It should bother every person on earth that we don’t talk enough about colorism. For something that dictates how so many people learn, act, earn, and live, there is still too little conversation on the phenomenon. Colorism is a subset of racism, and everyone, not just BIPOC, should be talking about it thoughtfully and critically if we want to rid the world of all discrimination based on skin color. 

The first time I felt the need to challenge colorism was when my brother told me that Alek Wek was ugly. I was 15 years old and had been flipping through the 14th Anniversary issue of Elle Magazine South Africa, with the Sudanese supermodel on the cover. When I asked him what made her ugly, he said she was too dark to cover Elle, her skin was “too Black.” 

Our whole lives we’ve been told that dark skin is ugly, and light skin is the prize, which is something I had to unlearn, especially as a light-skinned Black South African. In unlearning, I constantly remember the conversation I had with my brother that day, and how it challenged me to question his choice of words: “too Black”. How Black is “too” Black? And why was it that the deeper the tone of your skin, the “uglier” you were? 

Back then I hadn’t realized that “too Black” didn’t just mean ugly. It meant undesirable. It meant unemployable. It meant harassable. It meant danger to society. And it still means all those things today. Back then, I was mainly angry because Alek Wek was my favorite supermodel, and I felt the need to defend her shade of Black. This is part of the problem though, isn’t it? That I felt the need to defend her success as a dark-skinned Black woman; why can’t she just be dark-skinned and successful in peace?

It’s dawned on me since then, that we as people of color should not be the only ones burdened with the conversation of colorism and how it affects our everyday lives. It wasn’t people of color who decided that Black is bad and white is good, or that the closer you are to either polar opposite decides how you get treated in society.

What Is Colorism? 

Colorism is discrimination based on skin color that leads to the systematic oppression of dark-skinned people. It’s rooted in white supremacy and colonialism, and upholds the belief that the lighter you are (read: closer to white), the better you are, and the more you are entitled to preferential treatment and, ultimately, your human rights. 

Sociology researcher at Mills College in California, Margaret Hunter, explains the privilege further: “Lighter-skinned people of color enjoy substantial privileges that are still unattainable to their darker-skinned brothers and sisters. In fact, light-skinned people earn more money, complete more years of schooling, live in better neighborhoods, and marry higher-status people than darker-skinned people of the same race or ethnicity.”

What’s the Difference Between Colorism and Racism? 

Colorism is a subdivision of racism, and is often an internalized discrimination experienced by people of color within ethnic and racial groups. It is a global phenomenon experienced within several ethnicities and races around the world, including but not limited to both the South and North Asian communities, the Latin American community, African citizens and the diaspora, and African Americans. 

While being a different shade or hue than another human being is natural, judging someone based on the shade of their skin-lightness or darkness plays into the hands of racism.

“It cannot be overstated that if racism didn’t exist, a discussion about varying skin hues would simply be a conversation about aesthetics,” author, educator, and journalist Lori L. Tharps writes for Time Magazine

How Can Colorism Be Harmful? 

Well, if you know how racism itself can be harmful, then you’re already half-way to knowing why colorism is harmful. It’s a bit more complicated than racism as it is mostly experienced within marginalized communities, meaning that people of color tend to have internal prejudices of other people of color based on their skin shade.

However, colorism is also institutionalized and systemic, meaning that it has power over people beyond their immediate communities. It has power over how people live their day to day lives, impacting — as with racism — every area of life, from education and employment opportunities, to safety and security, access to health care, and more. In other words, colorism is not just an issue for BIPOC to be talking about; because it is highly likely that every person who knows what racism is, has also witnessed or contributed to acts of colorism. Let’s consider some examples of how colorism can be harmful. 

Colorism in Beauty Standards

Beauty standards and media coverage are perhaps the most obvious examples of colorism, hence my discussion with my brother about that Elle Magazine cover. Up until recently, the people of color who were celebrated on TV screens, movie posters, magazine covers, billboards, runways, and in the beauty industry as a whole were light-skinned. 

I grew up knowing that Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Halle Berry, Tyra Banks, Kajol, Thandiwe Newton, Beyoncé, and so many more were considered beautiful because of their light skin. For an obscenely long time, beauty and fashion products only catered to fair-skin, which was a systematic reminder that the closer you are to being white, the more likely you are to be considered beautiful. This contributed to dark-skinned people being subjected to name-calling, bullying, and harassment because of society’s attitude to their skin color.

As a result, skin bleaching grew in popularity; and is still a major part of the beauty industry today. It is a dangerous practice of using harsh chemical products to make the skin unnaturally lighter, the side effects include skin cancers, skin burning, and severe skin damage. It’s predicted that sales of skin-lightening products will reach $8.9 billion by 2024

Employability & Earnings

To this day dark-skinned people are earning less than light-skinned people, and are also less considered for employment opportunities. 

According to a survey by the Multi-City Study of Urban Inequality and the National Survey of Black Americans, there is both an “inter-racial and an intra-racial wage gap” across markets, and the gap widens the darker skin is.

A study in the US has indicated that employers lean more towards favoring light-skinned Black people for job openings above those who are dark-skinned. Another study from 2018 showed that darker-skinned immigrants in the US were paid up to 25% less than lighter-skinned immigrants, with the pay gap having increased from 16% over the decade

If you consider that racial bias already plays a role in hireability and earnings before people of color are further divided into lighter or darker skin, then it should be clear that discussions about achieving racial equity should largely include skin-tone-equity. 

Dangerous Prejudices 

Darker-skinned people are assumed to be more threatening or dangerous than people with lighter skin. In the US — and note that because skin-tone-bias is still a relatively new public discussion, most studies on the subject have been conducted only in the US — a study has shown that Black people have a 36% chance of being jailed at some point in their lives. Those chances shoot up to 66% if you are a darker-skinned Black person. 

How Does Colorism Impact the Fight to Ending Extreme Poverty?

Colorism is one of the reasons the world remains a considerable distance away from achieving true equity. The beauty and fashion industries catering to light-skinned women of color impacts Global Goal 5 which calls for gender equality, as it pits women of color (who are already the most susceptible to poverty) against each other. The employability and pay gap between people of different shades impacts Global Goal 8 for every person to be able to have access to decent work and contribute to economic growth.

Why Must I Learn to Talk About Colorism? 

Because it is a systemic issue that has to be dismantled, and an inherited bias that has to be unlearned — it’s highly likely that we are all part of the problem, whether we realize it or not. Even if you have the best intentions, learning to talk about skin-tone bias will help to celebrate people of color, and also has the potential to introduce active solutions to the issue. 

Consider the recent discourse of how Annie Liebowits has struggled to use lighting for dark-skinned Black women in their photographs (Simone Biles, Ketanji Brown Jackson, Lupita Nyong’o, Viola Davis); it’s clear that there is some yearning to celebrate Black people in the beauty and fashion industries, but there exists a lack of understanding on how to do it, and how to cater for different skin shades.

Had the conversation of colorism been introduced or taken seriously in the planning of those photo shoots — where there could be an understanding that photographing a dark-skinned Black woman and photographing a light-skinned Black woman requires different considerations in order to show the best of who they are (or perhaps if a Black photographer was hired) those images would not have trended for all the wrong reasons.

You and I need to learn how to listen to and contribute to discussions of colorism because we could have the opportunity as employers, consumers, beauty enthusiasts, legal authorities, influencers, managers, colleagues, and everyday citizens, to help direct the course of justice and strengthen our allyship against colorism, and ultimately, racism. 

Global Citizen Life

Demand Equity

Everyone Should Learn How to Talk About Colorism, Not Just BIPOC

By Khanyi Mlaba