colorism – another bias that contributes to social inequality

Lets start this article with a little flashback in history:

The Paper Bag Test

The test is a form of racial discrimination, which compared an individual’s skin tone to the colour of a brown paper bag. It discriminated those whose skin was darker than the brown paper bag by holding it up against their skin. Based on the test results, it was determined whether or not an individual could have certain privileges. It has even been used at some churches, colleges, fraternities and nightclubs. This specific form of discrimination is called colourism, which is a discrimination or bias based on the social meanings attached to skin colour. Although the paper bag test is not a common practice anymore, colourism is still put into action in communities across the world.


To be able to name a grievance, it needs a precise definition of it. According to Dr. Jackson Lowman, colourism is..

“A form of oppression that is expressed through the differential treatment of individuals and groups based on skin colour. Typically, favouritism is demonstrated toward those of lighter complexions while those of darker complexions experience rejection and mistreatment.”

The term colourism is widely credited to Alice Walker, in her text “In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens“. Before that, black Americans used other terms, such as, “colourphobia”. In summary, colourism disadvantages dark-skinned people while privileging those with lighter skin. This form of a racial discrimination based on the shade of an individual’s skin tone can occur both within a specific group and across groups. Meaning that colourism is not always practiced by white people. In northern India for example some families if they have a lighter skin, are treated better than darker-skinned ones although they all belong to the same ethnic group.


Why understanding colourism matters

Research has linked colourism to some harmful effects:

  • Lower marriage rates
    A study, testing a theory of gendered colourism among African Americans, shows that dark-skinned women are less likely to be married than lighter-skinned counterparts. As lighter skin is associated with beauty and being associated with light skinned people is a status symbol.
  • Longer prison sentences
    Darker-skinned women are given longer prison terms than light-skinned women.
  • Smaller incomes
    Another research shows that the interracial (white-black) and intra-racial wage gap widens as the skin shade of the black worker darkens. Research shows that the difference in pay rates between darker-skinned and lighter-skinned African American men is almost the same as the differences in pay between whites and blacks.
  • Suspension from school
    Colourism starts in a young age. Dark-skinned girls are three times more likely to be suspended from school, than their light skinned classmates.
  • Less intelligent
    White interviewers considered lighter-skinned blacks to be more intelligent than darker-skinned counterparts – even though they all had identical experience. In addition to this, highly educated black people are remembered by job interviews as having lighter skin. Regardless to their actual skin colour.

But these are just a few points I wanted to highlight. There are countless other effects of colourism I came across: There are ample videos online where children of all ethnicities, judge dark-skinned dolls compared to light-skinned ones as uglier, worse and less trustworthy. Light skin is even so coveted that whitening creams continue to be best-sellers in the USA, Asia, and some other nations.

Opening up

I don’t know if there is a definite way to turn away from colourism. However, as with most things, I feel like it begins with being able to talk about it openly. To be able speak up about it, in order to provide individuals with the language to explain the phenomena they witness on a regular basis, and to emphasise another bias that contributes to social inequality.

Please take a look at former TEDx speaker Chika Okorowho who raises awareness about the many issues that women of colour face worldwide. In her inspiring talk she speaks about her own experiences of colourism:

Image: Photo by Jessica Felicio via Unsplash

Share this post

About Salome Lixl

..currently I'm studying at the University of Vienna trying to strengthen my abilities and to find my passions. A way to implement this is writing.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *