One great oversight of our modern generation is that we turn a blind eye to the subconscious colorism that occurs in our society. Colorism within the African American community is defined as the attitude among African Americans discriminating against other African Americans because of their skin complexion – for instance, being too light or too dark. The form of racial discrimination known as colorism dates back to slavery, and has been systematically passed through various elements of our culture. It implies that lighter skin and straight hair are better, and successful men should marry women who fit this standard. Colorism can also happen within other communities, as I’ll explain below. Much research has shown how racial discrimination negatively affects African-Americans’ mental health, contributing to depression and anxiety.
Colorism plays a huge role in the low self-esteem of Black America from individuals to relationships, and even expands into societal status. Colorism occurs both interracially and intraracially. Interracial colorism is when a member of one racial group discriminates based on the skin color of a member belonging to a different racial group, and intraracial colorism involves a member of a racial group discriminating a member of the same racial group based on skin color. Both forms of colorism impact the black community by causing division, and can contribute to negative mental health effects.
Colorism has a long history in the United States. During our country’s period of enslaving people, those enslaved people with lighter skin or more European features were given favorable treatment. This strategy was intended to cause separation within the enslaved community, pitting darker-skinned people against lighter skinned people. Later, in the early 1900s, another strong example was the establishment of the brown paper bag test within African American communities. This discriminatory act required that an individual’s skin color was the same color or lighter than a brown paper bag in order for that person to receive privileges. Fraternities and sororities used the brown paper bag test to determine whether or not you could enter. Marita Golden, author of Don’t Play in the Sun: One Woman’s Journey Through the Color Complex says, “The paper bag would be held against your skin. And if you were darker than the paper bag, you weren’t admitted.” This test was very popular in fraternities and sororities at the HBCU Howard University.
Another example is “the doll tests,” first done in the 1940s, with results that have since been replicated. African American psychologists Dr. Kenneth Clark and Dr. Mamie Clark gave African American children two dolls: one that was white and one that was painted black. The children were asked questions like: “Which one is the ugly doll?”, “Which one has a nicer color?”, “Which one is the bad doll?” The study showed that amongst the African American children, the majority preferred the white baby doll to the black baby doll. The white baby doll was associated with positive attributes like “smart” or “pretty,” while the black baby doll was associated with negative attributes. This study, along with its remodels, proves that words such as, “beautiful, good, positive, etc.” are associated with white or lighter skin individuals. Many American studies since the 1940s have replicated these findings, proving that these damaging associations are not a thing of the past.
Because of these associations, people of color often desire lighter skin, straighter hair, etc. To fulfill these desires, skin toners, skin bleachers, hair relaxers, and straight hair extensions are used. These markets, which promote white supremacy, are being promoted through media and magazines. According to Dr. Yaba Blay, who has studied these issues extensively, there are specific reasons why African and African-American woman use such products: to remove blemishes and imperfections and to counteract the effects of the sun, to appear and feel clean, to appear white, European, and “beautiful,” to please a partner, grab attention, or attract potential mates, to impress peers, appear sophisticated and modern, and gain economic and social mobility. These reasons tie together the key factors of interracial and intraracial colorism: discrimination, self-deprivation, self-hatred, white supremacy, social conditioning, etc.
These ideas of wanting to be accepted, or wanting to be “beautiful,” are relatable, yet very concerning. There shouldn’t be limitations on which skin tone is beautiful or not. Commentary such as, “You’re pretty for a dark-skinned girl,” or, “She is beautiful because she is light-skinned,” are insulting and belittling. People of color often associate darker persons of their racial group with poverty and unattractiveness. Having lighter skin and being mixed with Native American, black, and white, I too have been a victim of colorism. People automatically assumed that I felt I was “better” than others because I had “good hair” and fair skin.
It’s past time to change this. We can begin by talking more about it, and by talking about how it affects our mental health. Exposing the multiple influences of intraracial stigmas could spark conversation and enlighten the black community on how interracial and intraracial colorism affect the subconscious. Subsequently, we could teach those who are affected by intraracial colorism to unlearn their self-prejudices and to praise the beauty of their genetic makeup, and to accept themselves without the dramatization of altering their features. In order to progressively oust interracial colorism, we have to unite and work together as a community to end colorism.
Golden, Marita. Don’t Play in the Sun: One Woman’s Journey through the Color Complex. New York: Doubleday, 2004. Print.