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Colorism is Marginalism

I was in my car on my way to an appointment last week and I passed by a men’s homeless shelter on the way there. I’ve passed it often and never thought too much about it. There are two large homeless shelters for men in my community so seeing them and the men sometimes becomes part of the atmosphere - you stop noticing. As I passed the shelter that day, however, I looked at the men standing outside. What struck me was that almost to a man, all of those men were dark skin. One hundred percent of them were Black men.

When I saw that I thought about the other large men’s shelter. There too, the men were dark. I started thinking about this. The sadness I felt was primary. I am hurt to see that so many Black men have found themselves in such a vulnerable position. Whenever I’ve seen anyone panhandling or homeless, I immediately wonder what were their life plans? What had they planned for themselves and their future? Did they have support as young boys and young men? Who failed them? Their family? The system? Or both. I think it was the system. Systemic Racism in the form of colorism.

~A personal narrative 2023

Colorism is a term that was coined by Pulitzer prize winner and writer Alice Walker, 1982. It is a global cultural, social construct that is deeply embedded in racism. It’s informed by centuries of racism and violence that forced individuals to align themselves with whiteness to survive and has become a lingering byproduct of racism that continues to uphold white supremacy. Colorism impacts people of all races and ethnicities. It says lighter skinned people are safer, more intelligent, and have more value. Colorism upholds the white standards of beauty and benefits white people in the institutions and systems of discrimination and racism.

Without racism, someone’s value and perceived superiority wouldn't be based on skin color and tone. Because of racism, colorism can occur intra-racially and interracially. It can manifest on the interpersonal level and systemic level with those closest to white receiving preferential treatment by society and their community as well.

While it is evidenced within the Black community, colorism has a much wider reach. It exists within many other communities. Asian and Latinx are just two others. A research study was conducted by the Journal of Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience to investigate activity in the amygdala (an area in the brain that processes threats) in response to skin complexions. The study revealed that white people who were shown pictures of darker skinned Black people exhibited significant amygdala activity than when shown images of lighter skinned Black people. The study also interestingly showed that darker-skinned whites elicited a similar amygdala response in the same study group. This research supports the theory that colorism is far reaching.

How colorism shows up:

  • Darkening President Obama in a photo to promote a negative narrative

  • Filters on Instagram lightening skin tone in the name of beauty

  • Longer prison sentences for darker Black men and women committing the same crime in the same states as white men and women.

  • Decreased mental and physical health for darker skinned Black people,

  • Lower marital rates for darker women.

  • Lower wages for darker men and women

  • Higher suspension rates for dark-skinned students

What you can do:

  • Check the attitude and perceptions you hold. Ask yourself what are your biases regarding color and begin the work to eliminate those biases.

  • Use the privilege your skin tone affords you to advocate for darker skinned colleagues, friends, and family.

  • Be alert. Notice who is being promoted, championed, praised, and who isn’t.

  • Call out behavior that shows colorism.


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