Colorism, A Different Kind of Racism
Written by: Hannah Martinez

Colorism is a problem that plagues nations across the world. It is rooted in Westernized standards of beauty and somehow weasels its way into nearly every culture, pitting people of similar ancestry against each other.

Colorism was first coined by activist Alice Walker. Walker defined it as prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color. Colorism is the reason why (cancerous) skin lightening "treatments" are so prominent in cultures across the globe. Here in the US, colorism and its effects are found throughout the entertainment industries, the criminal justice system, and in the economic markets.

Colorism is rooted in European colonization across the world, but it can be felt acutely in the United States due to slavery. Slaves with lighter pigmentations were assigned easier tasks than slaves with darker skin tones. Racial classifications like mulatto, quadroon, and octoroon dominated the slave trade by marketing the “whiteness” a multiracial slave possessed, making them more valuable than slaves with no white ancestry. Colorism prevailed even past the abolition of slavery, affecting entrance into college fraternities through an insidious “paper bag test” and playing a role in whether or not a person was hired well into the twentieth century.

Today is no different. As recent as 2010, research conducted by science journalists exposed how even the most liberally minded people can prefer lighter shades of skin. A 2006 study displayed that darker-skinned Blacks were at a direct disadvantage with lighter-skinned Blacks in hiring processes, with employers of any race preferring lighter-skinned Blacks regardless of qualifications. Sociologist Margaret Hunter wrote on how Mexican-Americans with lighter pigmentations had better jobs, lived in better neighborhoods, and completed more years of education than darker-skinned Mexican-Americans. And Black female students with more melanin were suspended three times more than Black female students with lighter pigmentations.

As a darker-skinned first-generation citizen growing up in Southern California, my parents did their best to shield my lighter-skinned brother and me from the colorism rampant in our society. Yet as we became more and more exposed to the world, my brother and I became more and more aware of our differences in skin tone. My brother was approached by a talent agency looking for a model of the “perfect” American boy. I was called “mestizo” by some members of my family. We were separated by color, with my brother the image of our father and I a version of my mother, despite the fact that we had multiple characteristics of both our parents beyond something as basic as skin tone. 

Colorism is a threat to equality, not only in the United States but also across the world. It is imperative that we take on anti-racist measures to unlearn, learn, and relearn how to think about color, ethnicity, and race. Change is necessary, and it is only by advocacy and voting that the change so desperately needed for equality can become.