The Toxicity of Colorism within the African-American Community
In life, we must have tough conversations if we want to make a change. At times, people shy away from these types of conversations because they don't want to hurt feelings or make people uncomfortable. Being uncomfortable is not always a bad thing contrary to what people may believe. In my opinion, being uncomfortable can truly lead to success. One of the many issues that mean something to me is colorism. Not only because I'm an African-American woman, but because it tends to be overlooked and down-played and needs to be openly discussed on a regular basis. One huge oversight of this 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 amongst African Americans discriminating against other African Americans because of their skin complexion – example being too dark or too light. The form of racial discrimination known as colorism dates back to slavery, and has been systematically passed through many components of our culture. It suggests that lighter skin and straight hair are better, and successful men should marry women who fit this standard. Colorism also happens within other communities as well but is rarely discussed in those communities. There's been so much research throughout the years that show how racial discrimination negatively affects African-Americans’ mental health, contributing to depression, anxiety and suicide.
Colorism plays a huge role in the low self-esteem of Black America from individuals to relationships. There's two forms of colorism in which it occurs. 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. These forms of colorism impact the black community by not only causing division, but also contributing to negative mental health effects.
What people may not know is that colorism didn't just begin, it 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 quote unquote strategy was intended to cause separation within the enslaved community, pitting darker-skinned people against lighter skinned people. Later, in the early 1900s, another powerful 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. Sororities and Fraternities even used the brown paper bag test to determine whether or not you could enter. The paper bag would be held against your skin and if you were darker than the paper bag, you weren’t admitted.
Another major example I want to discuss is “the doll test,” first done in the 1940s, and has since been duplicated. 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 duplicates proves that words such as, “pure, beautiful, smart, etc.” are associated with white or lighter skin individuals. Many American studies since have proved that these interpretations haven't changed much at all.
Because of these associations, people of color often desire lighter skin, straighter hair, etc. To fulfill these desires, skin bleachers, hair relaxers, and straight hair extensions are used. They want to remove imperfections or blemishes that aren't deemed as beautiful or perfect - beautiful and perfect meaning "white." They feel more accepted by our society if they look more "European or white as some may say." This mentality couldn't be more damaging to not only themselves, but our culture.
Who doesn't have the idea of wanting to be beautiful, or accepted? I sure do. It's relatable to mostly all women that I know, however, it's also very concerning. There shouldn’t be limitations on which skin tone is beautiful or not. Discussions such as, “You’re pretty for a dark-skinned girl,” or, “She is beautiful because she is light-skinned,” are not only belittling but disrespectful.
People of color often associate darker persons of their racial group with poverty and unattractiveness. I've been around many of these conversations and it made me feel very uneasy and sad that this is the perception people still have. Beauty comes in all skin tones and pitting us against each other because of it is detrimental.
Changing this is overdue, and you may ask yourself what is the first step to making a change. I believe we should begin by being more vocal and discussing how it affects the mental health of our people. We must educate the black community on how interracial and intraracial colorism affects the subconscious. We must teach those who are affected by intraracial colorism to un-learn their self-prejudices. Teaching them that their beauty should be praised.
We are uniquely ourselves for a reason because we were designed in our creator's perfect image. This is the genetic makeup that we were supposed to have. We must accept ourselves and understand that we don't need the dramatization of altering our features. We must educate, spread awareness, speak life, love, and acceptance into our people, and come together working diligently as a community to stop colorism.
Doctors Kenneth and Mamie Clark and "The Doll Test." LDF, Defend Educate Empower
Webb, Sarah L. "Colorism Definitions"
27 September 2015,
"Paper Bag Test: Letter from 1928 Addresses Black Fraternity and Sorority Colorism at Howard University" Watch the Yard- Black Greekdom's Digital Yardshow,