Updated: Apr 20, 2019
The disparaging consequences of colorism are often dismissed as a condition that requires attention to promote overall well-being. But it is just as detrimental to the self-esteem of women of color as racism is to entire ethnic groups all over the world.
Colorism refers to the discrimination of individuals based on the color of their skin, with those of lighter pigmentation receiving preferential treatment on both a personal and professional level. With regard to African Americans, studies have shown that those of a lighter skin complexion are more likely to marry, may have a higher salary than their darker counterpart in the same position, and are even subject to serving shorter prison terms than inmates of a darker skin tone.
The sports and entertainment industries are probably the most blatant example of the affects of colorism in the African American community. As an African American woman, I have had countless conversations with girlfriends about athletes and actors who reach celebrity status and success and often choose women who look the furthest from their own mothers and sisters. This is not to cast judgement on a man's choice of a life partner but because we see this so often, it begs to reason that our history may have a bit to do with these similarities.
Colorism can be traced back to slavery when White slave owners showed favoritism towards the lighter-skinned slaves, typically because they were related to the slave owner by blood after African American female slaves were raped and gave birth to lighter-skinned children. These children were often placed in the house to work and given domestic chores, while the darker slaves were sent to work in the field and sentenced to complete the manual labor to maintain the plantations.
Even though the slave owners did not recognize these children born from the sexual assaults of the African American female slaves as their own offspring, they still received preferential treatment. This allowed some of these slaves to escape manual labor, causing the darker skinned slaves to develop the mentality that being light-skinned was somehow superior to their own pigmentation.
In the 1940's married psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark, who were both active in the Civil Rights Movement, conducted experiments with children using dolls to study young children's attitudes about race. African American and White children were given one white doll and one black doll. They were asked questions like, "Which doll is the smart doll?" "Which doll is the bad doll" "Which doll is the ugly/pretty doll?" and other questions to determine how the child felt about each doll based on it's color. The overwhelming majority of both the African American and White children pointed to the White doll when asked which one was pretty, smart, or good, and pointed to the Black doll when asked which one was ugly, dumb, or bad. When asked why they chose the Black doll for the negative traits, most children answered, "Because it's blacker/darker than the other one." The findings of their study contributed to the Supreme Court's decision in the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.
The perception that was created more than 400 years ago continues to permeate our subconscious minds today. Women in the African American community of lighter skin tones are often regarded as more beautiful, smarter, more feminine, and a greater asset to the successful African American man. These women are also more likely to acquire movie roles and recording contracts in the entertainment industry, as their aesthetics are closer to those of European descent, and therefore more acceptable by the mainstream media.
So, how does this subconscious (and unfortunately, sometimes conscious) way of thinking affect the self-esteem and emotional well-being of the darker women of the world?
As a dark-skinned African American woman, I can speak from my own experience in a world where colorism has forced me to examine my own self-perception. I have heard many disheartening remarks from African American men, both in the public eye and in my personal life, about their thoughts of darker black women, and have listed a few below.
(I am concealing their identities to avoid a public backlash....wink)
"I have never considered dark-skinned women as attractive. There's just nothing there when I look at them."
"Dark-skinned women just seem like women I might date and mess around with, but I'd never marry one because I want my kids to be light-skinned."
"Light-skinned women are more beautiful. They usually have longer hair, lighter eyes, and better figures."
"You are very attractive for a dark-skinned woman."
Yes, those are actual quotes from real men. As a dark-skinned woman with all of the constant imagery of lighter-skinned and white women being the preference for not only relationships and marriage, but on the professional front as well, I was hard-pressed to find positive examples of why the color of my skin should be uplifted and celebrated as much as anyone else's. But the important point I learned many years ago was that instead of looking OUTWARD for validation, the key was to look INWARD and learn to love myself and my beautiful chocolate skin unconditionally.
Granted, Colorism is a deep routed problem that is NOT the fault of the darker-skinned woman, but rather a residual poison of slavery. However since it IS real, it’s important for us to take steps to protect ourselves and our young daughters.
Here are three ways to help you raise your vibration and to fall deeper in love with the skin you're in:
1. Affirm EVERY DAY that you are beautiful just the way you are: Society and even at times our own communities may not often validate our natural beauty, but you don't need anyone to do that for you. You have the power to do this for YOURSELF. Look in the mirror and unapologetically fall in love with every inch of yourself, from your head to your toes. And then congratulate yourself for recognizing and acknowledging your value and self-worth.
2. Avoid judging others for their personal choices: Resist the urge to give the side-eye to the brotha walking down the street with someone outside of his race, and instead consider that this man has the right to make a personal choice for his own life just like you or anyone else does. His choice did not have anything to do with you personally and shouldn't be taken as such. The more you can rise above the feelings of exclusion due to colorism, the less you become affected by what anyone else is doing.
3. Educate the people in your life to help end this cycle: Colorism can only continue to exist if this mentality is continuously perpetuated. The more we acknowledge this issue and put the focus on building positive self-images of ALL people of ALL hues, the quicker we can get to a place where everyone feels loved and accepted for who they are, in THIS moment.