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Discrimination based on skin color, or colorism, is a form of prejudice or discrimination in which human beings are treated differently based on the social meanings attached to skin color.[1]

Colorism, a term coined by Alice Walker in 1982,[2] is not a synonym of racism.[1] "Race" depends on multiple factors (including ancestry); therefore, racial categorization does not solely rely on skin color.[1] Skin color is only one mechanism used to assign individuals to a racial category, but race is the set of beliefs and assumptions assigned to that category.[1] Racism is the dependence of social status on the social meaning attached to race; colorism is the dependence of social status on skin color alone.[1] In order for a form of discrimination to be considered colorism, differential treatment must not result from racial categorization, but from the social values associated with skin color.[1]

Colorism can be found specifically in parts of Africa,[3] Southeast Asia,[4] East Asia,[5] India,[6] Latin America,[7] and the United States.[1] The abundance of colorism is a result of the global prevalence of “pigmentocracy,” a term recently adopted by social scientists to describe societies in which wealth and social status are determined by skin color.[8] Throughout the numerous pigmentocracies across the world, the lightest-skinned peoples have the highest social status, followed by the brown-skinned, and finally the black-skinned who are at the bottom of the social hierarchy.[8] This form of prejudice often results in reduced opportunities for those who are discriminated against on the basis of skin color.[8]


Skin bleaching is popular in Senegal and all across West Africa, especially among women.[9]


In Liberia, descendants of African-American settlers (renamed Americo-Liberians) in part defined social class and standing by raising people with lighter skin above those with dark skin. The first Americo-Liberian presidents such as Joseph Jenkins Roberts, James Spriggs Payne, and Alfred Francis Russell had considerable proportions of European ancestry. Most may have been only one-quarter or one-eighth African American. Other aspects of their rising to power, however, likely related to their chances for having obtained education and work that provided good livings.

Edward James Roye was the first representative of dark-skinned African-American settlers in Liberia. The light-skinned party was the Republican Party (Liberia) and the dark-skinned party was the True Whig Party.

In addition to rivalries among descendants of African Americans, the Americans held themselves above the native Africans in Liberia. Thus, descendants of Americans held and kept power out of proportion to their representation in the population of the entire country, so there was a larger issue than color at work.

South Africa

Coloured people consist of three mixed race populations in South Africa who were given more social privilege than other, unmixed, indigenous African groups. During the apartheid era, in order to keep divisions and maintain a race-focused society, the government used the term Coloured to describe one of the four main racial groups identified by law: Blacks, Whites, Coloureds and Indians. (All four terms were capitalised in apartheid-era law.) Many Griqua began to self-identify as "Coloureds" during the apartheid era. There were certain advantages in becoming classified as "Coloured". For example, Coloureds did not have to carry a dompas (an identity document designed to limit the movements of the non-white populace), while the Griqua, who were seen as another indigenous African group, did.


A popular phrase in Northern Sudan is al-Husnu ahmar (beauty is red).[10] Whiteness is the ideal color in most Arab societies. The second ranking is asmar (light tan), followed by dhahabi (golden), gamhi (wheatish), khamri (the color of wine), akhdar (light black/green). Akhdhar is used as a polite alternative to 'black' in describing the color of a dark-skinned Arab. The early Arabs used the word akhdar (green) to describe people of known Arab nobility and lineage whose color was black. Last and least is azraq,[10] literally "blue", used interchangeably with aswad to mean "black" — although in the past it referred to whiteness or light skin.


In Asia a preference for lighter skin remains prevalent. Skin whitening cosmetic products are popular in Asia.[5] 4 out of 10 women surveyed in Hong Kong, Malaysia, the Philippines and South Korea used a skin whitening cream, and more than 60 companies globally compete for Asia's estimated $18 billion market.[11]

South Asia

In the Mahabharata, the god Krishna, whose Sanskrit word in its origin language Kṛṣṇa is primarily an adjective for "Black" or "Dark",[12] is sometimes also translated as "all attractive".[13] Whereas the character Arjuna is often depicted as being lighter, and his name means "silvery white".[14][15] The Rigveda referred to two classes of people, the white-skinned Aryans and the black-skinned Dasas. The Aryans were religious and followed the Vedas, performing all the rituals while the Dasas (at a later stage merged into the Shudra class) were to serve them.[16]

Individuals in South Asia have tended to see whiter skin as more beautiful. This was most visible in British India, where skin color served as a signal of high status for British. Thus, those individuals with fairer skin color enjoyed more privileges and opportunities than those with dark skin. Anglo-Indians with more European features were often more upwardly mobile and were considered to have a more affluent status. These individuals gained preferences in education and in employment. Darker skinned individuals were socially and economically disadvantaged due to their appearance. (Beyond the South Asian subcontinent, persons who were dark-skinned, "black" or "colored" faced a disadvantage in most European-held colonies.) Most Indian actors and actresses have light skin.[6]

There are many advertisements in reference to a skin bleaching product, Fair and Lovely, which is targeted directly towards mostly women have darker skin. These advertisements appear on billboards throughout South Asian cities, on television advertisements, and Internet advertisements as well. The subject of the majority of the advertisements depicts a darker skinned woman needing a solution to her "problem" of not being chosen for marriage or a job. The solution suggests that by using Fair and Lovely, her skin tone can be lightened and she can enjoy the privileges associated with it.[17]

Latin America

Brazil has the largest population of African descendants (living outside of Africa) in the world. This large number was a result of the African Slave trade. In Brazil, skin color plays a large role in differences among the races. Individuals with lighter skin and who are racially mixed generally have higher rates of social mobility.[18]

There are a disproportionate number of mostly European descent elites than those of visible African descent. There are large health, education and income disparities between the races in Brazil.[19]

In parts of Latin America, light skin is seen as more attractive.[20] In Mexico and in Brazil, light skin represents power.[21] A dark skinned person is more likely to be discriminated against in Brazil.[22] Most Latin American (particularly South American) actors and actresses have mostly European features - blond hair, light or light-mixed eyes, protruding narrow noses, straight hair and/or pale skin; the same situation happens in Hispanic media of the United States. A light skinned person was considered to be more privileged and have a higher social status. A person with light skin is considered beautiful and it means that the person has more wealth. Those with dark skin and frizzy hair tend to be among the region's poorest and most disenfranchised. Nevertheless, many Brazilians disregard straightening on afro-textured hair as an attitude of shame of their own ethnic and racial origins, and say that persons of African descent should accept themselves as such rather than trying to be "whiter", i. e., fitting in with the colourist beauty standards of Latin America. If this reflects colourism, or rather, greater politicization with respect to race relations and racism, varies greatly with the person.

United States

Within the United States, colorism can be observed among all races. Although it occurs most notably among African Americans, it also occurs among Latinos, Indian immigrants, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and even among European Americans.[1]

African Americans


European colonialism created a system of white supremacy and racist ideology, which led to a structure of domination that privileged whiteness over blackness.[23] Biological differences in skin color were used as a justification for the enslavement and oppression of Africans, developing a social hierarchy that placed whites at the top and blacks at the bottom.[23] The desire to rise out of this lower position ultimately caused internalized divisions among African Americans.[23]

Miscegenation, the mixing of different racial groups (commonly through the sexual exploitation of black female slaves by white male slave owners) resulted in a large number of mixed race individuals with both African and European ancestry.[24] Terminology was also developed to distinguish various levels of African ancestry.[24] The terms mulatto, quadroon and octoroon were used to identify a black person with one-half, one-fourth and one-eighth of African ancestry, respectively.[24] Slaves with lighter complexion were allowed to engage in less strenuous tasks, like domestic duties, while the darker slaves participated in hard labor, which was more than likely outdoors.[25] A partial white heritage also gave light-skinned blacks more economic value and caused them to be viewed as smarter and superior to dark-skinned blacks, allowing more advantages in a white-dominated society, such as broader opportunities for education and the acquisition of land and property.[26]

To prevent any confusion in regard to racial classification and to prohibit blacks with white ancestry from gaining the same legal status as full-blooded whites, the rule of hypo-descent, or the "one-drop rule" was mandated.[27] According to the “one-drop rule," even the smallest amount of African ancestry (or a drop of African blood) legally defined a person as black.[27] After the abolition of slavery in 1865, however, colorism created an internalized structure of hierarchy and division within the black community, as lighter-skinned blacks began to set themselves apart by socializing, marrying and procreating with one another.[28] Around the beginning of the twentieth century, separatist standards, such as the brown paper bag, comb, pencil, and flashlight tests began to be implemented.[28] Also, exclusionary social clubs and societies were developed to create color divisions within black America that would shape socially constructed ideas about skin color.[28]

Examples of African American colorism

Brown paper bag test

The phrase “brown paper bag test” has traditionally been used by African Americans throughout the twentieth and twenty-first century with reference to a ritual once practiced by certain African-American sororities and fraternities who would not let anyone into the group whose skin tone was darker than a paper bag.[28] Also known as a paper bag party, these lighter-skinned social circles reflected an idea of exclusion and exclusiveness. The notion of the “paper bag” has carried a complex and obscure meaning in black communities for many decades.[28] The reason for the usage of the "paper bag" is because the color of the paper bag is considered to be the "center" marker of blackness that distinguishes “light skin” from “dark skin” on a continuum stretching infinitely from black to white.[28] Also, the brown paper bag is believed to act as a benchmark for certain levels of acceptance and inclusion.[28] Spike Lee's film School Daze satirized this practice at historically black colleges and universities.[29] Along with the "paper bag test," guidelines for acceptance among the lighter ranks included the "comb test" and “pencil test,” which tested the coarseness of one's hair, and the "flashlight test," which tested a person's profile to make sure their features measured up or were close enough to those of the Caucasian race.[28]

The bleaching syndrome

A phenomenon known as "The bleaching syndrome," which refers to the process of attempting to lighten one’s skin, has made a significant impact on the commercial industry and the lives of African Americans since the beginning of the 21st century.[30] The roots of the skin bleaching phenomenon stem from African Americans internalizing dominant cultural ideas, without the possibility of full assimilation into American society.[31] A psychological conflict is thus created, causing African Americans to develop a disdain for dark skin as it counters dominant cultural ideals. In an attempt to simultaneously reduce this conflict and enable assimilation, many African Americans developed the bleaching syndrome.[32] Since the degree of assimilation correlates with skin color based on dominant cultural standards, light skin is crucial relative to the degree of assimilation in the United States.[33] Coincidentally, lighter skin is thought to be an ideal point of reference for attractiveness and marital partner selection among African Americans.[33] The practice of applying light skin as a point of reference, however, is considered to be culturally self-destructive.[33] Ultimately, the bleaching syndrome is a manifestation of the conflicting circumstances regarding the assimilation of African Americans into dominant cultural values.[33]

Skin Color Paradox

The Skin Color Paradox refers to the fact that no matter how differently African Americans are treated based on their skin color, their political and cultural attitudes about "blackness" as a form of identity and their feelings of relatedness and solidarity with other blacks tend to remain consistent. Although light-skinned blacks receive many socioeconomic advantages over dark-skinned blacks, who have much more punitive relationships with the criminal justice system and greatly diminished prestige, and although blacks are aware of this disparity in treatment and status, both light-skinned and dark-skinned blacks have similar political attitudes towards discrimination and race solidarity.[34]

Political scientists would suggest that skin color is a characteristic perhaps as equally important as religion, income, and education, which is why this paradox is so surprising, but studies show that skin color has no real bearing on actual political preference. Affirmative action is another example of the paradox between colorism on the one hand and political preference on the other. Studies show that most African Americans that benefit from Affirmative action come from families that are better educated and more well off, and historically this means that the lighter-skinned portion of the black race is receiving the majority of the aid, making it appear as if the race as a whole is being benefited. Yet beneficiaries of this special treatment tend to hold on to their political identification with "blackness." [34]


The light to dark hierarchy within the African American race is one that has existed since the time of slavery, but its problems and consequences are still very evident and lead to various stereotypes. Darker skinned blacks are more likely to have negative relationships with the police, less likely to have higher education or income levels, and less likely to hold public office. Darker skinned people are also considered less intelligent, less desirable in women mostly, and are overall seen as inferior to lighter-skinned people.[34]

Studies have shown that when measuring education and family income, there is a positive sloping curve as the skin of families gets lighter. This does not prove that darker skinned people are discriminated against, but it provides insight as to why these statistics are recurring. Lighter skinned people tend to have higher social standing, more positive social networks, and more opportunities to succeed than those of a darker persuasion. Scientists believe this advantage is due to not only to their ancestors' benefits, but also to skin color. In criminal sentencing, medium to dark-skinned African Americans are likely to receive sentences 2.6 years longer than those of whites or light-skinned African Americans, and when a white victim is involved, those with more "black" features are likely to receive a much more severe punishment, reinforcing the idea that those of lighter complexion are of more "value."[34]

The perception of beauty can be influenced by racial stereotypes about skin color; the African American journalist Jill Nelson wrote that "to be both prettiest and black was impossible"[35] and elaborated:

As a girl and young woman, hair, body, and color were society's trinity in determining female beauty and identity, the cultural and value-laden gang of three that formed the boundaries and determined the extent of women's visibility, influence, and importance. For the most part, they still are. We learn as girls that in ways both subtle and obvious, personal and political, our value as females is largely determined by how we look. As we enter womanhood, the pervasive power of this trinity is demonstrated again and again in how we are treated by the men we meet, the men we work for, the men who wield power, how we treat each other and, most of all, ourselves. For black women, the domination of physical aspects of beauty in women's definition and value render us invisible, partially erased, or obsessed, sometimes for a lifetime, since most of us lack the major talismans of Western beauty. Black women find themselves involved in a lifelong effort to self-define in a culture that provides them no positive reflection.[35]

Media and Public Perception

The media is responsible for influencing beliefs regarding ideas of beauty in the African American community. Mass media productions often perpetuate discrimination based on skin color.[36] African Americans possessing lighter skin complexion and “European features,” such as lighter eyes, and smaller noses and lips have more opportunities in the media industry.[36] For example, film producers hire lighter-skinned African Americans more often, television producers choose lighter skinned cast members, and magazine editors choose African American models that resemble European features.[37] As a result, the media industry sends the messages that African Americans with Eurocentric features are more likely to be accepted, diminishing the status of darker-skinned African Americans.[36]

In regards to the magazine industry, African American women are rarely showcased in the most popular magazines.[36] Therefore, African American girls have difficultly identifying with the models showcased in these magazines, because they do not represent the type of women that they come into contact with in their own communities.[36] There are also biases towards Caucasians in the advertisements used in these magazines.[36] Recent studies have indicated that the number of racially biased advertisements in magazines have increased over the years. A content analysis conducted by Scott and Neptune (1997) shows that less than one percent of advertisements in major magazines featured African American models.[38] When African Americans did appear in advertisements they were mainly portrayed as athletes, entertainers or unskilled laborers.[38] In addition, seventy percent of the advertisements that features animal print included African American women.[38] Animal print reinforces the stereotypes that African Americans are animalistic in nature, sexually active, less educated, have lower income, and extremely concerned with personal appearances.[38]

Concerning African American males in the media, darker skinned men are more likely to be portrayed as violent or more threatening, influencing the public perception of African American men.[32] Since dark-skinned males are more likely to be linked to crime and misconduct, many people develop preconceived notions about the characteristics of black men.[32] Through extreme gangster rap music, reality crime shows, and newscasts, crime has been defined by contemporary media and given a black face despite statistics that paint a different picture.[39] For example, cocaine use has been found to be higher among whites, but African Americans are the dominant figures seen on crime shows such as Cops.[39]

The negative public perception of darker-skinned African American places them at a disadvantage in other aspects of society, such as the workforce.[40] Skin color plays a significant role in the acceptance of African Americans in the workforce and can even hold more importance than an individual's credentials and ability.[40] For example, hiring managers generally have a different perception of a light-skinned African American female applicant, compared to a dark-skinned female applicant.[40] Light-skinned African American women were found to have higher salaries than dark-skinned women, and light-skinned women were more satisfied with their jobs in regards to pay and advancement opportunities.[40] Researchers have also termed dark-skinned women as being in a “triple-jeopardy” situation because all three aspects of their identity—their gender, race and skin-tone—can have negative and harmful implications on occupational opportunities and overall feelings of competency.[41]

Despite exclusion and bias, the media has made an attempt to correct some of the negative images of African Americans.[36] Examples of shows in which African Americans have been positively portrayed in the past include The Cosby Show, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air[dubious ] and A Different World.[36] In addition, new television specials such as Black Girl's Rock and My Black is Beautiful highlight African American men and women for their contributions to society.[36] Overall, these media changes have helped to provide a unique and more accurate representation of black culture in the twenty-first century.[36] Television networks such as Centric and TV One and magazines such as Essence and Ebony play a major role in portraying African Americans in a more positive light than they have been portrayed in the past.[36]

See also


  1. Apte Sanskrit-English Dictionary

Further reading

  • The united-independent compensatory code/system/concept: A textbook/workbook for thought, speech, and/or action, for victims of racism (white supremacy) by Neely Fuller, Jr. (ASIN B0007BLCWC)
  • Article published by The Atlantic Magazine, 1898. In depth information regarding the Blue Vein Society.
  • Don't Play In the Sun by Marita Golden (ISBN 0-385-50786-0)
  • Kerr, Audrey E. "The Paper Bag Principle: Of the Myth and the Motion of Colorism." Journal of American Folklore 118.469 (2005): 271-289.
  • The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (ISBN 0-452-28219-5)
  • Neal, Angela & Wilson, Midge (1989). The role of skin color and features in the Black community: Implications for black women and therapy. Clinical Psychology Review, Vol 9(3), 1989. pp. 323–333.
  • ISBN 0-7425-5494-5
  • The Color Complex [Revised Edition]: The Politics of Skin Color in a New Millennium by Kathy Russell, Midge Wilson, and Ronald Hall (ISBN 978-0-307-74423-4)
  • Caucasia by Danzy Senna
  • The Blacker the Berry by Wallace Thurman (ISBN 0-684-81580-X)

External links

  • Dealing with Colorism: A Step Towards the African Revolution
  • Black African Focus
  • Origin of Rainbows: Colorism Exposed Documentary
  • "Light, Bright, Damn near White" documentary film
  • Shadeism Documentary
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