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What Is Colorism?

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on July 27, 2022

Have you ever had a judgy thought about your skin tone or someone else’s? Or saw a movie that seemed to shine more of a spotlight on actors with lighter skin?

Colorism is skin-tone discrimination that can show up in the media, in daily life, and maybe even in your own head. Depending on your race or ethnicity and the type of colorism you face, some research suggests it can affect things like your worldview, job prospects, education, and possibly your health.

Over time, colorism has meant different things in different cultures. But it usually refers to people with lighter skin tones being preferred or treated better compared to people with darker skin tones.

Colorism bias is common among people who share a race or ethnicity. In the U.S., colorism happens within the African American, Latin, and Asian American communities. Some white people practice skin-tone discrimination, too. It can happen across racial and ethnic lines.

It’s also possible to practice colorism against yourself and dislike your skin tone. The desire for lighter skin leads many people in the U.S. and other countries to try to get lightening or whitening products from stores and dermatologists.

Is Colorism Different From Racism?

Yes. Colorism is discrimination or a bias against someone’s skin tone. Racism is discrimination, hatred, or violence directed at people because of things like their race, ethnicity, or where they’re from. Racism can take many forms, like:

  • Individual, which is when it’s carried out against someone face-to-face or behind their back
  • Institutional, meaning the rules and practices within and across an institution lead to outcomes that favor some racial groups and set others back
  • Structural, meaning a mix of public policies, institutional practices, social forces, philosophies, and processes that make life unequal among races and aim to keep it that way

Some researchers and experts closely link colorism in the U.S. to racist views and white ideals of beauty that were common during slavery and continued after it was abolished.

In other cases, colorism can stem from a bias that sprung up within an ethnic group of people. One expert says that long ago in communities in Asia, people who had the luxury of staying indoors and avoided doing labor outside had lighter skin – and that became a symbol of higher class.

Also, in the history of Europe, having pale, cool-toned skin that made veins stand out as blue became a perceived sign of having “noble” and “untainted” blood -- also known as blue blood.

What Are Some Examples of Colorism?

Colorism affects people of different races and ethnicities in different ways.

Some research ties colorism among African Americans to several life-impacting effects. At least one study links having darker skin to worse physical health. Research also links darker skin to disadvantages in areas like:

  • Socioeconomic well-being
  • Electoral politics
  • Education
  • Labor market
  • Criminal justice system

In a recent survey of over 3,300 Latino adults in the U.S., many said they felt colorism shaped their lives in key ways. For instance, 62% percent said they believed that having darker skin hurts Latinos’ ability to get ahead in the U.S. at least a bit. On the other hand, 59% felt that having lighter skin was an advantage for Latinos. Over half said skin color affects their daily life a lot or some.

One expert on colorism says skin color can also play a subtle but important role as a perceived sign of class and beauty within some Asian American communities. Skin color might also be used to create divisions and hierarchies within those communities, the expert says. What’s more, a study of Asian Americans suggested that those with white skin were more likely to be college educated than those with light brown skin. The chances of getting a bachelor’s degree or an advanced degree were also higher for Asian Americans with a light skin tone.

Outside the U.S., colorism happens today in countries around the world -- from Latin America to China – which makes it an issue that’s truly global.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

The University of Chicago Press Journals: “A Punishing Look: Skin Tone and Afrocentric Features in the Halls of Justice.”

American Sociological Association: “Colorism and Physical Health: Evidence from a National Survey.”

Pew Research Center: “Majority of Latinos Say Skin Color Impacts Opportunity in America and Shapes Daily Life.”

University of Georgia: “A history of colorism sheds light on discrimination today.”

Harvard: “3 Things You Should Know About Global Colorism.”

MinneapolisMN.gov: “Skin lightening.”

International Journal of Women's Dermatology: “The dark side of skin lightening: An international collaboration and review of a public health issue affecting dermatology.”

American Psychiatric Association: “APA Presidential Task Force on Structural Racism Glossary of Terms.”

Cornell Law School: “Racism.”

ERIC Institute of Education Sciences: “Colorism and Educational Outcomes of Asian Americans: Evidence from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.”

University of California, Irvine School of Law: “The Significance of Skin Color in Asian and Asian-American Communities: Initial Reflections.”

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