I’d like to dispell the myth that white people are total outsiders when it comes to colorism. The notion that white people are completely clueless, innocent, and irrelevant when it comes to colorism is false.
Some people claim that to white people “we’re all just black.” They believe that whites see no difference among blacks and do not treat blacks differently based on skin tone. That’s mostly untrue. To the Ku Klux Klan, yes, black people are just black regardless of skin tone, hair texture, facial features, etc. BUT, most white people are not members of the KKK.
It’s true that many white people may not be familiar with the term “colorism” or that they may not know/understand how minorities discriminate against each other.
It’s also true that many whites don’t care about skin tone (at least not consciously), just as it’s also true that many blacks don’t care about skin tone.
But colorism still exists and is perpetuated by both blacks and whites (and many other races, ethnicities, and nationalities), sometimes consciously and often unconsciously. We must acknowledge this in order to fully remedy the problem.
Here’s how white people in particular are complicit in colorism.
Colorism and White Supremacy
First, just to be clear, when I use the term “white supremacy,” I’m not talking about the Ku Klux Klan or any such hate groups. I’m talking about white supremacy as the myriad ways in which whiteness is the privileged standard and model of all things “good” or “normal” in our society and around the world, while blackness is positioned as the direct and extreme opposite of that. White supremacy reaches far beyond extremist hate groups. White supremacy is American culture.
White people, even the really nice ones, perpetuate white supremacy. (All people who have internalized white supremacy, regardless of their racial designation, perpetuate white supremacy, hence colorism and prejudices against “black culture.”)
As Time Wise writes:
“I admit that AS IS TRUE WITH ANY WHITE PERSON raised in a racist/white supremacist society, I have internalized certain racist and white supremacist thoughts/beliefs/norms, etc.”
It should be noted that this conditioning can be effectively resisted. But you can only resist what you acknowledge exists.
Research Studies on Colorism
In 2015, Lance Hannon published research findings on what he calls “white colorism,” indicating that regardless of education, test scores, and other demographic factors, “African Americans and Latinos deemed to have lighter skin tones are significantly more likely to be seen as intelligent by white interviewers.” He uses the following language, which includes a bit of professional jargon, but is quite significant:
“a one standard deviation increase in skin lightness roughly triples the probability of being perceived as having above average intelligence (an impact that is greater than a one standard deviation increase in education level).”
This suggests that in judging intelligence, whites are more influenced by skin tone than education level.
In 2014, five researchers published results of a study revealing the existence of a “skin tone memory bias.” All races of study participants, including white participants, remembered “educated” black men as being lighter than they actually are.
In 2014, Brittany C. Slatton published a book detailing the results of her research in which white men were invited to respond anonymously to an online survey about their views on dating black women. Slatton explains that the men who said they’re unattracted or rarely attracted to black women “root that lack of attraction in those traits defined as ‘black’: dark skin, hair texture, and facial features.” In contrast, some of the white men who are and are not attracted to black women in general “described blacks with more ‘white’ facial features and hair texture as the only attractive black woman,” thus using whiteness as the standard by which they measure the beauty of black women. Slatton quotes several of the survey respondents who say the following:
“I do find some black women attractive, but they tend to have more white physical features and are polished…. Alicia Keys comes to mind.”
“If I find a black woman attractive, it is because their hair type and facial features are more representative of the Caucasian race.”
“There are some black women who are attractive. And they aren’t full black. The only black women I find attractive are a mix of black and European, black and Latino, or black and Asian. They end up with a tan complexion, and hair that doesn’t look frizzled or like a Brillo pad.”
“The ‘blacker’ the person, the less femininity I tend to see.”
“I think black women’s features are too extreme; they are too dark, and they usually are much too large for my tastes…. The only black women I have found even marginally attractive are smaller, lighter-skinned black women… ala Beyoncé.”
We might never care whether white guys want to marry us, but what Slatton’s research helps to show is how white people are just as capable of colorism as any other group of people.
In 2014, three researchers reported that dark skinned black girls are three times more likely to be suspended from school than light skinned black girls, and for boys and girls alike, darker skin correlates with higher suspension rates. Whites undoubtedly contribute to such a significant color-based disparity given that a majority of school administrators are white, about 83% of teachers are white, and only 7% are black, non-hispanic (as reported by NCTES).
In 2011, three researchers found that in North Carolina between 1995 and 2009, light skinned black women received more lenient prison sentences and served less time in jail. In the judicial system, it’s often white people making such decisions.
In 2010, Kimberly Kahn and Paul Davies published the results of two studies showing that in shooting simulations, blacks and non-blacks were both more likely to shoot blacks with darker skin, broader noses, and fuller lips.
In 2009, two researchers published study results suggesting that for whites making hiring decisions, skin tone had greater influence on their choices than education and work experience.
Colorism and Implicit Bias
It’s not that the people in the above studies (or anyone else for that matter) are actively trying to discriminate against dark skinned people. It’s more likely that they have unconscious associations with skin tone that they’re completely unaware of and can’t even recognize. That’s implicit bias. Scholars at Harvard University’s Project Implicit define implicit bias pretty simply:
“An explicit stereotype is the kind that you deliberately think about and report. An implicit stereotype is one that occurs outside of conscious awareness and control. Even if you say that men and women are equally good at math, it is possible that you associate math with men without knowing it. In this case we would say that you have an implicit math-men stereotype.”
As a result of implicit bias, even people we talk to who say they “don’t see color,” probably (absolutely) do see color. Though as Slatton reminds us in her book, we can’t always rely on what people say in front of us anyway, because most folks (who are not Donald Trump) usually try to avoid appearing racist, even if they really do hold racially biased beliefs and attitudes.
Because American culture is white supremacist, most people have a pro-white/anti-black implicit bias, even if only slightly. (If you want to measure your own implicit bias, you can take the test.)
White Colorism in Popular Media
One of the biggest, most lucrative, and most visible drivers of white supremacy in American culture is the industry combo of beauty, fashion, entertainment, magazine, and broadcast news. White people control the largest share of this industry mashup on several levels. People usually take that to mean that all minorities in America receive equal opportunity discrimination in these fields. But the truth is that lighter skinned minorities or “ethnically ambiguous” minorities have an advantage in these fields because of their skin, hair, and facial features. This advantage persists over time and in broad patterns despite individual exceptions or periodic trends toward darker skin.
In a passage about the Straight Outta Compton casting call, Kristen J. Warner writes in her 2015 book The Cultural Politics of Colorblind TV Casting that Hollywood does in fact typecast minority actors by skin tone, hair, and other features:
“The description of types included in the breakdown do in fact speak to the types of Blackness Hollywood can tolerate. It is an obvious and likely cliché but it bears another mention. Blackness and those who embody it in Hollywood must be in some ways relatable and familiar to white audiences, even in production where white audiences may not be the sole target demographic. Thus ‘exotic’ light-skinned women from a variety of ethnicities are privileged as the models while dark-skinned African-American women are reduced to ill-shaped, poverty-stricken background performers. What’s more, it is not just that an imagined white audience will see familiar types but also that those background performers will match their expectations of what a beautiful model and a poor, out-of-shape woman look like.”
When Viola Davis talks about how having dark skin and Afrocentric features makes it harder to get acting roles, especially substantive roles and leading roles, she’s not just talking about black films or black filmmakers (although they have serious colorism issues made more obvious because they are black). The working conditions Davis describes are created largely by whites who make a majority of casting and hiring decisions in these industries. And though some might be tempted to say that’s because they’re only giving black people what we want, the Oscars make it clear that white people in Hollywood feel no obligation to please minorities. White people’s decisions to cast a light skinned or mixed race woman is always about their prejudice. The earlier quote about Beyoncé, for example, reminds us that the overrepresentation of fair skinned black women on the celebrity A list is by no means soley a function of black people’s colorism, but is in large part a product of white people’s colorism as well.
White People and Colorism During American Slavery
During slavery, the institutional rape of black women resulted in a sizable population of mixed-race people. Because of their obvious European ancestry, whites attributed biracial people, slave or free, with greater beauty, intelligence, and humanity than the general population of black people, slave or free. This is the white supremacist foundation of colorism in the Americas. Light skin, straight hair, light colored eyes, or keen facial features in people of color are privileged because society takes those things as evidence of European ancestry, and it’s that perceived connection to European ancestry that is so valued in American culture.
These attitudes are quite clearly expressed in E. B. Reuter’s 1917 article “The Superiority of the Mulatto.” Reuter reports that:
“The whole matter of attitude on the part of the white people and its consequent result in greater opportunities for lighter work, more association, greater privileges, better training, and more freedom operated to the advantage of the mulattoes prior to the passing of the institution of slavery. …
“The white man’s assumption of the mixed-bloods’ superior capability, entirely aside from any question as to the accuracy of the assumption, created in the Negro race the tradition of mulatto superiority. It laid the basis for a class separation on the basis of skin coloration and for the social prestige of the mixed-blood group.”
Reuter acknowledges that advantage and disadvantage were not unilateral during slavery, but the fact remains that whatever disparities did exist between black and mixed-race people were a direct result of the actions of white people. White people (and eventually mixed-race individuals themselves) perpetuated these attitudes and inequalities for generations after slavery.
At the end of the day, effectively dealing with colorism requires acknowledgement of how whites perpetuate colorism. Because whites created colorism in America and because they continue to perpetuate it and continue to maintain social conditions that entrench it, they are a part of the equation that leads to solutions. Especially since they are most likely to teach children of all races and are very likely to make decisions that could alter the course and quality of people’s lives, decisions pertaining to employment, the legal system, and other areas of life like housing, healthcare, policing, etc.
I will say, however, that we must first eradicate colorism—white supremacy—from our own minds and hearts.