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

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•• “the prejudice and discrimination that is directed against African Americans with darker skin and, conversely, the benefits that are granted to African Americans with lighter skin” Irene Blair et al, “The role of Afrocentric features in person perception: Judging by features and categories,” 2002, 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, or skin color stratification, is a process that privileges light-skinned people of color over dark in areas such as income, education, housing, and the marriage market.” —Margaret Hunter, “The The Persistent Problem of Colorism: Skin Tone, Status, and Inequality,” in Sociology Compass, 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, ColorismHealing.org, 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” —OxfordDictionaries.com

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.

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