Why the Effects of Colorism Are So Damaging

Skin color bias affects self-worth and personal relationships

Four diverse women holding each others wrists in a circle.

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The effects of colorism are far-reaching. Skin color bias has an impact on self-esteem, beauty standards, and even personal relationships. An offshoot of racism, colorism is discrimination based on skin tone in which light skin is regarded as superior to dark skin. A serious social problem, its repercussions should not be underestimated.

The Effects of Colorism on Relationships

Colorism is a particularly divisive form of bias. In the face of racism, people of color can usually 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 West’s history of white supremacy.

Colorism in the African-American community led to light-skinned blacks treating their darker counterparts in the same discriminatory fashion as whites have treated people of color generally. Dark-skinned blacks could be denied the chance to join certain civic groups, clubs, and sororities in their schools and neighborhoods. This led to these African-Americans being doubly discriminated against, by whites and the light-skinned black 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. This may erode the rejected child’s self-worth, break the trust between parent and child, and foster sibling rivalry.

How Skin Color Bias Narrows Beauty Standards

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 also view the former as more intelligent, noble, and attractive than darker complexioned people. Actresses Lupita Nyong’o, Gabrielle Union, and Keke Palmer have all spoken about how they desired lighter skin growing up because they thought darker skin made them unattractive. This is especially telling given that all of these actresses are widely considered to be good-looking, and Lupita Nyong’o earned 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 only light-skinned people as beautiful and everyone else as less than.

The Link Between Colorism, Racism, and Classism

While colorism is often thought of as a problem that exclusively afflicts communities of color, that's not the case. Europeans have prized fair skin and flaxen hair for centuries, and blonde hair and blue eyes remain status symbols for some people. When the conquistadors first traveled to the Americas in the 15th century, they judged the indigenous peoples they saw on their skin color. Europeans would make similar judgments about the Africans they enslaved. Over time, people of color began to internalize these messages about their complexions. Light skin was deemed superior, and dark skin, inferior. In Asia, though, 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.

Why Skin Color Discrimination May Foster Self-Hatred

If a child is born with dark skin and learns that dark skin is not valued by her peers, community, or society, she 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.