The Roots of Colorism, or Skin Tone Discrimination

In the United States this bias was born in slavery

Lupita Nyong'o
Actress Lupita Nyong'o has struggled with colorism. Disney-ABC Television Group/Flickr.com

How does colorism play out in America? An old children’s rhyme captures the definition of colorism and its inner workings:

“If you’re black, stay back;
If you’re brown, stick around;
If you’re yellow, you’re mellow;
If you’re white, you’re all right.”

In sum, colorism refers to discrimination based on skin color. Colorism disadvantages dark-skinned people while privileging those with lighter skin. Research has linked colorism to smaller incomes, lower marriage rates, longer prison terms, and fewer job prospects for darker-skinned people. Colorism has existed for centuries, in and out of black America. It's a persistent form of discrimination that should be fought with the same urgency as racism.

Colorism’s Origins

In the United States, colorism has roots in slavery, because slave owners typically gave preferential treatment to slaves with fairer complexions. While dark-skinned slaves toiled outdoors in the fields, their light-skinned counterparts usually worked indoors at far less grueling domestic tasks. 

Slave owners were partial to light-skinned slaves because they were often family members. Slave owners frequently forced slave women into sexual intercourse, and light-skinned offspring were the telltale signs of these sexual assaults. While slave owners didn't officially recognize their mixed-race children, they gave them privileges that dark-skinned slaves didn't enjoy. Accordingly, light skin came to be viewed as an asset in the slave community.

Outside the United States, colorism may be more related to class than to white supremacy. Although European colonialism has undoubtedly left its mark worldwide, colorism is said to predate contact with Europeans in Asian countries. There, the idea that white skin is superior to dark skin may derive from ruling classes typically having lighter complexions than peasant classes.

While peasants became tanned as they labored outdoors, the privileged had lighter complexions because they didn’t. Thus, dark skin became associated with lower classes and light skin with the elite. Today, the premium on light skin in Asia is likely tangled up with this history, along with cultural influences of the Western world.

An Enduring Legacy

Colorism didn’t disappear after slavery ended in the U.S. In black America, those with light skin received employment opportunities off-limits to darker-skinned blacks. This is why upper-class families in black society were largely light-skinned. Soon, light skin and privilege were linked in the black community.

Upper-crust blacks routinely administered the brown paper bag test to determine if fellow blacks were light enough to include in social circles.

“The paper bag would be held against your skin. And if you were darker than the paper bag, you weren’t admitted,” explained Marita Golden, author of "Don’t Play in the Sun: One Woman’s Journey Through the Color Complex."

Colorism didn’t just involve blacks discriminating against other blacks. Job advertisements from the mid-20th century reveal that African-Americans with light skin clearly believed their coloring would make them better job candidates. Writer Brent Staples discovered this while searching newspaper archives near the Pennsylvania town where he grew up. In the 1940s, he noticed, black job seekers often identified themselves as light-skinned:

“Cooks, chauffeurs, and waitresses sometimes listed 'light colored' as the primary qualification—ahead of experience, references, and the other important data. They did it to improve their chances and to reassure white employers who…found dark skin unpleasant or believed that their customers would.”

Why Colorism Matters

Colorism yields real-world advantages for individuals with light skin. For example, light-skinned Latinos make $5,000 more on average than dark-skinned Latinos, according to Shankar Vedantam, author of "The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars and Save Our Lives." A Villanova University study of more than 12,000 African-American women imprisoned in North Carolina found that lighter-skinned black women received shorter sentences than their darker-skinned counterparts. Research by Stanford psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt found that darker-skinned black defendants were twice as likely as lighter-skinned black defendants to get the death penalty for crimes involving white victims.

Colorism also plays out in the romantic realm. Because fair skin is associated with beauty and status, light-skinned black women are more likely to be married than darker-skinned black women. “We find that the light-skin shade as measured by survey interviewers is associated with about a 15 percent greater probability of marriage for young black women,” said researchers who conducted a study called “Shedding ‘Light’ on Marriage.”

Light skin is so coveted that whitening creams continue to be best-sellers in the U.S., Asia, and other nations. Mexican-American women in Arizona, California, and Texas have reportedly suffered mercury poisoning after using whitening creams to bleach their skin. In India, popular skin-bleaching lines target both women and men with dark skin. That skin-bleaching cosmetics persist after decades signals the enduring legacy of colorism.