Colorism & African-American Women

colorismHistorically, dating back to the colonial era, African-Americans of lighter skin color have been given preferential treatment over African-Americans of darker skin color (Hunter 1998, p. 518). The lighter skin slaves worked in the house, while darker skin slaves plowed the fields (Hunter 1998, p. 518). This preferential treatment, which became prominence during colonial era, has ingrained in African-Americans a mode of discrimination that manifests itself today in what is now referred to as Colorism.  Colorism is discrimination amongst members of the same race on the basis of skin tonality (Wilder 2009, p.184). The effects of Colorism are based on a crude dichotomy of skin color, black women perceived as “light skin” feel most of the positive effects of colorism, while black women perceived as “dark skin” feel most of the negative effects of colorism. Terms such as mulatto, quadroon, and octoroon along with the Hypodescent One-Drop Rule were established to maintain superficial segregation created by Jim Crow Laws (Wilder 2009, p.186).  Additionally, the “Brown Paper bag” and “Hair Comb” tests were administered as means to measure African-Americans proximity to whiteness. Ultimately, if a person passed these tests then he/she could potentially be admitted into elite Black organizations such as Black fraternities and sororities or even pass as white. Entrance into this elite echelon of Black society resulted in provision with support from informal networks that offered job opportunities, promotions, and a large amount of social capital (Hunter 1998, p. 520).   The entire black community feels the effects of Colorism, especially dark-skinned black women.  It is reasonable to postulate darker-skin African-American women currently fare worse emotionally, physiologically, and economically than their light-skin counterparts. This paper will provide analysis of the literature/research in the field will provide validation of this postulation.

Though the postulate proposed seemed blaringly obvious as overwhelmingly true, contemporary research reveals the topic to be highly contentious and debated.  First let us examine the evidence supporting the statement that dark-skin black women currently faring worse economically, psychological, and physiologically than lighter-skin black women. Much contemporary research suggests skin tone is a predictor of educational attainment, occupational status, and personal as well as family income for Blacks. Light-skin Blacks are more likely to have more years of schooling, higher-prestige occupations, and higher incomes than darker-skin Blacks, even when controlling for family background and family socio- economic status (Hunter 1998, p. 521).  When people were asked to describe the attitudes of dark-skin black women they commonly described dark-skin black women as “loud”, “suspicious”, “unattractive”, and “intelligent” in comparison lighter-skin black women were described as almost the complete opposite (Wilder 2009, p.195).  This is related to two tropes commonly applied to black women and they have origins to time of slavery. These two stereotypes are the existence of the black woman as either the matriarch or as a welfare mother.

As Wilder (2009) puts it, “The matriarch is the epitome of the strong black woman… She is represented as being an overly strong, aggressive, and at times militant black woman who works to emasculate black men. By contrast, the welfare mother is not strong but lazy, poor, and uneducated” (p. 196).  Saturation of the media with these two tropes of black women has resulted in the internalization of these controlling images within both African America and Caucasian, which fosters the endless cycle of colorism as a vehicle for the reproduction of hegemonic racism and sexism against black women.

It is noteworthy to point out that most people envision the typical black woman, as dark-skin black women, therefore light-skin black women remain are less affected by these two stereotypes.  Furthermore, fair-skin African-Americans in comparison to dark-skin African-Americans have a family income that is more than 50% greater than that of a dark-skin African American; their personal income is 65% greater; they are also more likely to be employed in professional/technical positions; their spouses tend to have more education (about 2 years); obtain higher occupational prestige; and are two times less likely to experience discrimination (Wade 1996, 360).  In school Hunter (2002) says that, “White teachers and administrators are prone to make distinctions among African American…children about who the smart kids are and who the good kids are.  Those distinctions are often influenced by our cultural standard of racism” (Hunter 2002, p. 188). Consequently, the African America child with curly light brown hair and other white physiognomic features are labeled smart kids. Lastly, skin-bleaching and hair straightening with destructive chemicals have become the norm amongst black girls, who are made to believe they must alter their appearance to be more white and beautiful.  As Hunter best puts it, “Identity is relational, and those who are defined as beautiful are only defined as beautiful in relation to other women who are defined as ugly…white beauty is based on the racist assumption of Black ugliness” (p. 178-179).  Overall the effects of Colorism especially in dark-skin black women results in deep fractioning of the black community, feelings of inferiority or superiority depending on skin tone, differential access to services, and perception of physical beauty especially between the differential tones of black women (Hall 1973).

Now lets us examine the research that argues against the detrimental effects of Colorism on the emotional, physical, and economic well being of dark-skin black women.  Some research has shown that black men and women prefer darker skin or an intermediate brown skin tone over women with lighter skin (Coard et al. 2001). This implies an alternative reasoning for the endurance of privileges among light-skinned blacks. That is that the dominance of lighter-skinned blacks in positions of power and authority within the educational and occupational domains may be reproduced even without a universal distaste for darker skin tone. This reproduction may occur simply, due to “homophily” among light-skinned individuals  (Gullickson 2005, p.159).  Furthermore, research has found that Whites are less able to perceive skin tone variation among blacks than are blacks themselves, suggesting that skin tone differences within the black population are less relevant for Whites (Gullickson 2005, p. 159).

More research has declared as of the second half of the 20th century the United States experienced a profound racial transformation. Blacks have become more integrated into previously white institutions and a black pride movement (“Black is Beautiful”) deliberately confronted white standards of beauty, and flagrant racial authority became politically unacceptable (Gullickson 2005, p 159). Another thing is many light-skin African-Americans feel depreciated, because they often feel “not black enough” (Coard et. al. 2001, p.2257). As a result, they may feel the need to overcompensate for their “lack of color” (Coard et. al 2001, p.2268). “Light-skin blacks tend to perceive their lightness or “white” skin color as a negative attribute and, thus assume predominantly separatist views in order to assist them in resolving their racial identity conflicts” (Coard et. al. 2001, p.2268). Other studies have concluded that there is no noticeable change in skin tone differentials with regard to educational attainment, occupational attainment and assortative mating, despite a massive transformation of race relations during the Civil Rights period and some convergence in educational and labor market outcomes between blacks and whites in the post-Civil Rights era (Gullickson 2005, p.157). Some research has even provided in detail research showing that the validity of all research currently available out there on grounds of their methodology and collection methods   inadequate (Gullickson 2005).  Gullickson (2005) in his analysis uses multivariable calculus to correct for wrong use of variables by other experimenters.  His results show upward mobility is greater from 1980 to 1987 for medium and darker-skinned blacks than for lighter-skinned blacks, leading to a convergence in occupational attainment across cohorts (p.164). However, Gullickson is keen to point out that a decrease of skin tone differentials does not necessarily imply that prejudice based on skin color has waned. He is avid in pointing out that integration of blacks into white institution during the Civil Rights period may have reduced light skin black dominance, because it generated new white gatekeepers of opportunity who, while not race-blind, may have been largely tone-blind (Gullickson 2005, p. 173).

         The implications of colorism are unclear. More comprehensive and up to date research needs to be conducted to better assess the severity of its effect on the black women. Only time will tell! In the meanwhile, it is best to continue educating the black community, especially black women who are most susceptible to the effects of Colorism which include diminished self-esteem, inferiority, and group division.



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