colorism tend to favor lighter skin over darker skin, although in rare cases the opposite practice also occurs. Colorism is present both within and among racial groups, a testament to its role as something related to but different than race. Colorism is enacted among racial groups in various contexts, from preferences in classroom settings and hiring decisions to patterns in sentencing. For example, it has been shown that lighter-skinned minorities, particularly blacks and Latinos, attain a higher educational level and a higher workforce status than darker-skinned minorities. According to research by Arthur Goldsmith, Darrick Hamilton, and William Darity (2006), employers tend to prefer light-skinned black employees over dark-skinned black employees. Further, their research indicates that there is a much greater discriminatory wage penalty for darker-skinned African American men compared to their lighter-skinned counterparts. That is, lighter-skinned African American men tend to earn higher wages compared to darker-skinned African American men.
Studies by Verna Keith and Cedric Herring (1991) as well as those by Margaret Hunter (2002) suggest that the effect of skin tone remains even when other socioeconomic factors such as parental income and educational statues are controlled. Further, a study by Trina Jones (2000) demonstrates that darker-skinned blacks receive longer sentences than lighter-skinned blacks for crimes against whites, despite similarities in criminal records. Similarly, research by Jennifer Eberhardt, Paul Davies, Valerie Purdie-Vaughns, and Sheri Lynn Johnson (2006) demonstrates that “blacker-looking” African American males are more likely to receive the death penalty compared to their lighter-skinned counterparts for comparable capital crimes. Their findings remain significant even after controlling for defendant attractiveness and other nonracial factors that are typically known to influence sentencing, such as murder severity or victim’s socioeconomic status. Most social scientific studies of the effects of colorism have shown that there has been little improvement in this form of discrimination since the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
However, previous research on colorism tended to focus on color-based discrimination within racial groups, as evidenced by the historical existence of such groups as the Blue Vein Society, a black-created social club that excluded dark-skinned blacks. Studies show that non-whites tend to embrace the beauty standards prevalent in most societies, which grant a higher desirability to lighter skin than to darker skin. This has been shown to affect not only the self-worth of nonwhites but also mate selection. Light skin attains a higher socioeconomic status in its own right, through greater access to education and workforce mobility; lighter-skinned nonwhites also disproportionately attract spouses with higher socioeconomic statuses. Most studies have found that gender interacts with the effect of skin tone, making lighter skin a form of social capital for both black women and Latinas, again having an impact that cannot be explained by generational privileges alone. Famously explored in Wallace Thurman’s novel The Blacker the Berry … (1929) and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970) but rarely discussed openly, colorism is a continuing line of discrimination among and within racial groups worldwide. Although frequently collapsed into discussions of racism, colorism often occurs independently of racism, thus meriting independent analysis.
Racism and colorism share some commonalities, despite being independent practices. Fundamentally, both ideas of race and perceptions of skin color are social constructions, created in historically specific contexts and used to justify various practices of power. Although racial boundary drawing often involves perceptions of skin color, skin color alone rarely has been the sole determinant of racial categorization. At the same time, within racial categories there exists a wide range of skin coloration and various other physical attributes that are given social meaning in the process of allocating power and status. Thus conflating racism and colorism misses a distinct mode of stratification. With colorism, discrimination is not based on racial categorization but rather on assumptions about the meaning associated with one’s skin color. In this way, we can distinguish racism as the social meaning associated with one’s racial group and colorism as the social meaning associated with one’s pigmentation.
Although colorism is frequently found in societies whose histories include a significant era of European colonialism, colorism has also been noted in Japan, a nation whose history does not involve a Euro-colonial past. This has allowed some scholars to explore the symbolic dimensions associated with colorism’s typical privileging of lightness over darkness. In many differing cultural contexts, whiteness or lightness often has been associated with purity, cleanliness, beauty, intelligence, morality, and civilization, whereas in deliberate contrast, blackness or darkness has been associated with sin, filth, ugliness, stupidity, deviance, and backwardness. Anthropologists estimate that out of 312 cultures worldwide, 51 use skin color as a determinant of beauty. Among them, only four contain a preference for dark skin over light.
Such symbolic associations have in many cases justified the political and economic strains of colonialism, which play a central role in the origins of colorism. In Brazil, for example, the Portuguese invasion in the sixteenth century created a color hierarchy that persists in the early twenty-first century. Although roughly 80 percent of Brazilians are of African or indigenous descent, whites still are privileged politically and economically. A similar correlation of color and privilege is found throughout much of Latin America. In India traces of colorism favoring light skin are known to have existed before British colonial rule. Under the caste system, skin color and caste shared a similar gradient of privilege, and even in the early twenty-first century color-based tensions pervade Indian society.
In the United States the arrival of Europeans initially fostered race mixing, although with increased entrenchment of power among European descendents, particularly after the beginnings of slavery, an effort was made to draw clear (albeit biologically arbitrary) boundaries among the races. Antimiscegenation laws, such as the “one-drop rule” or “hypo-descent rule” that proclaimed that any amount of African ancestry was enough to constitute legal or social black status and that classified people racially as the subordinate group, were first created in response to moral questions over slavery for mixed-race individuals. For instance, throughout most of U.S. history and in some regions in the U.S. in the early twenty-first century any person with a trace of African ancestry has been considered black. In the Deep South during the era of slavery, although children of white plantation owners and their slave mistresses often were treated harshly and faced conditions similar to other slaves, these children in some instances were given coveted indoor jobs. In a few instances they also were given freedom, property, and even their own slaves. The social status associated with such freedom and ownership was a privilege for many mixed-race individuals, who after emancipation worked to self-segregate from darker-skinned blacks via elite social clubs and various churches, colleges, and other social institutions that were open to light-skinned blacks only, perpetuating a color-based gradient of privilege that persists in the early twenty-first century.
Although there have been substantial challenges to the practice of colorism, ranging from Marcus Garvey’s criticism of W. E. B. DuBois to Spike Lee’s challenging film School Daze, colorism is still widely practiced within and among racial groups. As long as lighter skin allocates disparate practices in housing, education, employment, sentencing, and perceptions of beauty, it remains a significant line of stratification.
SEE ALSO Attitudes, Racial; Colonialism; Du Bois, W. E. B.; Garvey, Marcus; Miscegenation; Phenotype; Prejudice; Race Mixing; Racism; Stratification
Eberhardt, Jennifer L., Paul G. Davies, Valerie J. Purdie-Vaughns, and Sheri Lynn Johnson. 2006. Looking Deathworthy: Perceived Stereotypicality of Black Defendents Predicts Capital-Sentencing Outcomes. Psychological Science 17: 383–386.
Goldsmith, Arthur H., Darrick Hamilton, and William A. Darity Jr. 2006. Shades of Discrimination: Skin Tone and Wages. American Economic Review 96 (2): 242–245.
Hill, Mark E. 2000. Color Differences in the Socioeconomic Status of African American Men: Results of a Longitudinal Study. Social Forces 78 (4): 1437–1460.
Hunter, Margaret L. 2002. “If You’re Light You’re Alright”: Light Skin Color as Social Capital for Women of Color. Gender and Society 16 (2): 175–193.
Jones, Trina. 2000. Shades of Brown: The Law of Skin Color. Duke Law Journal 49 (6): 1487–1557.
Keith, Verna M., and Cedric Herring. 1991. Skin Tone and Stratification in the Black Community. American Journal of Sociology 97 (3): 760–778.
Udry, J. Richard, Karl E. Bauman, and Charles Chase. 1971. Skin Color, Status, and Mate Selection. American Journal of Sociology 76 (4): 722–733.
Meghan A. Burke
David G. Embrick