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The color wheel: Rooted in history, colorism still causes prejudice based on skin tone

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 29, 2010 - Growing up in Selma, Ala., Pamela Jackson used to sing a song.

"If you're yellow, you mellow. If you're brown, hang around. If you're black, step back. If you're white, you're all right."

She knew what it meant, she always did. But understanding colorism, or the preference or prejudice showed to people of color depending on the lightness or darkness of their skin, is one thing. Talking about it is another.

After Jackson remembers the song, a friend calls on the other line and Jackson switches over for a moment. When she switches back, she says her friend thinks that's stupid, an ignorant question. 

Her friend calls Jackson back, and says she has something to say, too.

When reached, that friend doesn't want her name used because of her job, but she thinks colorism is a non-subject, a small piece in a bigger problem -- racism. She thinks the historical roots of colorism are ignored, and that hearing about it within the black community can cause white people to abdicate their own responsibilities.

Jackson disagrees, at least about the non-subject part.

"I don't think that it doesn't exist. We know it exists," she says. "We are inhibited and afraid to talk about it."


A 2005 working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research examined both the history of colorism and how it affected the household wealth of 15,000 households during the 1860 census. In the urban South, they found major differences in wealth among white, bi-racial and black households.

"For many of African descent, black is not black -- both in terms of how they view themselves and how others view them. There are meaningful subtleties of shade, differences that have socially and politically meaningful distinctions today -- just as they have in the past."

The paper, "Colorism and African American Wealth," also notes that while we tend to define people as either black or white, that dichotomy ignores the children produced from white slave owners and their black slaves. To understand the impact of lighter skin, the research separates people into black, white and bi-racial, or mulatto, as they put it.

During slavery, the report says, people of color with lighter skin often got preferential treatment from slave owners, working in the home instead of the fields.

"So that colorism within the black or African American community became about class or associations with whiteness," says Radhika Parameswaran (right), an associate professor of journalism at Indiana University, who studied colorism in India.

And often, NBER's paper reports, slave owners included their house slaves in their wills.

People with lighter skin had better access to education, and in the antebellum South, better jobs.

This persisted through the Civil War, but the paper notes that Jim Crow laws and the one-drop rule politically and socially brought bi-racial and black people together. (The so-called "one-drop rule" labeled an individual black who had even "one drop of black blood.") Still, the preference shown to people with lighter skin continued and studies on color stratification were done during the 1930s and 1940s, which found that "light skin tones and perceptible traces of non-African heritage were associated with material advantages for African Americans."

Finally, they report on an analysis done in 2000, which shows that light-complected men are more than twice as likely to find "high-prestige employment" than dark-complected men.


Jackson's grandmother and her grandmother's sisters were very fair. They could pass as white, she says. Her grandmother married a dark-complected black man and was ostracized from her family and told she wouldn't prosper.

Jackson, a nurse and instructor in gerontology at Washington University's School of Medicine, thinks that her family has grown out of that way of thinking, but doesn't think it's completely out of our culture yet.

"It still exists," she says. "It's just that people don't address it as much."

Kersha Deibel, a grad student, wanted to understand the roots of colorism. In a 20-page-paper, "The Invisible Plantation," Deibel found both the historic roots of preference for lighter skin and its many manifestations.

"I always have seen the battle between light skin and dark skin," says Deibel, who is biracial, white and black. Deibel has long, curly hair, and has always been told by hair dressers that she has "good" hair, which frustrates her.

In her paper, Deibel makes note of black social organizations like Jack and Jill of America, and black Greek organizations on college campuses that preferred light-complected black members and used the brown paper bag test, refusing admittance if someone was darker than the bag.

"These organizations provided benefits such as networking and leadership skills," Deibel writes. "Light-skinned blacks continued to uphold these standards and elite positions within the organizations, therefore faring much better than their dark-skinned counterparts."

Now, she even sees colorism on Twitter, where she often finds trending topics of light skin vs. dark skin. She sees it in the media, where white beauty standards are the norm, and light-skinned black actresses seem to dominate.

But that's not just true in America.Parameswaran, the journalism professor from Indiana University, spent seven years studying colorism in India along with a partner. In her study, "Melanin on the Margins," she explored the world of advertising in India, where skin-lightening products make up between 40 and 50 percent of the market.

And she found the push for lighter skin went far beyond ads.

Lighter-skinned actresses appear in Bollywood movies, and matrimonial ads for arranged marriages express bold preferences for lighter skinned women.

"When you put everything together, then it's not just advertising," she says, "but it becomes a strong message in the culture."

Parameswaran found colorism in Malaysia, Thailand, Japan, China and the U.S.

And she has had her own experiences with it, too.

Parameswaran grew up in India with both subtle and strong messages about her skin tone. She had a friend also named Radhika, and when they were together, the friend was light Radhika and Parameswaran was dark Radhika. Luckily for her, she says, she had educated parents who told her that value based on skin tone was nonsense.

Based on her own life and her research, Parameswaran thinks it's important to understand colorism from a global perspective. Colorism within one's own group can easily translate to racism and discrimination when in the larger society, especially when those people are foreigners, she says. If East Indians are socialized to see light skin as more desirable, then they'll translate those preferences to other races, too.

"Colorism is very portable," she says. "And it comes with people and then it affects the relations."


With all the weight given to skin tone, Anna Shabsin thinks colorism gives its real power to the majority -- white people.

"It only helps the person or the group in power," says Shabsin, a lecturer in the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University.

"The majority sets the tone," Jackson agrees. "And then the minority implements it."

Shabsin teaches several courses on diversity and says that when white people see colorism expressed within a minority community, it's easy for them to relinquish their own responsibilities with social justice, thinking, if they can't handle it, why should I?

Also, Parameswaran says, the problem with trying to deal with colorism in a larger setting is that it can easily distract people from the real issue of racism.

For those reasons, Deibel thinks many black people are reluctant to talk about it.

"They don't want this to come out," she says. "They don't want people to know that there are issues occurring within our community."

Parameswaran thinks the real work combating colorism has to be done within a community. In India, that begins with simply naming the issue, but in America, she says, there is at least an awareness of it. Here, she thinks, colorism should be talked about in churches, colleges and places where the black community can work together.

Deibel also thinks the media could play a big role in changing the stereotypical images of dark-skinned black men and women. In her paper, she wrote: "These images, which are constantly seen as negative, must be changed into positive images and not portray stereotypical roles, such as criminals, convicts, and mammies."

In India, colorism affects women the most, but with globalization, beauty companies are starting to target men.

In America, "it probably affects women more visibly, I'd say that," says Shabsin, because women are usually judged visually on their looks and size.

But you don't have to think hard to find an example of colorism among men, she adds.

"You had it with Harry Reid's comment about Obama being a light-skinned black man," she says.

Inversely, Jackson thinks black men often choose lighter-skinned women for wives, again showing preference for white beauty standards, and that work needs to be done with them, too.

While there was the "Black is Beautiful" movement in the 1970s, trumpeting the natural beauty and features of people of color, now there are calls for both self-acceptance and the redefinition of beauty standards many places online, including a Facebook page called "Sisters against colorism and the brothers that support them." In one discussion thread about combating colorism, members disagree about whether change should start at the top, in the media, or closer to the ground, with themselves.

Either way, Jackson thinks it's still an issue, even if her friend doesn't.

"I think it still exists," she says. "But that's OK for us to agree to disagree."