Let’s Talk About Colourism


Colourism. For many, the word brings up feelings of pain and insecurity. Born out of hate, the concept describes discrimination against individuals because of the shade of their skin. Colorism plagues all communities, from African-Americans to Indo-Caribbeans. From East-Asians to Europeans. Despite cultural differences, all racial demographics experience colourism. While colourism translates differently in different communities, the result is the same: a person faces marginalization solely because of their skin tone.

How does the children’s rhyme go again?

“If you’re black, stay back; If you’re brown, stick around; If you’re yellow, you’re mellow; If you’re white, you’re all right.”

Source: ThoughtCo.

We want to focus on how colourism affects Black people in the Western world. The history of colourism in Black communities is extensive and dates back to slavery. Despite its colonial ties, colourism is still prevalent in societies today. In tying the history of colourism in the Black community to colourism today, we hope that this article teaches you something new. We hope this inspires you to be more aware of how colourism may impact your community and how you can change this.


Colourism’s roots run deep in North American history.

During slavery, light-skin slaves were given less strenuous tasks, such as house-keeping or entertainment provision. In contrast, dark-skin slaves were forced to conduct harder work in the fields. In addition to conducting easier duties, lighter-skin slaves were given privileges that their dark-skin counterparts were not.

There is no definitive answer that explains why light-skinned slaves were treated better than dark-skinned slaves. Researchers suggest that this treatment had something to do with nepotism. Light-skin slaves were often the offspring of slaveowners (due to common assault) and subsequently looked like slave-owners. Therefore, these slaves were seen as better in comparison to dark-skin slaves. This idea of superiority attributed to light-skinned comes from the belief that slaveowners were superior. These owners figured that since lighter-skinned slaves looked similar to them, they must be like them.

In time, these beliefs seeped themselves into Western society. Long after slavery ended, dark-skin Black people continued to face poor treatment, not only by people of other races but also by light-skin Black people. The idea of inferiority was and still is, connected to dark-skin people.


In part, the racial divide between light-skinned and dark-skinned people widened due to social structures put in place to regulate Black people.

The Paper Bag Test was one of these structures. The Paper Bag Test was used primarily in the 19th and 20th centuries as a way to determine if Black people were okay enough to be included in social spaces. A paper bag was placed beside a Black person’s face. If their skin tone was lighter than the paper bag, then they would be allowed into this social space. If their skin tone was darker than the paper bag, then they would not be allowed into that space. This was a multi-purpose test; it was applied for purposes ranging from deciding who to hire to determining who would be allowed in a store.

Source: The Seminole Newspaper

Colourism is still alive and well in the 21st century.

Colourism is the reason why light-skin actors and actresses get the lead role in movies or television shows. It is the reason why lighter-skinned artists dominate the charts. It is the reason why there are not different shades of bandaids in the pharmacy. Colorism is the reason women of colour are told to pick a lipstick that “matches their skin tone”. It is the reason why the skin-bleaching industry is a billion-dollar industry. Colorism is largely covert, but it has the ability to create divides between coworkers, friends, and even family members.

In short, colorism is problematic.


Colorist practices encourage harmful ideologies that do not only reveal themselves in personal interactions. Colorism also appears in consumerism, the school system, and other social practices and spaces. In the Washington University Global Studies Law Review, a study on colorism in China revealed that the belief that “the brighter, the better” translated to all aspects of life. The advertisements on billboards, the colour of their skin, even the food that they ate must be of a lighter colour. To some extent, these practices of colorism are root within the North American Black community. For example, dark-skin Black men and women rarely appear in advertisements on billboards or television, unless the product is targeting that demographic. Dark skin boys and girls rarely star in children’s programming, games, or literature, unless the character fulfills stereotypical typographies that of a dark-skinned child.

Colorism suggests that everything dark is inadequate in comparison to it’s lighter counterparts.

This way of thinking reproduces negative thoughts about dark-skinned people in all people. These ideologies have the potential to keep dark-skinned Black people from getting good jobs, regardless of the years of experience or number of degrees they have. As a result of these negative perceptions, Black people are denied opportunities, supports, and resources that make a difference in establishing their place in society.

The association between immorality and dark-skin is systemic; for example, it is because of this connection that dark-skinned children in the American education system face higher rates of discipline. The belief held about dark-skin Black kids who act out in class is that they come from unkempt, single-parent homes. Due to their “disadvantage”, these children cannot possibly know how to treat authority figures with respect. The possibility that the child doesn’t understand the material, or doesn’t learn well in a traditional setting is rarely ever considered. Instead, the child faces punishment and possible isolation in special-education classrooms. This behaviour literally marginalizes the child and impedes their educational development. This early form of discrimination has long-lasting effects, including a disinterest in long-term education.


The negative reception of darker-skin tones also can produce negative mental health effects in the targeted demographic.

Research shows that dark-skinned African-American’s suffer from depression and anxiety when experiencing direct and indirect colorist acts. Yes! A young boy or girl not seeing a dark-skinned character in their favourite television show does affect their perception of themselves. By not seeing representations of themselves in media, they are more likely to see themselves as undesirable, which can affect their self-esteem and self-worth.

Even small comments like “you’re pretty for a dark-skinned girl” can shift one’s perception of dark-skinned people. “For a dark-skinned girl? What does that mean? Are dark-skin girls not pretty?” Dark-skin girls who hear these offhanded comments internalize these thoughts. These thoughts have the power to affect the way that they see themselves and other dark-skin people.

The effects that colorism has on dark-skinned people are extensive.

From economics to media to politics to sports colorism is everywhere, and it continues to make a negative impact on the lives of those who experience it. Discussions like these help to make people more aware of colorism, but this is only the beginning. To truly combat colorism, we must become aware of our biases and make sure that they do not come into play when we interact with others.


What are your thoughts?

Comment and share your thoughts below. We want to hear from you!

Follow @SeriesMelanin on Twitter for more content.