Colorism Quotes


Why compile a list of colorism quotes? The official answer is that a collection of quotations helps fulfill the CH mission to raise awareness and provide a hub of information and resources about colorism. Other equally valid and true reasons: People like quotes! Because sometimes I just don’t know what to write. Sometimes I get tired of my own voice and just want to soak up what others have said. Sometimes I feel like people aren’t hearing me, but they might be able to hear someone else.

Full disclosure: This is by no means a comprehensive survey. I selected quotations that I tend to agree with and that are by people (much) more famous than me. Not because these are the only words that matter, but simply because I had to find some way to limit the scope of this thing and because people like reading what famous people have to say. (I do plan to share some of the fabulously articulate words on colorism written by more everyday folks.)

For now, here’s a substantial chunk of prose on colorism by some names you might recognize.

Tatyana Ali, HelloBeautiful, 2014

“It doesn’t just exist in Hollywood. I think it exists in society and to be quite honest, I don’t know how much it exists in the larger society, but it definitely exists in the Black community. There are obvious historical reasons for that. The closer we were to White, the more freedom we thought we could have or the more acceptability. Beauty was defined as White and the farther away you get from that White-blond-hair-blue-eye definition of beauty, the uglier you are. The closer you get to it, the more beautiful you are and that’s what we’ve been doing amongst ourselves for a very long time.

“Look, I can’t pass a paper bag test. I’m definitely darker than a paper bag and I have ‘good hair’ and that’s just me being in a different category and a different light. I know that me and my sisters were separated by our cousins by older relatives who would make these weird comments and then not mention the beauty of the other child that’s sitting right there and playing the same game.

Tatyana_Ali_in_Zuhair_Murad_and_Swarovski_Inauguration_Night_2 By Stazi Wikimedia-Commons“There’s a separation that’s made among sisters and we end up looking at each other funny, not realizing and thinking ‘she has it so good’ and the other one thinks, ‘I feel like an outcast, she has it so good’ and not realizing that we’re both missing out on each other. My experience in Hollywood is different. When Chris Rock did Good Hair, I was like ‘Why didn’t he talk to me? He didn’t get the full story.’ He didn’t get the full story because, for example, it’s about identity, it’s about belonging.

“It’s not just, in addition to what’s beautiful and what’s not. It’s also what’s acceptable. ‘Where do I fit?’ ‘Who do you think I am based on what I look like?’ For me, when I was younger, I remember my mom, because of my hair, my mom would braid my hair at night before auditions in small braids to make my hair thicker so that there wouldn’t be a question of ‘Oh, is she Black enough?’

“What’s harmful about it is the idea of separation and the idea of not belonging and not being loved and each one of us feels it in a different way because no matter what’s being said about all of us, whether lighter is better or darker is better or being able to twist your hair is better than having straight hair. We all experience pain because of it. The bottom line is we’re all being measured by a standard of beauty that has nothing to do with who we are and where we come from.”

India Arie, Songversation: I Am Light: My Thoughts on the Skin Bleaching Allegations, 2015

“It’s all based on Eurocentric beauty ideals: For example;  Straight, blonde hair, blue eyes, aquiline nose, thin limbs, lighter skin…. for many this is just considered ‘beauty.’ Why?  Because eurocentric aesthetics are seen as the standard, and therefore are more palatable and desirable by the world as a whole.  The entertainment industries are no exception, they SELL this desire to the world.  MOST  publications lighten darker people,  because lighter skin and hair reflect more light and are more eye catching, magazines are after all a business. BUT! For example:  Where ARE the cameras that make brown skin look amazing? Oprah has them I can tell you that! LoL!  But in general, lights and cameras are ALWAYS  tuned for lighter complexions.  This is what institutionalized racism looks like. So, for musicians and actresses in the public eye, you are not just  selling your talent, you are actually selling yourself.  YOU become a product.  The less your product fits into conventional beauty ideals, the less MARKETABLE, and therefore, less safe of an investment you are.”

David Banner, “An Intimate Conversation With David Banner On The State Of Black Love & Marriage” on xoNecole, 2015

“This song is for [all] Black women, but it’s especially for the dark-skinned black women,” says Banner. “If you look at our culture, our women don’t feel protected. They don’t feel wanted. You look at most of who so-called people of success cater to—nine times out of 10 it may not be a Black woman at all. And if it is, it’s definitely not ones that look like our cousins or our great-grandmothers. And I said man, if nobody in the world says that they love them and that they respect them and that they want them, it’ll be me.”

Tom Burrell, “Uglified: Why are Black and Beautiful Still Contradictions?” in Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority, 2010

“The further we are from the European standard, the lower we find ourselves on the beauty scale….

“We are better if we are lighter. We want our children to be pretty because we know beauty will grant them an easier life in a color-coded society. Most of us don’t want to be reminded of our past, our ancestors, and where we come from. Many of us boast of having a little Indian, Irish, Italian—any additional blood in our lineage boosts our value. We find ourselves using a sliding racial scale, somewhere between black and white, with lighter or whiter always, always defined as better….

“For most of our history in the New World, we openly coveted light skin and straight hair. Today, the pinnacles of black female beauty remain almost white-looking. It is disturbingly telling that the long weave seems to be a prerequisite for black singers, actors, and models. Hip Hop videos feature light-skinned black, Latino, or Asian women—to the exclusion of darker-skinned black dancers….

“The ‘color-struck’ class war played out in black families, neighborhoods, social clubs, churches, colleges, fraternal organizations, and nearly every conceivable part of our culture. As the stigma progressed, class stratification within the black community became based, to a large degree, on the presence or absence of black features. It is a profound irony that the attractiveness rating was enhanced by the whiteness of hair, skin color, and facial features.

“Sadly, that rating system continues today….

“We can ‘go along to get along’ with dominant society’s dictates or we can start the analytical process by weighing the costs and benefits of our thoughts and actions….

“Centuries of propaganda created the perceptual aesthetic deficit. We will need powerful weapons to dis-enslave and reprogram how we see ourselves. To wage a winnable war, both internally and externally, we will need the proper ammunition.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Dark Girls” in The Atlantic, 2011

“For me it’s a matter of what I thought when I was a kid. There’s an anecdote in the book where I foolishly tell one of my mother’s friends “I like light-skin girls.” My mother, who is lighter than me, read me the riot act in such a way that it sticks with me to this day.

“I was like 12 or something, and I remember being really pissed off at my mother at first (“It’s my choice!”) Then a few weeks later, as I turned it over in my head, a bit embarrassed (“I wish I hadn’t have said that”) then deeply ashamed (“I wish I didn’t think that”) and finally incredibly curious (“Why do I think that anyway?”) This was about the time I first read Malcolm’s Autobiography and was just starting to get conscious. There is something visceral about the discussion around what we think of black women aesthetically. Malcolm was good at really making black men feel ashamed, stupid, and then angry over acceptance of the dominant beauty norms.”

Michaela Angela Davis, Who is Black in America Panel on Starting Point with Soledad O’Brien, 2012

“Acting Like it doesn’t exist doesn’t heal. . . . America as a family, this is our taboo issue that brings up so much. It triggers a lot of black girl pain. It triggers a lot of secrets. It triggers a lot of bias. It triggers a lot of emotional things. And like any family, when we go into our history and say this horrible thing created this characteristic, people don’t want to look at it. But this is the road to healing, right. This is the only way we’re going to feel whole: is we talk about where we’re fractured.

“This is it. Having this conversation, this is the solution.”

Viola Davis, “Viola Davis Defies Hollywood Stereotypes as She Keeps It Real,” The Wrap, 2015

Viola Davis By Red Carpet Report on Mingle Media TV Wikimedia Commons“That being said, when you do see a woman of color onscreen, the paper-bag test is still very much alive and kicking. That’s the whole racial aspect of colorism: If you are darker than a paper bag, then you are not sexy, you are not a woman, you shouldn’t be in the realm of anything that men should desire. And in the history of television and even in film, I’ve never seen a character like Annalise Keating played by someone who looks like me. My age, my hue, my sex. She is a woman who absolutely culminates the full spectrum of humanity our askew sexuality, our askew maternal instincts. She’s all of that, and she’s a dark-skin black woman. Some people who watch TV have acknowledged that and understand that. But I encourage you to search your memory and think of anyone who’s done this. It just hasn’t happened. I hear these stories from friends of mine who are dark-skin actresses who are always being seen as crack addicts and prostitutes.”

Bill Duke, “Bill Duke Talks Dark Girls And Colorism” on WOLDCNews, 2012

“What we’re finding more and more is that sometimes it’s not a conscious effort to hurt anybody. But what it comes down to is pain that is deeply held by children, and they don’t discuss it because they feel they’re going to be ridiculed by discussing it. So, we’re giving a voice to that discussion.

“The reason we think that dialogue is important is because it’s the beginning of healing. If you hold things and you don’t discuss it, it does bad things to the human body, psyche, everything.

“All women are dark girls, because whatever standard is set, you’re never going to meet it. And as soon as you get close, they say ‘Oops! We’ve changed it. But we love you so much, we’re gonna help you get to the new standard. Here’s some new products.

“How you were born is fine. Whoever says that it’s not is one of two things: a liar or a business person. It’s that simple.”

Zora Neale Hurston, “My People! My People!” in Dust Tracks on a Road, 1942

“I found the Negro, and always the blackest Negro, being made the butt of all jokes, particularly black women. …

“If it was so honorable and glorious to be black, why was it the yellow-skinned people among us had so much prestige? Even a child in the first grade could see that this was so from what happened in the classroom and on school programs. The light-skinned children were always the angels, fairies and queens of school play. The lighter the girl, the more money and prestige she was apt to marry. So on into high school years, I was asking myself questions.”

Trellie Jeffers, as quoted by Alice Walker in In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, 1983

“What then can be the destiny of a people that pampers and cherishes the blood of the white slaveholder who maimed and degraded their female ancestor? What can be the future of a class of descendants of slaves that implicitly gives slaveholders greater honor than the African women they enslaved? What can be the end of a class that pretends to honor blackness while secretly despising working class black-skinned women whose faces reveal no trace of white blood?”

Karen M. Julkes, Interview, 2015

“Actually, my inspiration [for becoming a makeup artist] initially came from a place of insecurity. I was teased as a young girl about being dark-skinned and I had a speech impediment. As a teen, I began to play in makeup to feel pretty. I never felt pretty like the other girls, so makeup allowed me to mask the real me. But as I matured, I realized that me being unattractive was very much so a lie. So instead of makeup being a coverup, it became a way for me to be creative. And then in my late 20s, I realized I could use this as way to build up other women that may have dealt with the same challenges as myself. I wanted to make them feel beautiful but talk to them and encourage them to love themselves beyond the makeup!”

Kendrick Lamar, Twitter, 2013

“Not Light ‘Vs’ Dark tho. More about ‘BALANCE’ ..Givn every shade of woman life, not just what da industry thinks is ‘Hott’ 4 camera.”

“When u put the term light ‘Vs’ dark continues it as a BATTLE. My point 4 poetic was to spark the idea of making it an EQUAL.”

Naturi Naughton, VladTV Interview, 2015

NaturiNaughtonDec10 by Angela George Wikimedia Commons“I think there’s always this cycle that happens when you’re a black woman in Hollywood … it can be frustrating because you start to feel like you’re just a fad. Like, now the dark skin, beautiful, brown, chocolate sisters are in. And we’re praising Lupita and all that, which is beautiful, but she was beautiful five years ago. I was the same way three years ago. But it depends on the time. They’ll say, ‘You know what? We’re looking for a black woman but we want something ethnically ambiguous’ is what I have heard. Or, you know, they’re looking for a specific look. And it’s hard because you start to feel like, well wait a minute, what’s wrong with my features, my complexion, my body type? And I just try to tell other black women, not just in Hollywood, just in general, you don’t have to compromise or change yourself to try to fit into whatever mold is popular. That is frustrating. And I’m not even going to lie, it’s emotional. I go through moments when I’m like ‘I can’t take it.’ But at the same time, you know, I’m working, and I’m in a position where I’m able to be a black woman that’s toted as beautiful, and my lips, my features, my body. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”

Lupita Nyong’o, Essence Black Women in Hollywood Speech, 2014

“I remember a time when I too felt unbeautiful. . . . I got teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin. And my one prayer to God, the miracle worker, was that I would wake up lighter-skinned. . . . And when I was a teenager my self-hate grew worse, as you can imagine happens with adolescence. …around me the preference for light skin prevailed. To the beholders that I thought mattered, I was still unbeautiful. …

“My mother reminded me often that she thought that I was beautiful, but that was no consolation: She’s my mother, of course she’s supposed to think I am beautiful. …

“And then Alek Wek came on the international scene. A celebrated model, she was dark as night, she was on all of the runways and in every magazine and everyone was talking about how beautiful she was. … a flower couldn’t help but bloom inside of me. When I saw Alek I inadvertently saw a reflection of myself that I could not deny. Now, I had a spring in my step because I felt more seen, more appreciated by the far away gatekeepers of beauty. . . . I could never have guessed that my first job out of school would be so powerful in and of itself and that it would propel me to be such an image of hope in the same way that the women of The Color Purple were to me. …

“And so I hope that my presence on your screens and in the magazines may lead you, young girl, on a similar journey. That you will feel the validation of your external beauty but also get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside. There is no shade in that beauty.”

Soledad O’Brien, Essence Black in America Hangout, 2012

ESSENCE: “How do you think colorism is playing out in 2012?”

O’BRIEN: “It just is. The same way it’s always played out, which is people value certain skin tones differently. It’s inherently apparent. I thought one of the most disturbing things in the documentary was to see a seven year old who really is clearly getting those messages. She’s seven, and she fully understands the messages that are sent to her, and that’s very problematic. I think colorism exists today like it did years ago and generations ago.

Soledad OBrien by The Rudz via Wikimedia Commons“Back to twitter, a lot of the conversations, there was one sort of stream: “Well, Soledad, if you would stop raising this it would go away, and it’s your fault that we keep having these discussions about race and colorism and discrimination.”

“I don’t think that’s the case. I think we are going to confront tough issues and tough conversations that maybe other people don’t want to have.”

ESSENCE: “How do we start to heal? How do we get the seven year olds to start thinking differently and feel acceptable in their skin tone?”

O’BRIEN: “I think the only thing that’s a solution is conversation. I think the only thing that is a solution is pointing out here is a trap you’re falling into that has been set for you, that has been set over history. And let’s go back and take a look at what’s happening in front of you so that you don’t fall into this trap.”

Keke Palmer, Hollywood Confidential Panel in Los Angeles, 2013

“When I was like 5 years old I used to pray to have light skin because I would always hear how pretty that little light skin girl was, or I would hear I was pretty to be dark skin. It wasn’t until I was 13 that I really learned to appreciate my skin color and know that I was beautiful.”

Kelly Rowland, Interview on, 2013

“You know what, I had great women in my life to help me overcome that. I remember I went through a period where I didn’t embrace my ‘chocolatiness.’ I don’t know if that’s a word, but I didn’t embrace my chocolate lifestyle. Just being a chocolate, lovely brown skin girl and being proud of that. I remember Tina Knowles, Bey’s mom, and I remember being out in the sun and I was trying to shield myself from the sun and she said, ‘Are you crazy?’ She said ‘You are absolutely gorgeous’ and she just told me how beautiful I was and how rare chocolate is and how gorgeous the skin is, all of this stuff. And I was just like ‘Yeah!’ Like a light went off and so between her and my mother and me sitting out in the sun a little more, just to be a little more chocolate.”

Gabourey Sidibe, her blog post for Entertainment Weekly, 2015

Gabourey_Sidibe_2010“Also, yes. I, a plus sized, dark-skinned woman, had a love scene on primetime television. I had the most fun ever filming that scene even though I was nervous. But I felt sexy and beautiful and I felt like I was doing a good job. I’m very proud of the work we all did to make that scene a great opening for the episode. I keep hearing that people are ‘hating’ on it. I’m not sure how anyone could hate on love but that’s okay. You may have your memes. Honestly, I’m at work too busy to check Twitter anyway. #Booked. Hope you enjoy next week’s show!”

Geneva S. Thomas, ‘Blood, Sweat, and Heels’ Star: ‘I Celebrate my Dark Skin’,, 2014

“But to throw shade at our shades (pun intended), is a nadir far too tragic for anyone to make a punch-line.

“After I got past all of my feelings about the comment, I called my father to thank him for how he and my mother worked tirelessly to create an environment that wasn’t merely about acceptance, but a standard, and the expectation that our dark skin was to be unapologetically celebrated. It was an effortless confidence level I carried about as a youth. So much so that even that one time, when my ballet instructor decided it was a good idea to tell 6-year-old me I was pretty for a dark skinned girl, it was the heartiest of chuckles I gave that she couldn’t fathom. . . .

“I’m not so caught up in my own dark-skin party to think all dark skinned Black girls grow up with the kind of love my family gave me. We all know colorism has been an internal issue in our community dating back to slavery; that thing we just don’t talk about, but exercise. Is colorism here to stay? Will it continue to be okay for us to go there with each other?

“Let’s do more than hope not. Let’s make it our business to teach little Black girls that whatever shade they may be, they are to be celebrated.”

Gabrielle Union, Ebony Magazine, October 2012

“Your deep Mahogany skin may not resemble that of the others in your family, but it’s just as gorgeous, and you’re just as worthy … One day you’ll appreciate how much your brown skin shines in the moonlight, glistens in the sun and ages ever so slowly.”

Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, 1983, excerpts from “If the present looks like the past, what does the future look like?”

“We were speaking of the hostility many black black women feel toward light-skinned black women, and you said, ‘Well, I’m light. It’s not my fault. And I’m not going to apologize for it.’ I said apology for one’s color is not what anyone is asking. What black black women would be interested in, I think, is a consciously heightened awareness on the part of light black women that they are capable, and often quite unconsciously, of inflicting pain upon them; and that unless the question of Colorism–in my definition, prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color–is addressed in our communities and definitely in our black ‘sisterhoods’ we cannot, as a people, progress. For colorism, like colonialism, sexism, and racism, impedes us. …

“Still, I think there is probably as much difference between the life of a black black woman and a ‘high yellow’ black woman as between a ‘high yellow’ woman and a white woman. And I am worried, constantly, about the hatred the black black woman encounters within black society. To me, the black black woman is our essential mother–the blacker she is the more us she is–and to see the hatred that is turned on her is enough to make me despair, almost entirely, of our future as a people.

“Ironically, much of what I’ve learned about color I’ve learned because I have a mixed-race child. Because she is lighter-skinned, straighter haired than I, her life–in this racist, colorist society–is infinitely easier. And so I understand the subtle programming I, my mother, and my grandmother before me fell victim to. Escape the pain, the ridicule, escape the jokes, the lack of attention, respect, dates, even a job, any way you can. And if you can’t escape, help your children escape. Don’t let them suffer as you have done. And yet, what have we been escaping to? Freedom used to be the only answer to that question. But for some of our parents it is as if freedom and whiteness were the same destination, and that presents a problem for any person of color who does not wish to disappear. …

“… However, the word ‘beautiful’ itself was never used to describe black women in those days. They might be called ‘handsome’ in a pinch. ‘Her skin is black but she is sure nuff pretty,’ someone might have thought, but not sung. Stevie Wonder’s lyrics, though in our time backward in this one instance (‘but’ rather than ‘and’), would have been considered revolutionary in the fifties and early sixties. ‘Beautiful’ was for the white women and black women who look like you. Medium browns like me might evoke ‘good-looking’ or ‘fine.’ A necessary act of liberation within myself was to acknowledge the beauty of black black women, but I was always aware I was swimming against the tide. …

“— I remembered —-, who was asked by the light-skinned girls in our dormitory to move somewhere else, because she was so dark; the men who came to call on them found her blackness ‘inharmonious.’ …

“This essay is for you. … A sister I do not wish to lose to the entreaties of parents or grandparents standing behind you whispering “lighten up’ or ‘darken up’ the race. Nor do I, a dark woman, intend to give you up. When we walk down a street together and those who hate their black mothers admire only you (really your skin color and hair) we will not let this divide us…

“One reason the novels of nineteenth-century black authors abound with white-skinned women characters is that most readers of novels in the nineteenth century were white people: white people who then, as, more often than not, now, could identify human feeling, humanness, only if it came in a white or near-white body. And although black men could be depicted as literally black and still be considered men (since dark is masculine to the Euro-American mind), the black-skinned woman, being dark and female, must perforce be whitened, since ‘fairness’ was and is the standard of Euro-American femininity.

“We must cleave to reality, to what we know, we feel, we think of life. Trusting our own experience our own lives; embracing both the dark self and the light.

“It is our ‘familial’ relations with each other in America that we need to scrutinize. And it is the whole family, rather than the dark or the light, that must be affirmed.”

Jesse Williams, Drum Award Acceptance Speech, 2015

Jesse_Williams_in_2008_white_shirt By Applause2.0 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons“European beauty standards have given me a better seat at the table and a bigger microphone than my darker brothers and sisters my entire life. That’s not me. I didn’t have anything to do with that. Because I understand the history of white supremacy and the construction of Black civilization, I had to, really had to give these presentations in my living room in my house if I wanted to play sports. That wasn’t me. That’s parenthood.”

Oprah Winfrey, quoted by Henry Louis Gates Jr. in Finding Oprah’s Roots, 2007

“I remember being there, and I instantly knew that Miss Miller did not like me because of the color of my skin. I was too dark and I was a nappy-headed colored child, and Miss Miller would say it. And my half-sister Pat was five years younger than me and she was light skinned and my mother was staying there because Miss Miller loved my half-sister. And I was put out on the porch to sleep. There was a little vestibule, like a porch area where you came in and left your shoes before you went into the house and so that’s where I slept. I wasn’t even allowed in the house to sleep. It makes me sad to think about it. And it was because I was brown skinned and it didn’t compute for me because my mother was brown skinned, too. But I realized she was okay because she had Pat.”

Malcolm X, “Not Just an American Problem, but a World Problem,” Feb 16, 1965

Malcolm-x by-Marion-S-Trikosko lib-of-cong Wikimedia-Commons

“It’s imagery. They use their ability to create images, and then they use these images that they’ve created to mislead the people.

“You have to understand it. Until 1959 the image of the African continent was created by the enemies of Africa. As these Europeans dominated the continent of Africa, it was they who created the image of Africa that was projected abroad. And they projected Africa and the people of Africa in a negative image, a hateful image. They made us think that Africa was a land of jungles, a land of animals, a land of cannibals and savages. It was a hateful image.

“And because they were so successful in projecting this negative image of Africa, those of us here in the West of African ancestry, the Afro-American, we looked upon Africa as a hateful place. We looked upon the African as a hateful person. And if you referred to us as an African it was like putting us as a servant, or playing house, or talking about us in the way we didn’t want to be talked.

“Those who oppress know that you can’t make a person hate the root without making them hate the tree. You can’t hate your own and not end up hating yourself. And since we all originated in Africa, you can’t make us hate Africa without making us hate ourselves. And they did this very skillfully. And what was the result?

“They ended up with 22 million Black people here in America who hated everything about us that was African. We hated the African characteristics. We hated our hair. We hated our nose, the shape of our nose, and the shape of our lips, the color of our skin. Yes we did. And it was you who taught us to hate ourselves simply by shrewdly maneuvering us into hating the land of our forefathers and the people on that continent. As long as we hated those people, we hated ourselves. As long as we hated what we thought they looked like, we hated what we actually looked like.

“When you teach a man to hate his lips, the lips that God gave him, the shape of the nose that God gave him, the texture of the hair that God gave him, the color of the skin that God gave him, you’ve committed the worst crime that a race of people can commit. And this is the crime that you’ve committed.

“Our color became a chain, a psychological chain. Our blood — African blood — became a psychological chain, a prison, because we were ashamed of it. We felt trapped because our skin was black. We felt trapped because we had African blood in our veins.

“This is how you imprisoned us. Not just bringing us over here and making us slaves. But the image that you created of our motherland and the image that you created of our people on that continent was a trap, was a prison, was a chain, was the worst form of slavery that has ever been invented by a so-called civilized race and a civilized nation since the beginning of the world.

“You still see the result of it among our people in this country today.”

Photo Credits:

  • Tatyana Ali: by Stazi, Wikimedia Commons
  • Viola Davis: by Red Carpet Report on Mingle Media TV, Wikimedia Commons
  • Naturi Naughton: by Angela George, Wikimedia Commons
  • Soledad O’Brien: by The Rudz, Wikimedia Commons
  • Gabourey Sidibe: by Greg Hernandez, Wikimedia Commons
  • Jesse Williams: by Applause2.0, Wikimedia Commons, [Public domain]
  • Malcolm X: by Marion S. Trikosko, Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

Colorism Definitions


Colorism definitions vary. People have defined colorism in different ways over the past few decades depending on time, place, and purpose. Here’s a sampling of definitions compiled from books, articles, and websites since the early 1980s. Leave a comment and tell us which definition you prefer.

Colorism Definitions:

•• “Colorism—in my definition, prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color” —Alice Walker, In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens, 1983, United States

•• “For this discussion I’ll use the word colorism to mean an attitude, a predisposition to act in a certain manner because of a person’s skin color.” —Edward W. Jones, “Black Managers: The Dream Deferred” in Harvard Business Review, 1986, United States

•• “Colorism is a worldwide phenomenon and is a case of trickle-down racism… As long as there’s White racism, there will be racism within the Black community and favoritism for lightness.” —Midge Wilson as quoted by Karen G. Bates in “The Color Thing” in Essence, 1994, United States

•• “Colorism is a form of intragroup stratification generally associated with Black people in the United States but present among all peoples of color. Colorism subjectively ranks individuals according to the perceived color tones of their skin.” Shirlee Taylor, “Colorism” in Reader’s Companion to U.S. Women’s History, 1998, United States

•• “Skin tone bias is the tendency to perceive or behave toward members of a racial category based on the lightness or darkness of their skin tone. … this phenomenon also has been referred to as ‘colorism’”—Keith B. Maddox and Stephanie A. Gray, “Cognitive Representations of Black Americans: Re-exploring the Role of Skin Tone” in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2002, United States

•• “‘Colorism’ is the discriminatory treatment of individuals falling within the same ‘racial’ group on the basis of skin color. It operates both intraracially and interracially. Intraracial colorism occurs when members of a racial group make distinctions based upon skin color between members of their own race. Interracial colorism occurs when members of one racial group make distinctions based upon skin color between members of another racial group.” —Cedric Herring, Verna M. Keith. and Hayward Derrick Horton, Skin Deep: How Race and Complexion Matter in the “Color-Blind” Era, 2003, United States

•• “[C]olorism describes the tendency to perceive or behave negatively towards members of a racial category based on the lightness or darkness of their skin tone.” —Cynthia E. Nance, “Colorable Claims: The Continuing Significance of Color Under Title VII Forty Years After Its Passage” in Berkeley Journal of Employment & Labor Law, 2005, United States

•• “Colourism, shadism, skin tone bias, pigmentocracy and the colour complex, are just a few of the terms used to describe the system of privilege and discrimination based on the degree of lightness in the colour of a person’s skin. But whatever label is used, it remains a pernicious, internalized form of racism which involves prejudice, stereotyping and perceptions of beauty among members of the same racial group, whereby light skin is more highly valued than dark skin.” —Deborah Gabriel, Layers of Blackness: Colourism in the African Diaspora, 2007, United Kingdom

•• “Color preference is a cousin of racial prejudice, and like prejudice it is closely linked with the urge to obtain and maintain power over others. Colorism differs from prejudice mainly by making distinctions within a nominal racial group instead of across groups. That is, for whatever reason, light-skinned – and sometimes dark-skinned – people attribute higher status and grant more power and wealth to one group, typically those designated as white, and believe that that is the right thing to do. Then for the same reasons, people attribute higher status and grant more power and wealth to people of one complexion, typically light skin, within the groups designated as non-white.” —Jennifer L. Hochschild, “The Skin Color Paradox and the American Racial Order” in Social Forces, 2007, United States

•• “Colorism is the allocation of privilege and disadvantage according to the lightness or darkness of one’s skin” —Meghan Burke, “Colorism” in International encyclopedia of the social sciences, 2008

•• “Others argue that in the new millennium traditional racism is indeed disappearing, but only to be slowly supplanted by colorism, in which the color of a person’s skin will take on more importance in determining how she is treated by others than her ancestry. … Colorism involves discrimination against persons based on their physiognomy, regardless of their perceived racial identity. The hierarchy employed in colorism, however, is usually the same one that governs racism: light skin is prized over dark skin, and European facial features and body shapes are prized over African features and body shapes.” —Angela P. Harris, “From Color Line to Color Chart?: Racism and Colorism in the New Century” in Berkeley Journal of African-American Law & Policy, 2008, United States

•• “Colorism [is] the privileging of light skin over dark skin…” —Evelyn Glenn, 2009, United States

•• “Today, the term [‘colorism’] is widely used to refer to the prejudices and discriminatory practices surrounding skin-color differences that occur not only Among African Americans, but also among other populations of color such as Latinos and Asians, both in [the United States] and around the world.” —Kathy Russell-Cole, Midge Wilson, Ronald E. Hall, The Color Complex: The Politics of Skin Color in a New Millennium, 2013, United States

•• “Colorism is prejudiced attitudes or prejudiced treatment of people based on the relative lightness or darkness of their skin in comparison to others of the same race. Although this phenomenon is called colorism, it’s also frequently based on other features such as hair, eyes, nose, lips, and other phenotypic characteristics. There are two sides to colorism. It may occur as unjustly negative or unjustly positive reactions to groups of people based on their skin color and other racialized features. People affected by colorism may also develop a dislike, or even hatred, for their own skin and features.” —Sarah L. Webb,, 2013, United States

•• Colorism is “a form of oppression that is expressed through the differential treatment of individuals and groups based on skin color.” Jackson-Lowman, 2013, as quoted by The Association of Black Psychologists

•• “Prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group” —

colorism definitions tip

Why so many definitions?

Having multiple definitions that span a couple of decades shows the various ways people defined, understood, and used the term “colorism” over time. We can see how definitions and explanations of colorism evolved and how they remained consistent.

When having discussions about colorism, it’s important to make sure all participants clearly define how they are using the term “colorism” in the discussion. For example, one participant might understand colorism the way Gelnn defines it, as ultimately about privileging light skin over dark skin; while another participant might understand colorism less unidirectionally, the way Maddox and Gray define it, as treatment based on lightness or darkness. To facilitate mutual understanding throughout a dialogue on colorism, participants should clearly define the term (at least for the purposes of that specific conversation) at the very beginning and also periodically as the discussion advances.

Which definition seems most accurate to you? Would you compose a different definition?

Also: Take your colorism discussions to the next level with these 100+ specific questions on colorism.

100+ Colorism Questions: Take Discussion to the Next Level


Wondering how to start a discussion about colorism? Looking to conduct research or interviews on this topic? Tired of the same old questions and conversations about “light skin vs. dark skin”? Wishing the colorism conversation would actually get somewhere?

I feel you! So I’ve compiled a list of 100 colorism questions that address the above concerns. These questions will help you start, continue, broaden, deepen, and advance discussions about colorism.

General Colorism Questions:

  1. Who coined the term “colorism”?
  2. Who benefits from colorism?
  3. What is colorism?
  4. What is the history of colorism?
  5. What is the history of colorism in [specific location]?
  6. What’s the difference between racism and colorism?
  7. What’s the difference between intraracial colorism and interracial colorism?
  8. What are some examples of colorism?
  9. What are some examples of colorism in [specific location]?
  10. What are some common myths about colorism?
  11. When was the term “colorism” coined?
  12. When was colorism first acknowledged?
  13. When was colorism first studied?
  14. Where does colorism exist?
  15. Where does colorism come from?
  16. Why does colorism exist?
  17. Why does colorism exist in [specific location]?
  18. Why do some people not want to talk about colorism?
  19. Why do some people have negative attitudes about dark skin?
  20. Why do some people have negative attitudes about light skin?
  21. Why is colorism important?
  22. How do you define colorism?
  23. How do other physical characteristics besides skin color play a role in colorism?
  24. How much research has been done on colorism?
  25. How might colorism be different in more racially diverse places versus more racially homogenous places?
  26. How do people benefit from colorism?
  27. How do white people view or understand colorism?
  28. How do people view or understand colorism within their own race?
  29. How do people view or understand colorism within other races?
  30. How does colorism affect people around the world?
  31. How does colorism affect people in [specific location]?
  32. Is colorism just about skin color?
  33. Is colorism more prevalent in some places than others?
  34. Is there such a thing as light skin privilege?
  35. Is there such a thing as dark skin privilege?


  1. What role does traditional media play in perpetuating colorism?
  2. What role does social media play in perpetuating colorism?
  3. What are some examples of colorism in traditional media?
  4. What are some examples of colorism in social media?
  5. What role does colorism play in the entertainment industry?
  6. What role does colorism play in the sports industry?
  7. What role does colorism play in the beauty and fashion industries?
  8. How can we use traditional media to help end colorism?
  9. How can we use social media to help end colorism?
  10. How does colorism manifest in predominantly white media?
  11. How does colorism manifest in media predominated by people of color?

Economics, Education, Law, Politics, Religion, & Society:

  1. What role does colorism play in education and schooling?
  2. What role does colorism play in religion or churches?
  3. What role does colorism play in politics?
  4. What role does colorism play in the judicial system?
  5. How does colorism affect employment and career opportunities?
  6. How does colorism impact socioeconomic status, income and wealth?
  7. How do class, wealth, and socioeconomic status impact colorism?
  8. How does colorism impact immigration policies?
  9. How does colorism impact immigration experiences?
  10. How can education and schooling counteract colorism?
  11. How can religion and churches counteract colorism?
  12. How can colorism be counteracted in the political arena?
  13. How can colorism be counteracted in the judicial system?
  14. How can employers prevent or counteract colorism in the workplace?

Family, Friendship, Marriage, & Dating:

  1. What role does colorism play in dating and marriage?
  2. What’s the difference between colorism and preference?
  3. How does colorism influence or impact friendships?
  4. How can we develop and sustain friendships across the color spectrum?
  5. How does colorism affect families?
  6. How do parents perpetuate colorism?
  7. How can parents counteract colorism?
  8. How are children affected by colorism?
  9. How can children counteract colorism?
  10. How does age affect experiences with colorism?
  11. How does extended family perpetuate colorism?
  12. How can extended family counteract colorism?
  13. How can we teach children/how can children learn about colorism?
  14. How can we help break the generational cycle of colorism?


  1. How does gender intersect with colorism?
  2. How does colorism affect dark skinned women?
  3. How does colorism affect dark skinned men?
  4. How does colorism affect light/fair skinned women?
  5. How does colorism affect light/fair skinned men?
  6. How does sexuality intersect with colorism?
  7. How do boys and girls experience colorism differently?
  8. How do men and women experience colorism differently?


  1. Who can I talk to about colorism?
  2. Who can you talk to about colorism?
  3. What are/were some of my experiences with colorism?
  4. What are/were some of your experiences with colorism?
  5. Why do I/you/we have negative attitudes about dark skinned people?
  6. Why do I/you/we have negative attitudes about light skinned people?
  7. Why do I/you/we have positive attitudes about dark skinned people?
  8. Why do I/you/we have positive attitudes about light skinned people?
  9. How does colorism affect me?
  10. How does colorism affect you?
  11. How do I feel about my own skin color?
  12. How do you feel about your own skin color?
  13. How can you heal from colorism?
  14. How can I heal from colorism?

Healing & Solutions:

  1. Who’s responsible for colorism healing?
  2. Who’s responsible for breaking the cycle of colorism?
  3. What does it take to end colorism?
  4. What are some possible solutions to colorism?
  5. What can I do on a personal level to help end colorism?
  6. What can we do on a communal level to help end colorism?
  7. What work has already been done to help end colorism?
  8. What work is currently being done to help end colorism?
  9. How can we learn to love and appreciate our own skin, hair, and features while also loving or appreciating others?
  10. Have I addressed my own biases and issues with colorism so that I do not perpetuate colorism among others in the world?
  11. Does colorism get easier to deal with as we age?
  12. Will colorism ever end?
  13. What other questions do you have about colorism?

I know there’s more than 100 questions on this list, but there’s still more I haven’t included! There’s plenty to discuss about colorism in all the various facets of personal and public life. I hope the questions I’ve compiled here help you (and all of us) start, continue, broaden, deepen, and advance the colorism conversation. My hope is that these questions help you facilitate personal and public dialogue about colorism and colorism healing.

Before beginning your discussions, make sure your group has a clear definition of colorism. You can browse various colorism definitions here.

Ultimate List of Colorism Books for All Ages


Looking for colorism books? You could spend hours searching online until you find exactly what you’re looking for, or you can simply scroll through this list of over 50 books I’ve compiled. The list includes a variety of books about Colorism and Colorism related issues ranging from illustrated children’s books, to fiction novels, to academic and scholarly publications. These books also span a range of cultures and ethnicities. When you’re done browsing, leave a comment and let us know which books seem most interesting to you! Continue reading Ultimate List of Colorism Books for All Ages

Our First Ever Twitter Chat! 9-6 8pm EST


Colorism Healing is hosting its first ever twitter chat!

Topic: Colorism and Parenting
Date: Sunday, September 9, 2015
Time: 8:00 p.m. EST
Place: Twitter using #ColorismChat
Follow @ColorismHealing

Here are some pre-chat readings to get you ready:

Mothers and Colorism

Are You Doing Enough to Help Your Child Deal with Colorism?

8 Tips for Dealing with Colorism in Families

When Should Parents Discuss Colorism with Their Children

Please join us!

Brave Love is Beautiful


“I wrote these words for everyone who struggles in their youth.” –Lauryn Hill, Miseducation

For me (and I suppose for some of you too) true love is an act of intense courage.

This first occurred to me in high school when one of my classmates called me brave for wearing my naturally textured hair. I simply let my hair grow the way it naturally grows from my scalp, as it always has since birth. And for that, I was considered… brave. Even as recently as this year, people still refer to my choice of personal style as an act of bravery.

While it seems to defy gravity, my hair in its natural state (and especially when I cut it really short) also defies the norms of this society—a society filled with fairytale princesses like Rapunzel who are called to let down their golden hair, time and time again. Even I remember literally praying for long, straight hair that stretched down my back when I was a little girl.

Yet despite the constant propaganda of long-haired beauty and my former girlhood fantasies of long flowy hair, I came to love my natural black hair. When I cut it “all off,” I was shocked by how good it looked and how good it felt, both to my hands and to my spirit.

But, no matter how much we like what we see in the mirror, we are constantly confronted with the reality that the world does not reflect us.

Anyone who dares defy social norms is bound to suffer social punishment. So we must ask ourselves every day whether or not it’s worth the trouble.

Is my very short, natural hair worth the puzzled looks, stares, smirks, speculations about my sexuality, mistakes regarding my gender (“Mommy, is that a girl or a boy?” or “Yes, Sir… I’m sorry, ma’am”), interrogations (“Why don’t you let your hair grow out?” or “You sure you want it that short, like a MAN? Why you wanna do that???”), rejection, guffaws, the risk of not looking the part for the job, being dismissed as militant, being told your hair (the way it naturally grows from your scalp) is just a misguided political statement (it seems as if black girls and black women make a political statement every time we wake up, just by existing in a world that doesn’t seem to care whether or not we do), or just being overlooked, ignored, invisible.

In addition to natural hair, my personal style, especially throughout high school and college, often consisted of eclectic combinations of clothes. Skirts over jeans. Dresses over pants. Mix-matched prints. Mix-matched earrings. Loud colors. Layers of second hand pieces. I remember days when I’d pause at the door, my hand hovering over the knob, and I’d have to choose. Do I want to do this? Do I want to go out into the world in this conspicuous, quirky expression of myself? Is it worth having derogatory statements thrown at me from a third-story balcony? (That really happened, btw, but of course the offenders were literally hiding behind a curtain the whole time.)

And then there was colorism. This issue may seem most acute when we are young. I struggled with this mostly alone and in silence my entire youth. I did not find the courage to speak about my experiences and observations until I was in my mid-twenties. We are often told, in subtle and not so subtle ways, to suppress our voices and truths so others won’t have to feel uncomfortable, so others can remain the center of attention, and in order to protect others from pain, blame, or guilt.

You may be very aware of how society and many individuals in it go the extra mile to instill in us that we are ugly, unworthy of human respect and dignity, and less valuable than others. They try to bring us down with what they do and don’t do, say and don’t say.

It wasn’t just what other people of all races said to me or about me that was prejudiced and hurtful (with a major stank face: “Ew! You’re so black!” or “I like your sister better than you because she’s white and you’re black,” both real statements made by a black girl and white girl respectively). It was also the moments when they did not say anything about me that hurt me and exposed their prejudice. You know, when the colorstruck woman (related to you or not) dramatically praises and goes on and on about the lighter skinned sister, cousin, friend, or neighbor and is conspicuously mute, obviously silent about the darker skinned girl(s) present? Yeah, that happens all the time…

And we’re certainly not supposed to notice, call out, or try to change patterns in the media that over represent lighter skinned black women in certain kinds of roles. Because if we do, we’re just hating and being petty. So as a dark skinned girl you’re supposed to just passively and silently accept the status quo, cus “that’s just how it is.”

But brave love compels us to speak our truths and stand up for the causes we believe in no matter how others might respond. Brave love means knowing and believing in our beauty and brilliance no matter how many girls call us ugly, no matter how many guys laugh at us, no matter how invisible we seem in movies and television, and no matter how many times we’re outright attacked or outright ignored.

I know at my core how hard it is to face negation and hostility every day, how scary, frustrating, and wearisome it is. But that’s how I know that deciding to love yourself anyway is often not so easy. It’s a choice we have to make every day. It’s a choice that requires a significant store of strength and courage.

Every day we have to answer for ourselves, yes it’s worth it, or no it’s not. After several years of this and having just turned the corner of 30, I can look back and say: Yes, it was all worth it. And it still is.

“Whenever we submit our will to someone else’s opinion, a part of us dies.” –Lauryn Hill, Unplugged

You see, the most important thing to remember about courage is that it’s the only route to freedom. And freedom is fun, even though the process of winning that freedom isn’t usually fun or easy.

We humans are constantly tussling with the chains of other people’s opinions, expectations, and rules. It takes a bunch of mettle to break that metal—especially for us as girls and women constantly pressured to fit inside a ridiculously tiny box of lady-like behavior and physical attractiveness. Out of fear, many of us go to great lengths to fit inside that small container, usually cutting off significant parts of ourselves so that we take up less space.

“I get out. I get out of all your boxes. I’ll get out. You can’t hold me in these chains. I’ll get out.” –Lauryn Hill, Unplugged

So I empathize with the girl who really wants to experiment with short hair, but is too afraid or anxious about it. Or the young woman who wants to try a brightly colored print, but doesn’t dare stand out in that way. Or the girl who doesn’t want to wear heals, but believes she has to in order to become a woman. Or the young woman who’s nervous about standing up to the guys or girls trying to tear her down. I see you, and I see myself in you. Everything I do now as an adult is for you (and for that younger version of myself that travels through time to check on me every so often).

As a black teenage girl, I was blessed to have something which I’m afraid this generation of young girls doesn’t particularly have—popular images that show them alternative ways of being. I was fortunate to grow up in the “neo-soul” era. People compared me to India Arie before I even knew who she was! Erykah Badu quickly became my idol. Angie stone and Jill Scott graced TV screens, airwaves, and magazine pages all the time, back then. And even though they came before the neo-soul era, I really can’t say enough about Zhane! (It’s a Groove Thang!) I benefitted tremendously from having the “neo-soul” wave swell during my adolescence; and though that wave eventually crashed, its effects had already been deeply planted in my psyche and spirit. I often tell folks that a VHS of Lauryn Hill’s MTV2 Unplugged recording helped get me through my senior year of high school. I’d watch/listen every morning before leaving the house. She spoke to me like no one and nothing else at the time.

Today it seems these types of women are completely marginalized in the media. Even so, I’m encouraged because I continue to witness the bravery of young girls and young women who dare to be themselves in a society that relentlessly disavows their minds, spirits, bodies, and identities. I witness them loving themselves but also loving and supporting each other! That’s the double helix of Brave Love: loving yourself as you are and loving others as they are, knowing that igniting another fire doesn’t extinguish your own.

For every few people who tried to diss me, there was at least one other person (besides me) who thought my style was dope, and maybe more who just never told me. And I realized that courage is contagious. Every time a person chooses to walk in courage, they broaden the path for others to follow (or depart from) just like the women of neo-soul did for me.

I’ve been blogging since 2011, and I’m sure this is the most personal piece I’ve written so far. People often talk about self-love like “I woke up like this.” But for me true love is an act of intense courage. On some level, I wanted to share this because of the women who call me brave, strong, confident, etc. I think it’s important to remember that bravery is not an inherent quality. It’s a choice that we must make every moment of every day. And mostly I just want to acknowledge that it’s often a difficult choice.

Courage is like a muscle. The more we use it, the stronger our courage becomes. When we pass up the smaller, everyday opportunities to be courageous, we let our courage atrophy and find ourselves lacking courage just when we need it most. I believe all of the small, daily acts of courage prepare us for even greater moments.

For the young girls and young women still trying to figure out if expressing their uniqueness is worth the hassle of possible ridicule and rejection, I encourage you to try on a little Brave Love. You might be surprised at how great it looks on you.