January 28, 2010

Colorism: The Hierarchical Nature of Skin Tone that makes “Light Alright”

new janis By Janis Prince Inniss

If you’re black, get back.

If you’re brown, stick around

If you’re light, you’re alright

I thought of this old saying when I heard that according to the authors of Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid assessed then Senator Obama’s chances at the presidential nomination as good because he is “light-skinned” and “speaks with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one." There has been much debate about whether Senator Reid’s comments are racist, but I want to focus on the “light-skinned” element of his remarks.

Skin tone issues abound. Time magazine darkened O. J. Simpson’s mug shot on their cover in June 1994; this alteration was heightened by the fact that an untouched image of Simpson ran on the cover of Newsweek. (See the two covers here and read more about the covers here.) And today, skin lightening creams continue to be a booming business, with sales growing in countries from the Caribbean to Africa and Asia.

clip_image001I have long noticed that a large portion of African Americans who are prominent now or were in the past are very light-skinned. (Many are light-skinned enough to have “passed” for white in an earlier time—a subject discussed in this post.) Think about and/or look at pictures of the following people: Colin Powell, Julian Bond, Eric Holder, Harold Ford, Thurgood Marshall, Edward Brooke, Debra Lee, Douglas Wilder, David Paterson, Deval Patrick, Malcolm X, and of course President Obama. Although these people are light-skinned, some more so than others, as a trained sociologist—or at least as someone beginning to think like one— you are probably wondering whether this is real or whether I am simply overlooking noteworthy African Americans who have a darker complexion, such as Dr. Martin Luther King.

However, research findings indicate that lighter skin is positively related to job status, education, income, and marital status among blacks; dark-skinned African Americans even receive longer prison sentences than the light-skinned. And light-skinned African Americans are over-represented in politics (as reflected by the list above). Further, another study indicates that our political orientation “colors” how we see the skin color of politicians. Partisans who agree with a candidate see him as lighter than he really is, and those who disagree, darken the candidate. Liberal study participants were most likely to rate lightened pictures of Barack Obama as most representative of him, while those who considered themselves conservative rated a darkened picture as most representative of candidate Obama.

Many black people think of colorism as a within group phenomenon. In other words, they think that black people are the ones who use the shade of a person’s skin to assess their worth, affording those with lighter skin better treatment and higher value. In fact, when Spike Lee released the film School Daze (a film in which light-skinned black women and dark-skinned black women battle), many said that Lee was airing dirty laundry. Whatever else you may think of Reid’s comments, they suggest an understanding of the colorism dynamic among Americans, not only African Americans.

What are we to make of this? Because they more closely resemble whites, than their darker-skinned counterparts, both white and black Americans have annointed light-skinned blacks with the higher status attributed to whites. This goes at least as far back as the “house slave”—someone born to a slave owner and an enslaved woman—who may have been treated more kindly and allowed to be in the “big house”.

It is important to note that light-skinned people who were enslaved were sometimes subject to harsher treatment, perhaps because their color broadcasted “slave/master” relationships. This phenomenon—colorism—is not unique to the U.S. In fact, in his recent best seller Outliers: The Story of Success (discussed by Karen Sternheimer in this post), author Malcolm Gladwell, writes of the role of colorism in his mother’s Jamaican family and points to the advantages light skin afforded some of his family and lists this as a factor contributing to his family’s success.

Given the importance of race—skin color—in the larger society, why would gradations of color not be important? Let’s employ stratification theory as a lens to examine this phenomenon. In simplistic terms, this theory tells us that the dominant group has the most access to wealth, power, and prestige; achieving these is also controlled by the dominant group and those who look more like that group can more easily blend into (assimilate) into that group. And through socialization processes we gravitate towards dominant views of beauty and standardization.

Colorism, then, may be seen as learned, an unconscious acceptance and belief that “white is right”. Notably, one historical moment during which the preference for light-skin color, even among blacks, was challenged was during the Black Power Movement of the 1960s, a time during which James Brown’s “Say it Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud” was a major hit. Does that time period teach us anything about how we can combat colorism both in the broader society and within the black community? Do you think research conducted during that time period might have yielded different results than those I described above?


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Oh wow. Before I took my sociology class I never thought that photos are altered. Reading your article made me think. Why is it that some people are trying to be whiter? It seems like slavery and racism is in the past, yet the whiter you are the “higher” you seem…

color of the skin should not be an issue for people to worry about.You find that if everyone had a choice to choose the color of skin things would be different,many people would may be choose to be green.However the prominent light-skined people mentioned above were lucky and they worked hard to be where they reached.Everyone should be proud of the way you look without judging the color.Its very true also that if you come from the dominant group you have greater chance to dominate.

The color of your skin should not matter at all. This article made me stop and think about how many people think that just because your "white" you are automatically rich. I look at it this way ... you can be what ever color skin and make it big. Yu must just be able to work hard and stand up for what you believe. I do however, notice that people still to this day will say things that " if i was not colored skin i would have gotton out of that speeding ticket" ... this is not true and we all should not even bring up the differences in the color of skin.

Saying should be's, could be's or it doesn't matter doesn't make the subconscious think otherwise.

Why does color mean so much to society today? This is the question that runs through my mind. We all have a variety pigment in our skin and I am surprised that this sometimes the factor that decides our fate. I can remember as a child in elementary school being the only white girl in my class. Everyone would tease me and some would even spit on me. I learned at a very young age that it doesn’t matter what color your skin is, it is how your parents raise you and how your peers treat you. You learn as a child who is acceptable and who isn’t. Your parents may discriminate against different colors of skin because; when they were young they saw how their parents were treated by those people. It is sad that we learn to be prejudice and discriminate against others.
While I was growing up my Mother was the only adult in our household and she had taught us the Golden rule. She always said treat others the way you wanted to be treated. I have always lived by this rule and I have tried to teach the same rule to my boy’s. We don’t have to accept what is around us; we can aspire to be above race and social construction.

I never would have guessed people alter there photos to be lighter. The poem you had posted " if your black get back, if your brown stick around, if your white your alright" seems ridiculous but is still very shockingly true.

Here I write again...I think its not fair that color of skin or persons race plays a big role in our lives. Sure that makes us a bit different from each other but only in the outside.

I really liked your blog because it shows how much everything is influenced by your skin color and what status you are. You mentioned how lighter skin is positively related to job status, education, income, and marital status among blacks. Also how dark-skinned African Americans receive longer prison sentences and how light-skinned African Americans are over-represented in politics. Because of this, our nation is trying to reach an equal racial balance in the classroom. People of lower class and minorities were segregated from schools and often weren't allowed to receive education. Our nation has improved since then, but you can still see this in some schools. You also mentioned that the dominant group has most access to wealth, power, and prestige. Also how achieving these is controlled by the dominant group and those who look more like them can easily blend in. In this case, the dominant group are the whites and the wealthy.

Color has always played a major role in our society and it still does. But slowly, I think that will change. People used to that say "dark skinned" people can't be rich or respected, but that's not true anymore. Our President is African American and two of Hollywood's top-earning couples are African American (Jay-Z and Beyoncé and Will Smith and Jada Smith).

Many people are still color conscious. History is proving that "that" consciousness is rapidly changing.

I don't think the paper (its not really fair to call it a "study", because it is summarizing historical data) that you linked fully makes your point; while the text of the study may make a compelling argument, the actual data that is presented does not support it.
For example, the data presented shows the distribution of black elected officials in the 1980 NBSA survey as 38%/45%/17% (dark-/medium-/light-skinned; a later 2002/2004 survey showed these numbers to be 35%/40%/25% suggesting that tonality is of little importance. Even election data dating back to 1865-1964 doesn't place light-skinned individuals in the elected majority.
The study also presents data that colorism is more likely to be felt from blacks then whites. As far as education and socioeconomic status, the study also shows a narrowing of the gap between people of different tones (ie The most recent data in the study is from the MCSUI survey of 1994; there is much less of a "tonality gap" than the original data points which were collected in 1961).
Not that your article doesn't bring up a lot of valid points; I just think you picked the wrong set of data to support your case.
BTW: I got to this page from a link discussing colorism in reference to the AZ illegal immigration bill, so kudos for your contribution to social discourse...

This article is interesting because before I read it I honestly had no idea that magazines and newspapers changed the color of people's skin to to make them appear lighter or darker. I'm not sure about what that says about our culture, and I know that racism isn't gone in the United States, but what is it when you change the color of skin to get a different reaction from readers?

I think everything has been said. It is sad to see that we are fighting a losing battle even within our community. Here's my take : http://legallypresent.tumblr.com/post/3235337764/colorism-shading-between-the-lines

The article is a explanation of true black qwareness, some biases among blacks, lead to the beliefs or the whole populus that there is no unity. What a shame but it happens

The study by a doctoral student at the University of Georgia found skin tone more important than educational background for African-Americans seeking jobs, even if they have resumes superior to lighter-skinned black applicants.
Matthew Harrison presented his research Tuesday in Atlanta during the 66th annual meeting of the Academy of Management.
Harrison's research is believed to be the first significant study of "colorism" in the American workplace.
"We found that a light-skinned black male can have only a bachelor's degree and typical work experience and still be preferred over a dark-skinned black male with an MBA and past managerial positions, simply because expectations of the light-skinned black male are much higher, and he doesn't appear as 'menacing' as the darker-skinned male applicant," Harrison said.
While there have been other studies of effects of colorism socially, Harrison said his is the first designed specifically to examine how it operates in hiring and in the workplace.

As a bi-racial woman, black and Asian, who was raised afro-centric this hits home. But on the deepest level I feel dejected. Being light today does bring in some positive prejudice, but at the same time it makes you an outcast among other blacks.

read my blog on this topic, please

they think that black people are the ones who use the shade of a person’s skin to assess their worth, affording those with lighter skin better treatment and higher value. In fact, when Spike Lee released the film School Daze (a film in which light-skinned black women and dark-skinned black women battle),

Happy to see your blog as it is just what I've looking for and excited to read all the posts.I am very much interested on this topic.I want to visit the site for other interesting topics.

Feeling good to read your blog which has great information and keep sharing such blogs will like to follow you.

It is incredible how in any field, be it politics or entertainment there is racism and inequality. Your value as a person is based on your skin color and physical appearance.

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