Across the globe, darker skin puts millions of people at a disadvantage. Within communities of color, lighter skin often bestows better access, privilege -- and better mental and physical health.  (First of a four-part series on colorism by WebMD)

Nov. 3, 2022 – In Asian, Black, and Latino communities, colorism is the elephant in the room, sitting at the family dinner table, the group photoshoot, meeting strangers for the first time, or even playing in your kindergarten classroom. This phenomenon is so deeply rooted within communities of color that it is almost taboo to talk about. Or maybe it hurts too deeply to call out by name.

But, if you’re not a person of color, this concept might sound completely foreign; but that’s OK, keep reading. To boil colorism down to a simple explanation, it is discrimination, prejudice, and bigotry, based on skin tone and color. 

“The similarities in colorism across [Asian, Black, and Latino] communities are specifically related to the adoration and glorification of whiteness and the perception that anything that's European and of lighter skin is better,” says Nayeli Y. Chavez-Dueñas, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. 

This includes thoughts like, “white people – followed by people of color with lighter skin – are smarter and more capable and deserving of societal privileges, like access to better jobs, wealth,” she says.

In our new docu-series, “Color by WebMD: WebMD’s Exploration of Race and Mental Health,” we’ll start by addressing colorism and the costly mental health effects of this phenomenon. We’ll also look at ways to break these multi-generational thought patterns that prevent some people of color from truly recognizing and appreciating the beauty of varying skin shades.  

Colorism vs. Racism

Differentiating colorism from racism can be tricky because one bleeds into the other, according to Radhika Parameswaran, PhD, an associate dean of The Media School at Indiana University in Bloomington. Racism pertains to attitudes, behaviors, and treatment from one racial group to another. For example, the way a white community treats an Asian community. Colorism, on the other hand, looks at how members of a community of color treat one another. 

“So, in some ways, colorism is also about internalized racism,” says Parameswaran.

Where Does Colorism Come From? 

While colorism is rooted inside certain racial groups, we can trace its origins back to European colonialism, says Vanessa Gonlin, PhD, an assistant sociology professor at the University of Georgia. For African American communities in the U.S., colorism stems from chattel slavery. Colonizers created a skin-tone hierarchy where lighter-skinned slaves were more likely to be “put in the house” and tasked with cooking, cleaning, and other duties often deemed as “easier,” Gonlin explains. Darker-skinned slaves often worked it the fields. 

“This led to literal divisions among enslaved people,” she says. “You're less likely to band together for a slave revolt if you have these perceived differences that actually are enacted based on your occupation.”

Even after emancipation, some African Americans kept colorist ideas going within their communities. Gonlin gives the example of the notorious “brown paper bag test,” particularly among certain Greek fraternities and sororities throughout the 20th century. 

“If your skin was lighter than a brown paper bag, you were allowed entry into certain spaces,” Gonlin says.

Colorism in Asian and Latin American Communities 

When Spaniards began to colonize Latin America in the late 15th century, they created a ranking system. People with lighter skin were at the top and those with darker skin and non-European facial features (for example, a narrow nose or thin lips) were at the bottom of the ranking order, according to Chavez-Dueñas.

“They used this [ranking order] to dehumanize and exclude people who were indigenous people or of Afro descent,” she says. “That system has been at work for centuries throughout Latin America.”

And in many Asian cultures, colorism began long before Europeans arrived. Rather, skin tone bias was connected to social class.

“If you were lighter-skinned, that means that you're not toiling outside in the field,” Gonlin says. “It was this idea of having the luxury or the means to be able to stay inside. If you were darker-skinned, then you were a laborer.”

It Starts at Home

Perhaps the ugliest reality across cultures is that colorism usually starts at home. Ideas of self-doubt can be introduced very early and can be hard to shake, says Chavez-Dueñas. In fact, colorism often begins before birth. Comments like, “I hope your child turns out white” or “I hope they have good hair” can be commonplace for pregnant women, she says. 

In some families, there will often be praise heaped upon siblings who have a lighter skin tones, Parameswaran says.

“They will be sought out for presentation to the public.” 

This may sound horrendous, but it’s important to keep in mind that many families just want the best for their children, Parameswaran says. The idea that lighter skin provides children less social stigma and more career opportunities, romantic partners, and an overall “easier life” fuels colorist narratives.

The Harsh Reality for Darker-Skin Children

Colorist comments are usually uttered during casual conversation and often become normalized. Darker-skin children can develop feelings of exclusion and low self-esteem, even to the point where they believe their parents “don’t love them as much as, perhaps, a sibling who’s lighter-skinned,” says Parameswaran.

“The child ends up carrying a lot of stigma and shame – it’s like a heavy backpack,” Parameswaran says. “Sometimes they don't have that vocabulary to articulate those feelings. So, they hold it within themselves, and it can be very damaging over the long run.”

Some children carry this shame into adulthood, which can make it hard to sustain romantic relationships and simply “be themselves to the fullest extent possible,” she says

Next, we’ll chat with mental health experts about how to overcome psychological trauma from colorism. We’ll also explore ways more people of color – at their core – can truly esteem the beauty of rich skin tones and other ethnic features. 

Stay tuned! The next episode is scheduled to launch Nov. 17.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Radhika Parameswaran, PhD, associate dean, The Media School, Indiana University, Bloomington.

Nayeli Y. Chavez-Dueñas, PhD, licensed clinical psychologist; professor, Chicago School of Professional Psychology. 

Vanessa Gonlin, PhD, assistant sociology professor, University of Georgia. 

Watch the Yard: “Paper Bag Test: Letter From 1928 Addresses Black Fraternity And Sorority Colorism At Howard University.”

Ferris State University: “Brown Paper Bag Test – February 2014.”

Brown University Library: “Timeline for Colonial Latin America, 1492-1824.”

Library of Congress: “Emancipation and Reconstruction.”

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