Female Colorism: A look at racial perception and division

Bruce Walton

Am I really black? How black am I? Why can’t I be darker? Or lighter? Can someone be “blacker” or “whiter” than others in my race? Should I try to be lighter? Should I get a tan to make myself darker?

These may be off-putting and damaging questions, but they are what many black women may ask themselves during their lifetimes while finding their racial identity. This is due to the sociological phenomenon known as colorism, which causes a lack in positive self and peer image in black culture.

What is Colorism?

Colorism, a term coined in 1982 by Alice Walker, author of “The Color Purple,” is defined as “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color.”

Its origins in black culture are historically believed to be from the time of slavery in America, when slave owners divided African slaves into two groups: house and field slaves. It’s also been linked to the preferential treatment that offspring of slave owners and slaves received on plantations in the American South.

“My understanding of it is that it’s very much rooted in the history of slavery in this country and enslavement,” said Nicole Rousseau, an associate professor of sociology and advisor for Kent State’s Black United Students. “And there were many efforts that were made amongst the European owners of enslaved people to separate people from one another who could communicate, who spoke the same languages and came from the same regions.”

The African slaves’ ideals of beauty, appeal and intelligence were assimilated through this sociological process, Rousseau said, and ultimately it carried over into black culture after slavery. For black women, she said, the thought is that someone with European characteristics and lighter skin tones are smarter, better looking or appealing, and those with more African characteristics and darker skin are savage, unintelligent and ignorant. This all perpetuated by the generations of more than just racial hierarchy, Rousseau said but also due to the capitalist, patriarchal society.

Rousseau said she doesn’t agree with the definition or term “colorism.” The term “colorism,” she said, is a misnomer of black culture. It is an issue she’d refer to as internalized racism because it affects more than just black people.


Sociologically, self-image isn’t necessarily how women see themselves, Rousseau said, but rather how others perceive them. She believes society is beginning to embrace African features and obsessing less on European features in recent decades.

However, Rousseau said there is still a lot to improve, especially on the depictions of the form, both in terms of external body image and internal perception, of black women.

Because of the representation in news, media, entertainment and perpetuating stereotypes within black culture, Rousseau said many black women find it difficult to consider themselves beautiful in their shades. She said that as a black girl growing up in a society like this, many women are faced with backhanded compliments and blatant insults about their shade or darkness.

Nya Coleman, a freshman broadcast journalism major said it took her years to be comfortable in her own skin.

“I was bullied a lot and for me, people said that I talked ‘proper’ or ‘talked like a white girl,’” Coleman said. “And I’m just thinking ‘Oh, well then, what am I supposed to be? Is being black being ‘ghetto’ or being ‘I want to be a thug?’ But I’m not about that life.”

Nya said she was very uncomfortable with her racial identity until her sophomore year of high school, and she is not the only one.

While in high school with two black female friends, Iniah Dunbar, a freshman exploratory major, said she was having a conversation about a race but was told she wouldn’t know because she was “too light to be dark and too dark to be light.”

“Well I’m in the middle of the spectrum,” Dunbar said. “I’m sitting here and I’m trying to understand what both of you are going through, but when you’re telling me I’m not light enough to deserve this and I’m not dark enough to deserve this then how does that make me feel? That makes me feel less than you guys, like I don’t have a place to belong.”

Dunbar said she doesn’t like to be put in a box, but if she were to be put in one, she’d want to feel just as special as her friends did when they had excluded her from the conversation.

Colorism in Movies / Entertainment

Colorism is a societal problem in black culture but one of its worst obstacles is in the form of entertainment and movies, said journalism and pan-African studies associate lecturer Traci Williams.

When she was growing up, Williams said she would see very little representation of black actors and actresses, but if there were, she’d witness a significant change in the character’s complexion if their actors left and were replaced. One example she remembered distinctively was Aunt Viv from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” portrayed by Janet Hubert, who was replaced by a lighter-skinned actress, Daphne Reid.

“I didn’t really think of it back then, but as I do research as a scholar and looking at interviews by some of the actors who were removed from the show or replaced,” Williams said, “It was about color and how the audience thought this character was too dark (or light).”

Williams said casting is also a very discriminating field that required women to be a specific shade of black, with light skinned actresses earning lead roles and darker skinned actresses as side or antagonist roles.

According to the 2014 Hollywood Diversity Report conducted by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, as late as 2011 the majority of director’s, writers, lead actors of movies and TV shows are typically white males, with less than a quarter represented by women or any racial minorities.

Colorism in Media and News

Eugene Shelton, an associate journalism professor, said he suggests people should read between the lines of forms of media and news. When the media wants to show African Americans, they will usually show them as criminals, Shelton said. The media, he said, furthers this notion by looking specifically for stereotyped characters, whether it’s darker skinned persons or obese comedians.

And when people are comfortable with stereotypes, Shelton said, they have a problem because no one should ever be comfortable with stereotypes.

“If you are being presented on the 6 o’clock news as a people who constantly are known for social disorder, causing conflict, that’s not a good thing too,” Shelton said. “That’s why white and black America see the OJ Simpson case, look at Ferguson Missouri, and see the same thing and look at it totally different.”

Changing Shades

Coleman said she, like many black women, wished she were lighter skinned since she was in middle school.

“Because all the boys liked the light skinned girls, they all liked the mixed girls and I’m just over here, the 100 percent black girl,” she said. “Nobody wanted me, they thought I was ugly and that’s how I was written off.”

This affected her love life, also, and she only dated white men. To this day, she said she usually does not date black men. However she has more confidence in herself, she encourages other black girls to see the beauty in themselves and that they are wanted.

Contact Bruce Walton at [email protected].