Colorism vs. Racism: What’s the Difference?
Even within minority communities, discrimination persists in unexpected ways. If you’ve never heard of colorism, here’s what you need to know.
Most of us have learned to recognize racism when it rears its ugly head, but colorism often flies under the radar. In fact, you may have never heard that term, or if you have, you may not fully understand what it means. While it’s not quite the same thing as racism, it’s an extension of it and it’s inextricably linked to both institutional and systemic racism. So, what is colorism, exactly? It’s the idea that lighter skin is best, even within minority communities.
“Descendants of African slaves in the United States have been reared in a particular environment where standards of success, beauty, intelligence, and [others] that equate to a higher quality of life or achievement are equated to Whiteness,” explains Terrence T. Kidd, PhD, the director of the Center for Critical Race Studies at Southern University in Shreveport, Louisiana. “Consequently, for [people of the Diaspora] to feel significant and be accepted by this prevailing culture, we tend to adopt the practices of those who were in power in an attempt to feel more successful, palatable, and more accepting to White people.”
And this isn’t just an issue for Black people in America. Recently, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s film adaptation of In the Heights spurred accusations of colorism. While it’s based on a community in New York City’s Washington Heights that is known to have a diverse Latinx community, the film features predominantly White-passing and lighter-skinned Latinx actors in the lead roles. While this could have been unintentional and Miranda did apologize for it, Hollywood has a history of whitewashing and casting lighter-skinned actors, in general. And even if it was unintentional, that still likely speaks volumes about ingrained attitudes toward color.
While colorism is an incredibly complicated issue, it’s essential to acknowledge, identify, and understand. Those are the first small steps in fighting racism, whether you’re part of the affected communities or you want to be an ally. With that in mind, here’s what you need to know.
What’s the difference between racism and colorism?
Racism is often defined as the prejudice and discrimination that a marginalized minority group receives on the premise of their ethnic origin; it is generally upheld by systemic infrastructures within society. Colorism, on the other hand, describes the preferential treatment of people within a minority group based on their lighter skin tone. Where things get even trickier is that colorism, as mentioned, also often happens within a particular minority group. “Racism is more about systemic and system-based approaches to power, and the creation of power to maintain the influence to advance,” explains Kidd. “The concept of colorism, which is a form of internalized racism, is skin-based prejudice, often internal to communities of color, but not always the case, where the shade or hue of one’s skin complexion determines different levels of privilege.”
It’s not uncommon to see a high-profile celebrity change some part of their appearance, such as their nose, hair texture, or complexion, in an attempt to ascribe to particular notions of beauty or status. Sammy Sosa, Michael Jackson, and Lil’ Kim are just a few of the famous people who have made noticeable transitions to lighter skin colors. Magazines have also been known to edit the facial features, straighten the hair, and lighten the complexions of the talent on their covers for greater Eurocentric appeal.
According to Harvard sociology professor Ellis P. Monk, colorism is a complicated and intricate system of views upheld by those in charge. “Research shows that as darkness increases and Afrocentric appearance increases, so does the probability of being perceived as dangerous, incompetent, ugly, and much more,” he writes in the scholarly journal Daedalus. “To the extent that these biases are held by both Blacks and non-Blacks, the latter of whom may have powerful roles as gatekeepers (educators, police, physicians, bankers, real estate agents, and so on), and persist across generations resulting in cumulative advantages and disadvantages associated with skin tone.” He adds that “skin tone stratification” then leads to structural racism. We can see those repercussions in education, job advancement, the judicial system, and more. If you can’t remember your first Black teacher, that’s a related problem—and one of the reasons these issues continue to fester.
The origins of colorism
Colorism can be traced back to plantation life, according to Monk. The lighter-skinned “house negroes” were given certain privileges that their darker-skinned counterparts, who were often relegated to working in the fields, were not. Many lighter-skinned enslaved people were also the children of their slave masters, and due to their fairer complexions, they too began to internalize the idea that they were more privileged or of more value than their darker peers.
This division grew over time and had real consequences. Monk says that working in the house “dramatically increased the chance that lighter-skinned Black people (or mulattos) would be literate and trained in a trade. Also, the vast majority of the free Black population was composed of lighter-skinned Black and mulatto people. Despite the fact that after Emancipation, more opportunities opened up for Black people of all hues, the substantial social, educational, and economic advantages of lighter-skinned Black people undoubtedly gave these Black people an immense head start in relation to all other Black people.” That created a dynamic that we still see playing out today.
How Hollywood perpetuates colorism
Most casting directors and film directors are White. It therefore should not be surprising to learn that they give preferential treatment to “White-passing” lead talent when casting actors of color. That’s what may have happened when casting In the Heights. Even when this isn’t intentional, it’s not coincidental either—it’s systemic, and it’s part of the residue of racism. The problem is that the entertainment industry has long influenced the perceptions of the masses. Hollywood’s casting practices continue to affect how we see color in general, and thus what we value. But we can’t fully address the problem on-screen without addressing the reality that there are so few agents, casting directors, and film executives of color. While this is starting to change, we still have a long way to go.
Multiethnic actress Zendaya has publicly spoken out about colorism over the last few years, candidly acknowledging the privilege her own light complexion has bestowed upon her. “As a light-skinned Black woman, it’s important that I’m using my privilege, my platform to show you how much beauty there is in the African American community,” she said in a 2018 interview at the Beautycon Festival. “I am Hollywood’s, I guess you could say, acceptable version of a Black girl, and that has to change.”
And Game of Thrones‘ Nathalie Emmanuel got involved in a Twitter thread in 2019 where one fan said she’d make a great Tiana in an imagined adaptation of The Prince and the Frog. Her response? That the role would be better suited for a darker-skinned actress who was more like the actual cartoon character: “Nah, that part has to go to an even more melanated sister.” Amandla Stenberg, who uses they/them pronouns, has made similar comments about colorism in Hollywood and even revealed that they bowed out of the audition process for the role of Shuri in Black Panther because they felt the role should go to someone with darker skin.
What happens within communities of color
Spike Lee tackled colorism in a telling scene in his 1988 film School Daze, in which members of two opposing Black sororities square off in a dancing duel after hurling stereotypical caricatures about skin color at one another. At its root is the unspoken hierarchy of society, even within a seemingly singular group. Who is higher on this internalized and arbitrary ranking? Whose looks are more valid? Tellingly, part of the scene takes place in a hair salon, which has many cultural and historical connotations associated with communities of color. For many, hair texture is often used as a signifier of one’s proximity to whiteness.
All of this in-fighting may seem strange to some, but it has roots in psychology and history. According to scholars like Monk, the enslaved and their descendants began to internalize and adapt the very thought patterns that were projected onto them by their owners way back when. Consequently, clashes between darker-skinned and lighter-skinned members within ethnic and cultural groups became the norm. This began to affect all aspects of life, including marriage—and it continues to do so today. “While studies conflict over whether Black women prefer lighter-skinned Black men,” writes Monk, “all of the recent studies find that dark-skinned Black women are consistently passed over for marriage by middle- to high-status Black males. In fact, studies show that darker-skinned Black women tend to marry spouses with a full year less education than lighter-skinned Black women.”
Monk also cites a plethora of studies beyond the Black community, across various minority demographics—all with a disturbing commonality. Darker-skinned members of the Hispanic, Latinx, and Asian American communities also tend to be stigmatized, which subsequently leads to inequalities in education, wages, the criminal justice system, and more.
While there isn’t an easy solution to this problem, we’re at least starting to have the right conversations about it, and that’s a big step in the right direction. To expand your knowledge, check out these enlightening documentaries and essential books about race relations in America.
- Terrence T. Kidd, PhD, the director of the Center for Critical Race Studies at Southern University
- Daedalus: “The Unceasing Significance of Colorism: Skin Tone Stratification in the United States”
- HuffPost: “Zendaya on Colorism: ‘I Am Hollywood’s Acceptable Version of a Black Girl’”
- Shadow and Act: “‘Game Of Thrones’ Star Nathalie Emmanuel Shows Solidarity With Darker-Skinned Actresses By Refusing Princess Tiana Fancasting”