It's been said that if President Barack Obama were a dark-skinned black man, he would not have been elected president. This is debatable to some while others believe it wholeheartedly. In comedy circles, President Obama is referred to as someone who had the complexion for the protection and the connection. The idea that there is prejudice or discrimination, often among same-race people based solely on skin tone is called colorism. Essentially, it means that the lighter your skin tone, the prettier you are seen to be, the more value you are attributed, and the better you have it in life. It stems from the belief that beauty and desirability increase with the proximity to whiteness.
How did colorism start?
I will speak to the issue of colorism from the vantage point of the African American community, though the issue of colorism is not isolated to the African American community. It’s a problem that occurs in many places around the world, including East and Southeast Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa. This concept has a long-standing history dating back to the enslavement of the African people in the United States starting in 1619.
Colorism is a spinoff of racism. It involves prejudice and power. Colorism was created and used by white Europeans in power who considered light skinned people to be more valuable than the darker skinned people. Oftentimes, the light-skinned slaves were the children of the slave masters who would want to keep them close by placing them into service in the house. These families believed that their homes could be run well if those slaves were given an education, so it was more likely that these light-skinned house slaves were taught to read and taught upper class tradition in white society.
It was also believed by most white people at the time that if slaves had white blood, they had a greater intellectual ability and subsequently, a greater capacity to be “civilized”.
From there, many light-skinned slaves internalized these assumptions and developed a sense of superiority to darker skinned slaves, which eventually lead to distrust and resentment by darker skinned slaves. Through that, colorism was, in part, an instrument used by slave masters to divide and conquer their own enslaved persons by extending to light skinned slaves more privileges. This would often pit light skinned slaves against dark-skinned slaves and make the light skinned slaves more loyal to their owners in the event of a slave rebellion.
How does colorism manifest itself today?
Race Bias in Children
The Doll Test, created by Dr. Kenneth and Mamie Clark, is a famous psychology test that studies the psychological effect of segregation on children. The test was used in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education landmark Supreme Court case that made it unconstitutional to segregate schools. The doll experiment required that a child be presented with two dolls – one white and one black. Questions were asked to determine the child’s perception of:
- Which doll was the nice one?
- Which doll would you play with?
- Which one looks bad?
The findings showed a clear racial preference for the white doll by black children. It was evident that the black children had a self-hatred and an internalized racial inferiority, which helped win the case.
Fast forward to 2010, and there was a new study conducted with children of various races. The children were presented with five images of dolls ranging from dark skinned to light skinned. When asked about which color was preferential, the majority of the children showed a bias towards white. This demonstrated that there is still a preference for whiteness that is perpetuated in different ways in society and needs to be discussed more.
The research indicated that African American parents prepare their kids more for diversity and the potential of discrimination while a lot of white parents believe that discussing race creates more of a problem.
The problem is that children will discover race very early on their own. Though I can understand the motive of being “colorblind”, it’s not healthy or safe to refuse to acknowledge someone’s racial difference, particularly in light of historical realities of race and their present-day implications. Racism used to show up primarily in lynchings, the KKK, racial slurs, swastikas, and hate crimes. Racism today shows up in the mass incarceration of people of color, racial profiling, police brutality, redlining, housing discrimination, hiring discrimination based on name, the presumption of guilt and implicit bias.
As such, not discussing the issues around race is not a solution. Healthy and honest conversations around these issues will help bring awareness, begin to explore ways to compensate for these biases and hopefully eliminate the prejudice amongst the next generation.
Jonathan Frejuste is an author and the creator of TheBridge330, a mentoring program whose mission is to provide quality mentoring tools and resources to underserved, underresourced, and vulnerable communities in ways that support sustained social change, a restoration of hope, and an avenue to emotional health. You can learn more about his work at www.thebridge330.com. You can purchase a copy of his book “Bridge the Gaps - Lessons on Self-Awareness, Self-Development, and Self-Care - Tools to Building a Life that Matters” on Amazon.
He is also a supporter of Platinum Minds, a nonprofit educational and leadership development organization dedicated to assisting boys from environmentally challenged neighborhoods with achieving their full academic potential and becoming leaders in their communities. You can learn about their work and support at www.platinumminds.org.