Through generations, the issue of colorism has plagued Black communities and has helped to create a divide between lighter and darker-toned individuals. Like most history for African Americans, the issue of light versus dark gets its origins from slavery where there was a clear and distinct separation of tasks and responsibilities. Lighter-skinned Africans were given domestic kitchen or other service jobs, typically in the Big House while Africans whose tones were rich in melanin were given a different set of standards and damned to a life of back-breaking tasks.
The issue of colorism is not only a problem in Black communities, it also saturates many communities of color where there is an array of shades for any one particular race. Affecting opportunities in career, dating and punishments in the criminal justice system, colorism enforces the white standard of beauty while giving a clear message of unworthiness to those with darker skin.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, practices such as the “brown paper bag test” were implemented to further perpetuate colorism and used to determine job placement and entrance into private spaces. For individuals who were the same complexion as the bag or lighter, they would receive preferential treatment as opposed to those who were darker than the bag, who received no job nor were allowed into certain spaces.
“Colorism in the Black community has its origins in slavery, and even before that when we think about the hierarchy that white supremacy and colonialism created with regards to skin color,” says Raina LaGrand, therapist and clinical social worker.
Today, the issue of tone has plagued almost every aspect of life. Recently, Meghan Markle, wife of British royal Prince Harry and the Duchess of Sussex, unleashed a fury of commentary surrounding color in a two-hour televised interview with TV icon Oprah Winfrey as she claimed that while pregnant a member of the royal family made mention of the skin tone of her now-son, Archie. While complexion continues to be a point of contention, efforts are being made to put an end to both colorist and colorism once and for all.
Lavoughnda White is a woman on a mission to spread love and positivity to all Black people, but especially those with richer hues of brown. Launching Nah I’m Just Pretty, a social enterprise company which educates, mobilizes and organizes around the issue of colorism, with the intent to give darker-skinned African Americans a place to share their experience free from criticism and judgment.
“I started to educate myself on colorism — the implications of colorism, how they impact you from an economic standpoint, from a societal standpoint, from a sociological standpoint. I needed to figure out how to give darker-skinned people a platform to express their grievances in a safe space,” says White.
In dating, darker-skinned women are less likely to be the objects of attraction. While marriage numbers are lower for Black women over any other race, rates are especially lower for women with darker skin. Published in the 2009 Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, Dr. Darrick Hamilton, a professor of Economic and Urban Policy in New York, used research from a 2003 multi-city study which resulted in findings that about 55 percent of lighter-skinned Black women have been married as opposed to 23 percent of darker-skinned Black women. For darker-skinned women, like White, dating presents its own set of challenges to overcome. Black men sometimes romanticize the idea of a light-skinned Black woman leaving melanin-rich women to feel unwanted.
“I realized my beauty had to be approved first before being accepted by Black men,” says White.
While colorism is not a new concept, it is now being called to light for its corrosive and destructive effects. Author and psychotherapist Resmaa Menakem, specializes in racial trauma and relationships in Black families and society, and his work has been a source of study for many therapists, including LaGrand. Menakem notes some traumatic events are absorbed and held onto in the Black community.
“Colorism is one of those traumatic retentions. It still plays a role, both within our community and outside it, and it’s sneaky,” says LaGrand.
As Black men are taught to not display emotion, their relationship with color seems to have a different effect. Black men, too, face discrimination based on their skin tone. Often portrayed as aggressive, a thug or criminal, dark-skinned Black men are stereotyped as brutes, while lighter-skinned men are more passive. A 2006 University of Georgia study also showed employers prefer light-skinned Black men as opposed to darker skin no matter their qualifications.
“I’ve definitely felt the pains of colorism, but luckily as we grow, we understand and we just try to get better and uplift each other,” says Christopher Thomas, owner of No Mind Left Behind Publishing House.
Around the world, individuals with darker skin are treated substantially different. In India, a famed skin bleaching cream is used by almost 38 million people worldwide. Statistically, darker-toned Brazilians account for up to 60 percent of the country’s poorest. As the issue of colorism spans the world, education and conscious de-programming in the Black community can help to combat the effects of racism and colorism.
“We know colorism isn’t just a Black issue. Across cultures, people with darker skin are treated differently, but for Black people, we have to be educated on the history of America and really try to unlearn what we were programmed or taught,” says White. “We have to start there to really see how we were taught to hate ourselves.”