Colorism Essay

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Table of contents

  1. Colorism Throughout the World
  2. Historical context
  3. Colorism after Slavery
  4. Colorism outside the United States
  5. Conclusion
  6. Works Cited

Colorism Throughout the World

Thomas Jefferson once said, “The first difference which strikes us is that of color. (Tharps 1),” I would say that there is truth to this quote. The sad thing about it is that some people have created a “standard” of what they deem acceptable based on this difference in skin color. Why? Where did the idea come from? Colorism is a form of discrimination and a result of racism, but it goes even deeper than that. How do we put an end to this? Colorism must be done away with. People come in all shades and we must learn to accept that.

Historical context

What is colorism? According to, colorism is the differential treatment based on skin color, especially favoritism toward those with a lighter skin tone and mistreatment or exclusion of those with a darker skin tone, typically among those of the same racial group or ethnicity ( So, where did colorism come from? It is a form of discrimination and an issue of racism (Network). It maintains the white standards of beauty and benefits white people in the institutions of oppression (Network). In her book, Same Family, Different Colors, Lori Tharps mentions that many people believe that the colorism in African American society is a result of a perceived animosity between house slaves and field slaves (Tharps 19). The truth is, however, that colorism was first started and continually reinforced by white Europeans in power (Tharps 19). Prejudice and power are both components of colorism, and because white people have always had power, they have institutionalized colorism in America (Tharps 19).

Colorism can be traced all the way back to slavery (Nittle). Slave owners favored the lighter-skinned slaves over the darker-skinned slaves, and often let them work indoors while the slaves with darker skin worked outside in the fields (Nittle). It is said that slave owners were favorably inclined toward fairer-skinned slaves because they were most likely family (Nittle). Male slave owners often raped their black female slaves which resulted in a mixed children with fair skin (Nittle). From this, having lighter skin came to be viewed as an asset in the slave community (Nittle).

Colorism after Slavery

After slavery, lighter-skinned people received employment opportunities that darker-skinned people could not receive (Nittle). During the 19th and 20th centuries, employers often used the “paper bag test (Network).” This was a test used in black businesses to determine who could get in or be hired (Network). If a person was the same color or lighter than a paper bag, they were allowed into the space or considered to be hired (Network). As you can see, skin color was a huge factor in several things. According to Lori Tharps, colorism, like racism and sexism, is a key component of America’s social landscape (Tharps 10). Some have argued that the United States operates as a pigmentocracy where those of a lighter complexion is more elite than those with darker skin (Tharps 10). Some have also said that having light skin outranks having dark skin in all areas of society (Tharps10).

Colorism in Romance and Pay Grades. In an article by Kaitlyn Greenidge, she talks about her research and experience with colorism. She found that colorism can be seen in the Romantic domain (Greenidge). Having lighter skin is associated with having beauty and status (Greenidge). Statistics have shown that lighter-skinned black women are more likely to get married than their darker-skinned counterparts (Greenidge). She also found that colorism can be seen in differences in pay rates (Greenidge). The difference in pay rates between light-skinned men and dark-skinned men is similar to the pay rate difference between white men and black men (Greenidge). It does not stop here.

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Colorism in the Media. There has been evidence of the continuous lack of African American actors and actresses in leading roles throughout the history of Hollywood films (“How the camera sees color”). Typically, if African Americans were cast, those with lighter skin were preferred over those with darker skin (“How the camera sees color”). African American actors and actresses found alternative ways to present themselves (How the camera sees color”). Some moved outside the mainstream film industry while others simply played into the stereotypical roles (How the camera sees color”). In the South, some even began making movies for African Americans in the early 1900s to create more involved narratives and roles (“How the camera sees color”). The response to colorism by African Americans shaped the early film industry and showed a legacy of unequal representation in film (“How the camera sees color”).

Kaitlyn Greenidge recalled watching TV shows and movies including Martin and Coming to America (Greenidge). In both, the leading lady's love interest was lighter-skinned (Greenidge). The darker-skinned actresses were portrayed as either loud, too sarcastic, too fast, or too forward (Greenidge). Diahann Carroll went on to become the first African American woman to star in a television show (The Official Masterworks). Not only did she star in a television show, but she was portrayed as a widowed nurse, which was different from the stereotypical roles that most black women portrayed (PBS). Even though she broke barriers, she still encountered a situation where colorism was evident. In an interview, Diahann Carrol recalled a time she was on set for the first day of production for the show “Julia” (PBS). She was in the makeup department, but they did not have any makeup that matched her skin tone (PBS). She said “the studio had only dealt with little American girls and European girls. They all have the same color. How could you have a makeup department and not have makeup for every skin tone in America? (PBS)” This just goes to show that there has been, for a long time, a lack of African American actresses in leading roles, especially those of darker skin color.

Colorism outside the United States

In other places outside the United States, colorism has more to do with class than it does with white supremacy (Nittle). In other countries, the wealthier classes consist of more light-skinned people than darker-skinned people (Nittle). From this, the idea has been developed that lighter skin is better (Nittle). The idea of colorism is deeply rooted in European culture and has been showcased in every country they have invaded (Flygalash). However, it is unlikely that China, Korea, and Japan were introduced to colorism through Eurocentrism (Flygalash). In these countries, having darker or lighter skin is more than a beauty standard (Flygalash). In a New York Times article, a man named Dan Levin quoted a woman from China, “A woman should always have fair skin otherwise, people will think you are a peasant (Flygalash).” In Eastern Asian culture, skin tone determines a person’s socioeconomic status (Flygalash). In China, there is no middle class (Flygalash). There are the “haves” and the “have nots (Flygalash).” Those who “have not” typically work outdoors in the sun, giving them their darker skin color (Flygalash). Therefore, having darker skin equates to being poor (Flygalash).

In other countries, colorism plays a big role in marriages and other pop cultures such as Bollywood in India (Flygalash). Dr. Radhika Parameswaran, a professor at Indiana University, has stated that colorism plays a key role in the institution of marriage in India (Flygalash). Fairer-skinned women are preferred over darker-skinned women, as is here in America (Flygalash). Many of the darker-skinned women who had been rejected had significant emotional and psychological effects (Flygalash). They had either considered or attempted suicide or had purchased lightning creams because of the discrimination they had experienced (Flygalash). In Brazil, the system of colorism is a reflection of what has happened in America because of the historic, deep roots of slavery that have taken place in both countries (Flygalash). This still haunts Brazil with institutionalized racism and oppression (Flygalash).


There is a saying or an old rhyme that says, “If you’re black, stay back; If you’re brown, stick around; If you’re yellow, you’re mellow; If you’re white, you’re alright (Tharps 19).” This was a popular nursery rhyme that children were taught (Nittle). It is sad that children were being taught this. This just shows how deeply embedded colorism is in our history and us as people. It is a part of this system, along with racism, that we just cannot seem to free ourselves from. It has spread to various parts of the world like wildfire. In her book, Lori Tharps says, “ Over the years, however, Black People have been complicit in reinforcing colorist ideas, favoring those with light skin over dark, establishing communities, organizations, and institutions meant exclusively for those with light skin, and worst of all, buying into the idea that dark skin somehow signifies an inferior status. But still, all of these skin-color machinations performed in the black community are done within the boundaries of a racist society where whiteness is the standard for all things. Until the power structure is no longer ruled by white men and beauty ideals are no longer based on white women, it seems perfectly reasonable-if not tragically sad- to assume that Black America will continue to operate under the rules of colorism (Tharps 20).”

Works Cited

  1. “Colorism.”,,
  2. “Diahann Carroll.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service,
  3. “Diahann Carroll.” The Official Masterworks Broadway Site,
  4. Flygalash. “All Around the World: Colorism in Other Cultures.” The Melanin Project: Colorism and Pop Culture, 10 Nov. 2015,
  5. Greenidge, Kaitlyn. “Why Black People Discriminate among Ourselves: the Toxic Legacy of Colorism.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 9 Apr. 2019,
  6. “How the Camera Sees Color.” National Museum of African American History and Culture, 5 July 2019,
  7. Network, Jvillage. “Colorism.” NCCJ, 9 Jan. 2019,
  8. Nittle, Nadra Kareem. “The Origins of Colorism and How This Bias Persists in America.” ThoughtCo, ThoughtCo, 15 Aug. 2019,
  9. Tharps, Lori. Same Family, Different Colors: Confronting Colorism in America's Diverse Families. Beacon Press, 2016, pp. 19–64.
  10. Tharps, Lori. “Introduction.” Same Family, Different Colors: Confronting Colorism in America's Diverse Families, Beacon Press, 2016, pp. 1–18.
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