Darker skin disadvantages millions of people around the world. Within communities of color, lighter skin often confers greater access, privilege—and better mental and physical health. (First of a four-part series on colorism from WebMD)
November 3, 2022 – In Asian, Black and Hispanic communities colourism is the elephant in the room, sitting at the family dining table, the group photo shoot, meeting strangers for the first time, or even playing in your kindergarten classroom. This phenomenon is so ingrained in communities of color that it’s almost taboo to talk about it. Or maybe it hurts too much to call out by name.
But unless you are a person of color, this concept may sound completely foreign; but that’s ok, read on. Cook colourism To put it simply, it is discrimination, prejudice and bigotry based on skin tone and color.
“The Similarities in Colorism About [Asian, Black, and Latino] Communities are specifically associated with the worship and glorification of white and the perception that anything that is European and has lighter skin is better,” says Nayeli Y. Chavez-Dueñas, PhD, licensed clinical psychologist and professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology.
These include thoughts like: “White people – followed by lighter-skinned people of color – are smarter and more capable and deserve to be seen by society privilegeslike access to better jobs, prosperity,” she says.
In our new documentary series, Color by WebMD: WebMD’s Exploration of Race and Mental Health, we’ll begin by looking at colorism and the costly impact of this phenomenon on mental health. We’ll also be looking at ways to break through those cross-generational thought patterns that are preventing some people of color from truly seeing and appreciating the beauty of different skin tones.
Colorism vs. Racism
Distinguishing from colorism racism can be tricky because one flows into the other, says Radhika Parameswaran, PhD, associate dean of The Media School at Indiana University in Bloomington. Racism refers to attitudes, behavior and treatment from one racial group to another. For example how a white community treats an asian community. Colorism, on the other hand, examines how members of a color community interact with one another.
“So in a way, colorism is also about internalized racism,” says Parameswaran.
Where does colorism come from?
While colorism has roots in specific racial groups, we can trace its origins to European colonialism, says Vanessa Gonlin, PhD, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Georgia. For African American communities in the United States, colorism stems from slavery. Colonizers created a color hierarchy in which fair-skinned slaves were more likely to be “stuck in the house” and tasked with cooking, cleaning, and other tasks often considered “easier,” Gonlin explains. Dark-skinned slaves often worked in the fields.
“This created literal divisions among enslaved people,” she says. “You’re less likely to band together in a slave rebellion when you have these perceived differences that actually come into play because of your profession.”
Even after emancipation, some African Americans perpetuated coloristic ideas in their communities. Gonlin gives the example of the infamous “brown paper bag test‘, particularly among certain Greek fraternities and sororities through The 20th Century.
“If your skin was lighter than a brown paper bag, you were allowed into certain rooms,” says Gonlin.
Colorism in Asian and Latin American communities
When the Spanish started colonizing Latin America late 15th century, they created a ranking system. According to Chavez-Dueñas, people with lighter skin were at the top and people with darker skin and non-European facial features (for example, narrow nose or thin lips) were at the bottom of the ranking.
“They took advantage of that [ranking order] To dehumanize and marginalize people who were indigenous or of Afro descent,” she says. “This system has worked throughout Latin America for centuries.”
And in many Asian cultures, colorism began long before the arrival of Europeans. Rather, the propensity for skin color was linked to social class.
“If you were lighter-skinned, that means you’re not working out in the field,” says Gonlin. “It was this idea of having the luxury or the means to be able to stay indoors. If you were darker then you were a worker.”
It starts at home
Perhaps the ugliest reality in all cultures is that colorism usually begins at home. Thoughts of self-doubt can be introduced very early and can be difficult to shake, says Chavez-Dueñas. In fact, colorism often begins before birth. Comments like “I hope your child turns white” or “I hope their hair is nice” can be commonplace for pregnant women, she says.
In some families, fair-skinned siblings are often showered with praise, says Parameswaran.
“They are wanted to introduce them to the public.”
That might sound awful, but it’s important to remember that many families only want what’s best for their children, says Parameswaran. The idea that lighter skin offers children less social stigma and more career opportunities, romantic partners, and an overall “easier life” fuels coloristic narratives.
The harsh reality for darker children
Colorist comments are typically made during a casual conversation and often normalize. Darker-skinned 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 maybe a light-skinned sibling,” says Parameswaran.
“The child ends up carrying a lot of stigma and shame – it’s like a heavy backpack,” says Parameswaran. “Sometimes they lack the vocabulary to express these feelings. So you have it in you and it can be very damaging in the long run.”
Some children carry this shame into adulthood, which can make it difficult to maintain romantic relationships and just “be yourself as much as possible,” she says
Next, we’ll talk to mental health professionals about how to overcome mental health issues trauma from colorism. We’ll also explore ways in which more people of color can – at their core – truly appreciate the beauty of rich skin tones and other ethnic traits.
Stay tuned! The next episode is scheduled to start on November 17th.