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.

Colorism is a Symptom and System of Oppression

Colorism is a symptom of oppression as well as a system of oppression.

The specific oppression I speak of here is racism or “white supremacy.”

Colorism is both a product and a tool of the umbrella institution of white supremacy.

When I began reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, I did not expect to find so many ideas relevant to colorism and colorism healing. Freire wrote Pedagogy in 1968, and it was translated from Portuguese to English in 1970. The book is based on Freire’s work with poor working people in Brazil. However, that very specific context of oppression has parallels with many others, and lots of people have reapplied Freire’s ideas in different contexts. But as far as I know, no one has applied his ideas to colorism.

I want to share with you some powerful ideas from Freire’s book that I believe reveal a lot about the sources of colorism and possible solutions to colorism. What follows is a small selection, but I hope you are inspired to take up the book and read all that it contains.

Why Colorism Exists

A divided house cannot defend itself

“As the oppressor minority subordinates and dominates the majority, it must divide it and keep it divided in order to remain in power. The minority cannot permit itself the luxury of tolerating the unification of the people, which would undoubtedly signify a serious threat to their own hegemony. Accordingly, the oppressors halt by any method (including violence) any action which in even incipient fashion could awaken the oppressed to the need for unity. Concepts such as unity, organization, and struggle are immediately labeled as dangerous. In fact, of course, these concepts are dangerous—to the oppressors—for their realization is necessary to actions of liberation.” (Freire, p. 122)

“Submerged in reality, the oppressed cannot perceive clearly the ‘order’ which serves the interests of the oppressors whose image they have internalized. Chafing under the restrictions of this order, they often manifest a type of horizontal violence, striking out at their own comrades for the pettiest reasons” (Freire, p. 44).

Freire quotes Fanon to support this. Fanon writes:

“The colonized man will first manifest this aggressiveness which has been deposited in his bones against his own people…. for the last resort of the native is to defend his personality vis-á-vis his brother.” (Fanon as quoted on page 44 of Pedagogy of the Oppressed)

A whole lot of people, especially African Americans, acknowledge that colorism divides the community. Unfortunately, many people mistakenly think that dialogue about colorism is the source of division rather than the colorism itself.

I must say that colorism continues to divide us because we fail to confront it (due to fear, guilt, shame, pain, ignorance, selfishness, etc.). For unity and healing, we need all parties to acknowledge how we are each complicit and responsible. For unity and healing, we need all parties to acknowledge our pain and our privilege.

We’ve internalized white supremacy

“The more they mimic the invaders, the more stable the positon of the latter becomes…. For cultural invasion to succeed, it is essential that those invaded become convinced of their intrinsic inferiority. Since everything has its opposite, if those who are invaded consider themselves inferior, they must necessarily recognize the superiority of the invaders. The value of the latter thereby becomes the pattern for the former. The more invasion is accentuated and those invaded are alienated from the spirit of their own culture and from themselves, the more the latter want to be like the invaders: to walk like them, dress like them, talk like them.” (Freire, p. 134)

“Self-deprecation is another characteristic of the oppressed, which derives from their internalization of the opinion the oppressors hold of them. So often do they hear that they are good for nothing, know nothing, and are incapable of learning anything—that they are sick, lazy, and unproductive—that they become convinced of their own unfitness” (Freire, p. 45).

In colonial societies and in societies where slavery existed, whites used and perpetuated colorism to divide the oppressed people. However, as the two quotes above state, the oppressed people internalized, believed in, and became convinced of their own inferiority and of the superiority of whiteness. Colorism among African Americans and other people of color took hold as we began to hate our blackness, began to strive for whiteness, and began to place a higher value on those people of color who more closely resembled and enacted whiteness.

Even though the era of old colonialism and slavery has long passed, its legacy lives on. Even now, people of color continue to loathe blackness but laud whiteness and those who more closely resemble whiteness.

Today, however, it’s not so black and white. White supremacy is no longer stated in explicitly racial terms. Instead people use rhetoric like, “straight hair just looks more professional.” What’s concealed by such statements is that straight hair looks more professional because straight hair is associated with whiteness, and whiteness has always been associated with professionalism.

So how do these ideas spread?

“All these myths…the internalization of which is essential to the subjugation of the oppressed, are presented to them by well-organized propaganda and slogans, via the mass ‘communications’ media—as if such alienation constituted real communication.” (Freire, p. 121)

Society consciously and most often unconsciously maintains white supremacy on a grand scale through mass communications and propaganda in all of its various forms throughout history. This includes, but is not limited to: books, literature, music, art, newspapers, movies, television, magazines, billboards, advertisements and commercials, video games, websites, social media, flesh-tone products, stock photography, dress codes that regulate hairstyles, jeans that fail to accommodate a curvier body, fairytales like Rapunzel, music videos (including ones starring artists of color), dolls and other toys, and… Well, you get the picture.

Why Some People Deny Colorism & White Supremacy

There is no critical intervention when intervention “would contradict the class interests of the perceiver…. The fact exists; but both the fact and what may result from it may be prejudicial to the person. Thus it becomes necessary, not precisely to deny the fact, but to ‘see it differently.’ This rationalization as a defense mechanism coincides in the end with subjectivism” (Freire, p. 34).

What Freire says here relates to colorism and white supremacy because certain people benefit from these forms of oppression. Those who benefit might not want to lose their benefits, and they often do not even acknowledge that they receive any benefits. They therefore try to dismiss dialogue or action aimed at undoing these forms of oppression.

When we receive information that somehow portrays us or people we identify with in an unflattering or unfavorable light, we might not deny the facts outright, but we try to justify them or rationalize them. We dismiss the information by saying, “Well, I guess I see it differently.” Even when the information doesn’t explicitly describe us, it might contain facts that incriminate us or those with whom we identify.

I’ve said before that colorism healing takes courage. One of the most courageous things we can do is admit that we are complicit—all of us. We need courage to admit that we have certain privileges because of our outward appearances. We need courage to admit that others have an equally valid story to tell, even if the story implicates us or someone who looks like us.

The Myth of “Reverse Discrimination”

Even when a more equitable situation is established, “the former oppressors do not feel liberated. On the contrary, they genuinely consider themselves to be oppressed. Conditioned by their experience of oppressing others, any situation other than their former seems to them like oppression…. Any restriction on [their former way of life], in the name of the rights of the community, appears to the former oppressors as a profound violation of their individual rights” (Freire, p. 39).

Though Freire is writing primarily about class inequality, I think a similar thing happens when it comes to race. The notion of Affirmative Action as “reverse discrimination” is perhaps the most infamous case of this type of condition.

In many societies around the world, people’s race, skin color, hair texture, facial features, or body size and shape often lead to un-merited advantages (advantages gained through no effort of your own, like an advantage given because of race or skin color). Basically, the loss of an un-merited advantage often feels like a disadvantage (Why am I being punished for who I am?). The reason this feels like a disadvantage is because many of the benefactors of racism are not aware (or in denial) of how they are privileged in that institution. To see things differently would require not relying solely on one’s personal experiences (individualism) and instead acknowledging the larger societal patterns, probabilities, and historical legacy.

When individuals or whole societies make conscious and direct attempts to rectify/compensate for society-wide disparities, rather than understanding it as a more equitable share of pie for everyone, many of the previously privileged view such efforts as merely a smaller slice of pie for them, one that will no longer be served on a silver platter.

For healing to take place, we have to be brave enough to admit when we’ve had easier access to the pie than our other brothers and sisters. Even when we personally have not had a disproportionately large share of pie, we can at least acknowledge that those who have, tend to look like us rather than the rest of the family.

Taking Action

Have the courage to be free

“Some, however, confess: Why deny it? I was afraid of freedom. I am no longer afraid!” (Freire, p. 17)

I must confess: For a long time I was afraid to talk about colorism. I was afraid of what people would think, afraid people would think I’m just jealous or hating, afraid people would think I had low self-esteem and didn’t love myself, afraid people would say I was causing division.

I am no longer afraid!

“the oppressor is ‘housed’ within the people, and their resulting ambiguity makes them fearful of freedom.” (Freire, p. 144)

Not everyone wants to be healed. I sometimes observe that people seem completely content with colorism. In some cases this is because they’ve enjoyed the benefits of colorism and don’t care to lose those. In other cases they’ve so fully subscribed to colorism that they believe it’s the natural order of things. It almost becomes an enjoyable pastime, like the memes and hashtags on social media suggest. And in other cases they’ve been so complicit in perpetuating colorism that they don’t want to deal with the guilt they might feel if they awaken their consciousness about colorism.

“Fear of freedom, of which the possessor is not necessarily aware, makes him see ghosts. Such an individual is actually taking refuge in an attempt to achieve security, which he or she prefers to the risk of liberty…. Men and women rarely admit their fear of freedom openly, however, tending rather to camouflage it—sometimes unconsciously—by presenting themselves as defenders of freedom. They give their doubts and misgivings an air of profound sobriety as befitting custodians of freedom. But they confuse freedom with the maintenance of the status quo; so that if [consciousness] threatens to place that status quo in question, it thereby seems to constitute a threat to freedom itself.” (Freire, p. 18)

You probably know this story just as well as I do. The guy who proudly proclaims: “I only date light skinned chicks,” then shrugs and says, “That’s just my preference.” Others who support this way of thinking will also shrug and say, “Everyone has a right to their own preference.”

Of course everyone has the right to prefer who and what they want, but…

We might also see this defense of personal preference (like a defense of personal freedom), as really just a cowardly defense of the status quo, a fear of freedom (for reasons stated above).

Rather than questioning the possible reasons for or sources of our preferences, rather than considering the social and historical construction and conditioning of our preferences, it’s easier for some people to believe that preferences are simply a personal, individual, biological, natural, and harmless matter. It’s easier to believe so because true belief in the opposite requires action, which requires courage.

Believe that society can change

“the oppressors attempt to destroy in the oppressed their quality as ‘considerers’ of the world. Since the oppressors cannot totally achieve this destruction, they must mythicize the world. In order to present for the consideration of the oppressed and subjugated a world of deceit designed to increase their alienation and passivity, the oppressors develop a series of methods precluding any presentation of the world as a problem and showing it rather as a fixed entity, as something given—something to which people, as mere spectators, must adapt…. [The oppressors] deposit myths indispensable to the preservation of the status quo.” (Freire, p. 120)

This quote builds on the idea that people hide behind notions of personal freedom because they are too afraid or unwilling to even question, much less resist, the status quo. Even when they express sadness about colorism, too many people respond with resignation and passivity, as if nothing can be done about it.

Well, we have to realize that societies are always changing and that we can and should be active participants in shaping that change. We must believe that we can help change our society for the better. Yes, it’s a huge and overwhelming task. Yes, it takes a ton of effort and risk and courage. But we can do it.

Bear Witness

The first action step for colorism healing is to speak our truths—to bear witness. Here’s what Freire says about bearing witness:

“The essential elements of witness include: consistency between words and actions; boldness which urges the witness to confront existence as a permanent risk; radicalization (not sectarianism) leading both the witnesses and the ones receiving that witness to increasing action; courage to love (which, far from being accommodation to an unjust world, is rather the transformation of that world in behalf of the increasing liberation of humankind); and faith in the people, since it is to them that witness is made.… in dialogical action, daring and loving witness serve the ends of organization.” (157-158)

Let’s bear witness—daring and loving witness.

Understand the Causes of colorism

A second action step for colorism healing is to make sure we understand root causes:

“As long as the oppressed remain unaware of the causes of their condition, they fatalistically ‘accept’ their exploitation. Further, they are apt to react in a passive and alienated manner when confronted with the necessity to struggle for their freedom and self-affirmation.” (Freire, p. 46)

When we remain unaware of the causes of colorism, the problem seems impossible to solve. Understanding colorism’s causes helps us to see possible solutions. The device no longer dumbfounds us when we take it apart and see how it works. Let’s find the power source and unplug it to stop the system of colorism. In most society’s that struggle with colorism, the source is white supremacy.

Have Dialogue about colorism and white supremacy

According to Freire, dialogue requires love, humility, faith, hope, and critical thinking. I add that it requires courage. Once we’ve gathered our courage, come to believe that change is possible, born daring and loving witness, and examined the causes of colorism, we need to continue to have courageous yet humble conversations amongst ourselves.

“Human existence cannot be silent, nor can it be nourished by false words, but only by true words, with which men and women transform the world. To exist, humanly, is to name the world, to change it…. Human beings are not built in silence, but in word, in work, in action-reflection…. No one can say a true word alone—nor can she say it for another, in a prescriptive act which robs others of their words.” (Freire, p. 69)

I am writing this post, using my words, but I can’t be the only one. We need your words too. Whether you’re a writer, singer, tweeter, small-talker, big-talker, lecturer, poet, or any other form of human being, we need your words!

Reflect. Act. Repeat.

“The insistence that the oppressed engage in reflection on their concrete situation is not a call to armchair revolution. On the contrary, reflection—true reflection—leads to action.” (Freire, p. 48)

“‘Cultural Revolution’ takes the total society to be reconstructed, including all human activities, as the object of its remolding action.” (Freire, p. 139)

By reading this, you’re already engaged in the cycle of reflection and action. How will you continue that cycle from here?

Will you talk to someone about your experiences with colorism? Will you listen to someone else share their experiences? Will you give a child a book, movie, or toy that affirms who they are? Will you make a conscious effort to support magazines, movies, and TV programs that promote diversity? Will you give attention to the person everyone else ignores?

Reflect on the actions that feel right to you, then take those actions. Repeat.

A Necessary Act of Liberation

“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.”

—Alice Walker