The Effects of Colorism

Color Palette. Brett Jordan/

Colorism may be an offshoot of racism, but it doesn’t generate nearly as much press. Despite being overlooked in the mainstream media, skin color bias has a number of deleterious effects on its victims. Learn more about the impact of colorism with this overview.

Causes Intra-Racial and Intra-Familial Tensions

Colorism is a particularly divisive form of bias. In the face of racism, people of color can turn to the support of their communities, but that’s not necessarily the case with colorism, where members of a person’s own racial group may reject or resent them due to the skin color biases rooted in the nation’s white supremacist framework. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, blacks in the U.S. were largely barred from home ownership in white communities or enrolling in white academic or cultural institutions. Colorism in the African-American community led to light-skinned blacks denying their darker counterparts access to join certain civic groups, sororities, etc. This led to these blacks being doubly discriminated against--by whites and the  African-American elite, alike. Colorism turns intensely personal when it shows up in families. It can lead to parents favoring one child over another because of their skin color, eroding the rejected child’s self-worth, breaking the trust between parent and child, and fostering sibling rivalry.

Promotes a Narrow Standard of Beauty

Colorism has long been linked to restrictive beauty standards. Those who embrace colorism not only tend to value lighter-skinned people over their darker-skinned counterparts but view the former as more intelligent, noble and attractive than darker complexioned people. Actresses such as Lupita Nyong’o, Gabrielle Union and Keke Palmer have all spoken about how they desired lighter skin growing up because they thought having darker skin made them unattractive. This is especially telling given that all of these actresses are widely considered beauty icons, with Lupita Nyong’o earning the title of People magazine’s Most Beautiful in 2014. Rather than acknowledging that beauty can be found in people of all skin tones, colorism narrows beauty standards by deeming light skinned and light skinned people only as beautiful and everyone else as less than.

Perpetuates White Supremacy

While colorism is often thought of as a problem that exclusively afflicts communities of color, its origins in the Western world are rooted in white supremacy. Europeans have prized fair skin and flaxen hair for centuries. In Asia, fair skin is said to be a symbol of wealth and dark skin a symbol of poverty, as peasants who toiled in the fields all day typically had the darkest skin. When Europeans enslaved West Africans and colonized various groups of people across the globe, the notion that fair skin is superior to darker skin spread. Oppressed groups internalized the message and continue to do so today. Moreover, being blonde and having blue eyes continue to be status symbols.

Fosters Self-Hatred

Colorism leads to self-hatred given that no one has control over their skin color. Hence, if a child is born with dark skin and learns that dark skin is not valued by her peers, community or society generally, the youth may develop feelings of shame. This is especially true if the child is unaware of colorism’s historical roots and lacks friends and family members who shun skin color bias. Without an understanding of racism and classism, it’s difficult for a child to understand that no one’s skin color is innately good or bad.