The Roots of Colorism, or Skin Tone Discrimination

This Bias Was Born in the Practice of Human Enslavement

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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.”

Colorism refers to discrimination based on skin color. Colorism disadvantages people with darker skin 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.


In the United States, colorism evolved when the enslavement of people was common practice. Enslavers typically gave preferential treatment to enslaved people with fairer complexions. While dark-skinned enslaved people toiled outdoors in the fields, their light-skinned counterparts usually worked indoors at far less grueling domestic tasks.

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

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.

Enduring Legacy

Colorism didn’t disappear after the institution of slavery ended in the U.S. In Black America, those with light skin received employment opportunities off-limits to darker-skinned Black Americans. 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 Black Americans routinely administered the brown paper bag test to determine if fellow Black people 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 Black people discriminating against other Black people. Job advertisements from the mid-20th century reveal that Black people 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 Black 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.

Additional References

View Article Sources
  1. Vedantam, Shankar. "Shades of Prejudice." The New York Times, 18 Jan. 2010. 

  2. Viglione, Jill, Lance Hannon, and Robert DeFina. "The impact of light skin on prison time for black female offenders." The Social Science Journal, vol. 48, no. 1, 2011, pp. 250–258, doi:10.1016/j.soscij.2010.08.003

  3. Eberhardt, Jennifer L. et al. "Looking Deathworthy: Perceived Stereotypicality of Black Defendants Predicts Capital-Sentencing Outcomes." Psychological Science, vol. 17, no. 5, 2006 383–386. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01716.x

  4. Hamilton, Darrick, Arthur H. Goldsmith, and William A. Darity, Jr. "Shedding 'light' on Marriage: The Influence of Skin Shade on Marriage for Black Females." Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, vol. 72, no. 1, 2009, pp. 30–50, doi:10.1016/j.jebo.2009.05.024

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Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "The Roots of Colorism, or Skin Tone Discrimination." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Nittle, Nadra Kareem. (2021, July 31). The Roots of Colorism, or Skin Tone Discrimination. Retrieved from Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "The Roots of Colorism, or Skin Tone Discrimination." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 31, 2023).