Colorism in Relationships: Preference or Prejudice?

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Why do we date who we date? What’s really behind our choice of marriage partners? Is love truly blind? And more to the point of this post, is there colorism in relationships? 

If there is colorism in relationships, how can we tell the difference between a person who coincidentally falls for someone of a certain skin tone versus someone who is color struck?

Here I present one perspective on this matter. Of course there are other viewpoints out there. If you’re new to this issue, I encourage you to explore those as well, after you’ve considered the following.

Is there Colorism in Relationships?

Yes. As Kola Boof says in this video, we can control who we love. As a society and as individuals, we make conscious choices about who’s loved and who’s rejected. We must not be satisfied with an uncritical acceptance of our beauty standards. We have to be willing to examine why we have preferences and realize that “preference” isn’t merely biological, physical, harmless attraction. Our preferences are shaped, molded, and conditioned by our environment. There’s no doubt in my mind that colorism plays a huge role in romantic relationships, but perhaps there’s some doubt in yours. So here’s why I’m so sure that colorism exists in relationships.

Because Racism Exists

As long as racism exists, and as long as that racism is internalized by various groups of people, colorism will also exist. That’s because racism causes colorism, like an offshoot.

If you believe that the world has evolved to a point where racism is no longer an everyday problem, then you might not recognize colorism as a problem either.

Because of the Research

In a 2002 article, “Race and the Politics of Personal Relationships: Focus on Black Canadian Women,” Evangelia Tastsoglou, explains how it’s not surprising that some blacks have adopted “society’s color complex” because of all the racism, white supremacy, and stereotypes that saturate everyday culture.

Tastsoglous also summarizes a lot of historical research on the issue by writing, “Even in the Black community, the fair-skinned Black woman who most nearly resembled White women was seen as the lady and placed on a pedestal, whereas darker-skinned Black women were viewed as b****** and whores.”

Christopher A. D. Charles, who focuses on Jamaican culture in the article “Skin Bleaching and the Prestige Complexion of Sexual Attraction,” explains that many Jamaicans who bleach their skin do so to be more attractive to potential mates.

Charles also makes the very important statement that, “some of these people choose a browning [light skin] partner to have light skin children.”

Although there’s more research, I’ll close this section by referring to the writings of Darrick Hamilton, Arthur H. Goldsmith, and William Darity, who co-wrote “Shedding ‘light’ on marriage: The influence of skin shade on marriage for black females.” In that article, the writers refer to prior research that’s provided “ample evidence that greater social status is ascribed to black women with lighter skin shade in the U.S.”

However, in their own research, they establish further evidence of this, specifically for women under the age of 30. They report that “as skin shade lightens the incidence of marriage rises.” More specifically, the report general percentages as follows: “55 percent of light skinned black females had been married, but only 30 percent of those with medium skin shade and 23 percent of the dark skinned females had ever been married. The ever married rate for young whitewomen, 50 percent, is slightly less than the rate for young light skin blackwomen…”

Because of Lived Experiences

In the short film, “Fair? – A documentary about skin colour in India,” several people report on the pervasive culture of colorism in India.

The first woman to speak, who’s not really dark by world standards, admits that throughout her childhood people had told her: “You are dark, so you will never get married.”

Other testimonies in the documentary discuss how weddings have been cancelled because the bride was too dark, that photos used in marriage proposals are lightened and the women are made to wear powder to appear fairer, that local ads specifically request fair skinned marriage partners, and many more instances of day-to-day colorism in relationships.

Academy Award winning actress Lupita Nyong’o was told by a teacher while growing up in Kenya that she wouldn’t be able to find a husband because she was so dark.

In my own experiences living in the United States, I’ve heard many people explicitly say that they only date people with a certain skin tone. Beyond only dating men or women with a certain complexion, some people even go so far as to taunt, harass, belittle, and demean people who don’t meet their standards for skin tone. In some cases, men admit that they’ll sleep with women of any complexion, but will only date or marry women with light skin.

I’ve witnessed this kind of discrimination firsthand, and have observed it in numerous movies, TV shows, and song lyrics. If you have not, then consider yourself lucky, but don’t consider it proof that colorism in relationships must be a myth.

Preference or Prejudice?

I acknowledge that many relationship choices are controlled by subconscious programming, both biological and sociological. However, there are some clear signs that a person isn’t innocently falling for whomever destiny has chosen for them.

Predetermined Attraction

If physical attraction is supposed to be biological and instinctual, then predetermining the skin color of a future partner is a clear warning sign that a person is color struck.

Saying, “I only date ___ skinned girls/guys” exposes the colorism behind a person’s choice of partners.

Also, predetermining who you will partner with based on their skin color is NOT the same as preferring a certain personality, work ethic, or sense of humor. Skin color has no substantive effect on the quality of a relationship, whereas other sorts of personal qualities often do.

If a person is really just reacting to pure physical attraction rather than superficial societal standards, they would not be able to predetermine who they will or will not be attracted to based solely on skin color because not all dark/brown/light skinned people look alike.

And just because lots of people have similar superficial prejudices against other physical features, doesn’t make colorism in relationships okay.

Fetishes or Stereotypes about Complexion

A second warning sign that a person is color struck is that they make excessive comments about skin color. The comments may be positive or negative, and they may be about the person they’re currently in a relationship with or a total stranger.

The real giveaway is whether the comment contains over-generalizations, fetishizing language, and stereotypes (“dark/light skinned girls be like…”).  If a person’s choice is really just “preference” based purely on biological physical attraction and not socially conditioned prejudice, then there would be no need for fetishizing and stereotyping. If you can’t express your so called “preference” without demeaning other people, then it’s not merely a “preference,” it’s actually prejudice. If racist stereotypes aren’t cool with you, then colorist stereotypes shouldn’t be either. And it does not matter if the person claims it’s “just a joke.” It’s still colorism.

If you can’t express your so called “preference” without fetishizing complexion, then it’s not a “preference,” but a sickness. It’s one thing to find someone’s complexion, hair, and features attractive. It’s another thing entirely to fetishize those traits.

Hypocritical Stance on Discrimination

Someone says they would never date outside of their race, and you call them racist. Someone says they’d never date a dark skinned girl, and you shrug and say it’s just “preference.” Those who insist that race should not matter in who a person loves, should, by their own logic, also insist that skin tone should not matter. Instead, those who “go to bat” to defend black men who choose to date/marry non-black women, saying it’s wrong to discriminate based on race, are completely silent and perfectly okay with black men (and women) discriminating based on skin tone. They support skin tone discrimination by saying, “it’s just preference,” but will call other people racist if they choose to only date within their race.

The ugly truth is that this double standard plays into the hands of colorism and white supremacy: Fight for the right to marry white/light (an effort founded on the perceived superiority of whiteness) and cosign anti-blackness.

Why Does it Matter?

  1. These harmful beliefs don’t just affect who dates whom. These negative ideas permeate other important aspects of our lives like employment and wealth.
  2. Colorism in dating and marriage choices upholds white supremacy and racism.
  3. Anti-black prejudice is wrong. Period.

Recognition is Only the Beginning

Some people really struggle to admit their prejudices (and perhaps never will), while others boast about their colorism. I don’t  go out crusading to change these people’s attitudes and actions. I merely focus on awareness. It’s not my goal to make a color struck adult see the beauty in all skin tones. But by focusing on awareness, and acknowledging that the problem of colorism in relationships is real, perhaps we can impact younger/future generations and open up lanes of healing.


Written By: Sarah L. Webb

Sarah L. Webb is the founder of Colorism Healing and is currently a Ph.D. student in the Department of English at LSU. Her primary research interests include New Literacy Studies, New Media Studies, and Black Women’s studies. Before enrolling at LSU, she managed websites and social media accounts for local TV stations, taught high school English and college writing courses, and worked as a freelance writer and editor.

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