You are currently viewing Crash Course on Colorism: The Damage of ‘Light is Right’

Crash Course on Colorism: The Damage of ‘Light is Right’

The current state of the world is daunting, disheartening, overwhelming, and tense. It feels as though there is a constant film of unease and stress covering each day, each task, each interaction.

It is important to me to focus on what I can do, in my little corner of the world, to advocate for antiracism. To advocate for unity, equality, love, and compassion for my fellow humans. Each day I try to reflect on how I can contribute to the dismantling of oppressive systems. For instance, I ask myself, how am I practicing antiracist principles in my daily life? How can I process my feelings and experiences? This includes educating myself on important topics that affect the Black community and People of Color. I make it a priority to reflect on areas where I need to grow.

The idea of Colorism is something that I was not aware of until I took a Sociology of Race and Racism class last year. While in this class, it became clear to me that I still have a lot to learn about the complexity surrounding white supremacy in our history and society. The topic of Colorism, and most things surrounding race, can be uncomfortable to discuss. However, it is important to create an open dialogue. This includes being willing to learn about the experiences of all People of Color with an open mind.

It is also important to analyze our internal dialogue and our implicit reactions when talking about oppressive practices and ideas.

I believe that we can influence change when we take the time to listen to the experiences of those who are in pain. As long as we are willing to reflect on how we each contribute to systems that oppress People of Color.

So, let’s take a deep breath, open our minds and hearts, and dive into the topic of Colorism.

What is Colorism?

We define Colorism as, “A practice of discrimination by which those with lighter skin are treated more fairly than those with darker skin” (NCCJ).

Colorism stems from racism, however race and color are not the same. Discrimination based on skin color can occur interracially and intraracially. Interracially is between different racial groups, and intraracially is within the same racial group. It is important to recognize that skin color varies within racial communities and Colorism exists across ALL communities of color. Moving forward, I can only speak from my experience as a mixed-race Black woman and what I have witnessed in regards to the Black community.

Colorism is intersectional. This means that our experiences with Colorism can vary, depending on the different aspects of our identities. These aspects include socioeconomic status, gender identity, sexual identity, culture, etc. To learn more about intersectionality, look here.

A Brief History of Colorism in America

The basis of Colorism is that it “disadvantages people with darker skin while privileging those with lighter skin.” The history of Colorism in the United States is extensive and disheartening.

Colorism dates back to slavery. Slaveowners favored slaves with lighter complexions over slaves with darker complexions. Slaveowners forced those whose skin-tones were lighter to labor in the house doing more domestic tasks. Slaves with darker skin-tones were forced to labor outside in more grueling conditions.

Slaves with lighter skin were closer to the white ideal. They were favored over slaves with dark skin-tones who were farther from the white ideal. Slaveowners commonly raped their slaves, meaning that their offspring were of mixed race. Most of the time resulting in lighter skin. It is possible that slaveowners favored slaves with lighter skin because they were relatives.

Slaveholders used Colorism as a strategy to divide enslaved people and pit them against each other. Creating a rift between light-skinned slaves and dark-skinned slaves allowed slaveowners a way to divide and conquer.

Within the Black community, this divide still exists and continues to influence the mental health of Black and Brown People.

I am going to preface the rest of this article by saying that Colorism is real and damaging to the Black community. Those with lighter skin should recognize the privilege that we hold in this regard. We should talk about the effects of colorism and do our part to dismantle white supremacy. It is possible to recognize and call out the effects that Colorism has on Black and Brown communities AND hold space for our experiences with discrimination and prejudice. Colorism can be damaging to the identity development of light-skinned Black people as well. Both truths can exist at the same time.

“Colorism is the weapon of the Colonizer.”


We are taught through media, societal conditioning, and white supremacy, that there is an ideal beauty standard. This standard revolves around the glorification of whiteness.

In communities of color, the further away you appear from that standard, the less you are seen by society as worthy and desirable.

Using my privilege to speak out when I witness Colorism happening in my space is one way that I will move towards change. I will not support the narrative that excludes dark-skinned men and women from society’s idea of beauty, worthiness, intelligence, and capability. I will not support a system that upholds standards of beauty rooted in the idea that Eurocentrism is the only way to be beautiful.

A Couple Examples of Colorism in History

  • In the 1900s, the Paper Bag Test was established within Black communities. This rule enforced that a person had to be lighter than a brown paper bag to earn certain privileges. Historically, this practice was heavily used within sororities and fraternities.
  • “The Doll Test” was a study performed in the 1940s. It was used to research the self-esteem of Black children regarding their race and skin color. The children had two dolls. One doll had light skin, while the other had dark skin. The researchers asked the children which doll was the “bad doll” and “the ugly doll.” When asked these questions, the children chose the doll with dark skin.

Where do We See Colorism Now?

I notice Colorism in my own life when people make comments such as, “I just love light-skinned women,” or “You’re pretty for a Black girl.” While people may believe that these comments should be taken as a compliment, they only scratch the surface of the internalized Colorism that plagues our society.

The effects of Colorism on Black communities did not leave with the institution of slavery. The shame surrounding dark skin is carried generationally, culturally, and societally. Those with lighter skin still receive privileges regarding education, job opportunities, media, the criminal justice system, healthcare, etc.

  • Light-skinned women are sentenced approximately 12% less time behind bars than their darker-skinned counterparts (NCCJ).
  • A light-skinned Black male with a Bachelor’s degree and typical work experience was preferred over a dark-skinned Black male with an MBA and past managerial positions (NCCJ).
  • A 2006 University of Georgia study showed that employers prefer light-skinned Black men to dark-skinned men, regardless of their qualifications (NCCJ).

Colorism in Media

Representation of dark-skinned people in media is sparse.

The narrative that dark-skinned men and women are not beautiful or intelligent because they don’t meet white beauty standards is largely perpetuated by media.

The media bombards us with images of beauty that glorify white beauty standards. Movies, magazines, television shows, and social media commonly push the narrative that tells Black women that their hair should be straight and their skin fair to be seen as desirable. These same women face degrading comments such as, “don’t get too dark” and “you’re pretty for a dark-skinned girl.”

Products that promote skin-bleaching, hair relaxers, and extensions are around every corner. In movies and television shows, there is little representation of dark-skinned women in roles as the main character or the lead. Models in magazines and social media with darker skin-tones speak out about the use of photoshop edits so that they appear lighter. Jobs in the entertainment industry are difficult to obtain for women with dark skin. Women with darker skin-tones have expreesed concern about how difficult it is to be hired for roles as the main-lead in mainstream movies and shows because those roles are given to women with lighter skin. The inequality that plagues media is extensive.

Colorism and Black Mental Health

The effects of Colorism are influential on mental health in Black and Brown communities. Wanting to fulfill unattainable beauty standards set by society is stressful and exhausting. Not seeing yourself represented in movies, magazines, and television shows can have an impact on self-esteem.

Being told that the darkness of your skin makes you more of a “threat” and less of a human being is devastating.

In the Black community, Colorism can influence the relationships you have with others and the relationship you have with yourself.

Imagine developing your identity and, at the same time, your beauty, the healthcare you receive, the jobs that hire you, the way men treat you, the movies you watch, and the media that you consume, all confirm that your skin color makes you undesirable.

This reality is a weight that dark-skinned people should never have to carry.

black community

What Can You Do to Help Change the Narrative?

First of all, it is important to exclaim that BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL.

Second of all, pay more attention to the media that you consume. Scroll through your Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook. Do you see the artwork, photography, activism, and creativity of Black men and women? Or do you choose to follow primarily white influencers?

Check your internal dialogue and be honest with yourself. Widen your perspective of what is beautiful.

To create change, we have to move away from the idea that to be desirable, intelligent, or worthy, you must be white, thin, straight, cis-gendered, and able-bodied.

Get uncomfortable. Listen. That’s where growth can happen.

As a mixed-race Black woman with lighter skin, it has been an important part of my journey to learn about Colorism and its effects on communities of color. I recognize the privilege I have as a light-skinned woman. I allow my experiences with discrimination to be valid and know that those two realities can exist at the same time. This has been a challenging, yet crucial, part of my own racial identity development.

I will continue to educate myself on experiences that affect Black and Brown communities. We have a long way to go.

To my brothers and sisters, you should not have to feel shame for the beautifully Black parts of you. You are radiant, powerful, desirable. I stand with you.

I would love to hear your thoughts, comments, and suggestions. If you have anything to contribute to the conversation about Colorism, feel free to contact me or check out any of these resources:

If you are looking for more detailed information on the topic of Colorism, I recommend the blog Colorism Healing.

To read more information about Colorism and Black mental health, click here.

To read my first blog and learn more about me, look here.

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