Colorism: The Attack on Black Skin in the U.S.

The Oxford dictionary defines colorism as “Prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group discrimination by skin color.” It is premised in a belief that someone with a lighter complexion is more beautiful or valuable than someone with darker skin.

For some, an African American woman’s beauty is a source of social capital, and when others tie her beauty to her skin color, it may cause psychology distress, social disparities, and divisiveness amongst black women. Just recently, White radio host Rob Lederman was terminated for referring to his preference for Black women based on their skin tones according to a toaster setting. He stated he "would never go with Serena Williams level, but [is] very comfortable at a Halle Berry level" and “needed a little bit of mulatto still coming through.”

Of the subset of research that discusses colorism, the impact on both dark-skinned men and women has been investigated. Researchers have found that Black women tend to have more psychological effects from colorism than their male counterparts. According to numerous reports, dark skinned African American women face skin-tone prejudice that occurs in separate forms[i]. It can result in a denial of certain job opportunities especially where physical appearance is involved and at times biases about aptitude and cultural fit. Intra-group racism within the African American community is also a cause for concern, as it affects self-concept, well-being, and overall life outcomes.

Racialized beauty standards combined with color complexes, at times rooted in colorism, make black hair and skincare an essential component to Black female identity. Although dermatologists commit themselves to providing treatment to all patients, significant disparities remain in the availability of dermatologic care for Black patients. A lack of diversity and dermatology training in medical schools affects diagnosis and treatment, as skin manifestations unique to darker skin patients, such as hyperpigmentation, keloids, eczema, and others can appear differently and are treated differently on different skin tones[ii] which a non-black dermatologist may not be trained to treat. Failure to identify the correct treatment plan for black and dark skin can have grave consequences for black patients such as permanent scaring, poor quality treatment, and wasted money as dermatology treatments are not covered by insurance making matters worse.

As society grapples with the right ways to eradicate bias, we must continue to talk about the implications of colorism. We must also continue to teach African American girls about the effects of colorism and provide them with opportunities to help them develop a strong identity and healthier sense of self.

[i] Pearson-Trammell, N. (2010). Colorism, self-esteem, and resiliency: A qualitative study of dark skinned African American women. California Institute of Integral Studies. [ii] Gorbatenko-Roth, K., Prose, N., Kundu, R. V., & Patterson, S. (2019). Assessment of black patients’ perception of their dermatology care. JAMA dermatology, 155(10), 1129-1134.

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