Why the Effects of Colorism Are So Damaging

Skin color bias affects self-worth and personal relationships

Four diverse women holding each other's wrists in a circle.

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Colorism refers to a form of discrimination where people with lighter skin are regarded as superior to, and treated better than, dark skinned people. It is a serious social problem that can be seen throughout the world. Although the roots of colorism are difficult to trace exactly, in many cases, it is a direct offshoot of white supremacy.

The repercussions of colorism should be not underestimated. While many discussions focus on how it plays out interpersonally, like in romantic relationships, colorism also has severe consequences at a systemic level. Let's dive into different ways colorcism can manifest.

The Paper Bag Test

Perhaps one of the most infamous examples of colorism is the paper bag test that was used throughout Black communities in the United States. Basically, light skin became associated with a high social status. To keep their social clubs pure, light skinned Black people would hold up a paper bag to someone's skin. If you were darker then the paper bag, you were too dark to participate.

Colorism Leads To Longer Prison Sentences

Colorism dramatically shapes peoples' experiences with carceral institutions. In 2011, researchers from Villanova University in Philadelphia analyzed the prison sentences of 12,158 women who were incarcerated between 1995 and 2009. They found that those who were seen as lighter-skined received sentences that were, on average, 12 percent shorter than dark skinned women.

However, sentences aren't the only thing influenced by colorism — whether or not you even get arrested is also impacted by skin color. In 2018, a study by Ellis Monk, a Harvard sociology professor, found that, when accounting for differences like gender and education levels, Black people have a 36 percent chance of being jailed at some point in their lives. But if they were dark skinned, that chance jumped to almost 66 percent.

“Put bluntly, while being black (and poor) may already predispose one to have a higher probability of contact with the criminal justice system and harsher treatment…being perceived as blacker intensifies this contact further and may increase the harshness of one’s treatment by the [criminal justice system] as an institution,” Monk wrote in the study.

Colorism 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 dark skinned 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 their peers, community, or society, they 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.

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Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "Why the Effects of Colorism Are So Damaging." ThoughtCo, Mar. 21, 2021, thoughtco.com/the-effects-of-colorism-2834962. Nittle, Nadra Kareem. (2021, March 21). Why the Effects of Colorism Are So Damaging. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-effects-of-colorism-2834962 Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "Why the Effects of Colorism Are So Damaging." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-effects-of-colorism-2834962 (accessed June 9, 2023).