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Colorism as an Act of Discrimination in the United States Research Paper

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Updated: May 7th, 2019


Colorism is an act of discrimination in which people are treated differently in accordance to their skin color. This practice began during the slavery period where dark skinned blacks were forced to work in fields while the lighter-skinned blacks were forced to work as house helps. Many years down the line, it is true to everyone that the lighter skinned were thought to be the best and got better treatment in different fields of life such as at work and in school.

Colorism is then a situation whereby one color is considered first while others follow. Many people believe that the light-skinned people discriminate against the dark skinned people. It is unbelievable that color means a lot in jobs, education, and income and in relationships. In addition, the light-skinned females are considered first in any offer all other persons. Consequently, it comes that the upper class are the light-skinned, mostly women and the lower class are the darker skinned, mostly men.

In the United States, colorism is one of the practices that have remained since centuries ago in the slavery period. The blacks were discriminated against the whites. In the United States, colorism has resulted to different classes of people. Colorism has advanced since then and it can now be seen happening between different colors in the society. In addition, this practice has grown in the whole world and each human being has the fate of colorism but the big problem remains on whom to blame (Hall, 2008).


History of colorism

Skin color discrimination began during the slave trade. Slaves were transported from West Africa through the Atlantic Ocean to America where they worked in farms of the Europeans. This in its own was a form of color discrimination as the light skinned Americans could not be engaged in the hard labor.

The dark skinned Africans who were enslaved and were the ones to do the heavy duties on the farms. The Europeans did not want to make the Americans work since they looked at them as being closer to them in terms of skin color. This kind of colorism traced to a number of centuries ago (Hall, 2003).

Africans suffered a lot because of the whites. At that time, the Americas were under control of the Europeans. It is very clear that colorism began in America and that is the reason it is in real practice in the U.S. to date. In the fields, there was specialization of labor.

The Specialization led to the categorization of workers into two groups where we had the field workers who remained in the fields cultivating and digging and the house-helps who worked in the houses of the field owners (Johnson, 2003). The fieldwork was considered more hectic than any other work in the farms.

While assigning employees different works, color was the key factor that was utilized. The dark skinned Africans had to work the hard way in the white farms as the light skinned worked as house helps. The reason for the latter was that the light-skinned Africans were more similar to the slave owners while the dark skinned Africans were thought to be threatening. As time went by, the light skinned Africans had a better socio-economic life as compared to the dark skinned Africans who remained poor (Hall, 2008).

Colorism in America (light versus the dark)

As seen earlier, it is evident that the United States is one of the nations that have a long history on colorism. This began with the slave trade and slavery. Blacks were captured from Africa and taken to the U.S to work in the farms of the Europeans. In the “brown paper bag test,” that was used to examine discrimination, Africans and Americans were examined and it was revealed that the blacks were discriminated against.

It was found out from the research that in the job market, colorism was highly prevalent. The results of the research showed that a light-skinned woman with a bachelor’s degree is likely to be shortlisted for a typical job than a dark-skinned woman with a master’s degree in a given field and with long experience in the job.

The criterion followed in this case is not expertise but which color. In colleges and universities, leaders in the organizations are mostly light skinned and even as selection of those joining various institutions is conducted, color plays a key role as the light skinned join the best colleges and universities. The dark skinned with no option join lower class institutions that experience racial differences (Shrage & Spickard, 1998).

In the U.S., colorism has also been displayed in the drama and movie sector. The lighter skinned are portrayed to be more superior to the dark-skinned characters. Many media bodies try to choose lighter-skinned people in advertising, movie acting and in television programs. It is uncertain that in movie acting, this practice has been most prevalent.

Dark-skinned people are depicted to be less intelligent and they are mostly used as betrayers of other characters or the victims of the un-pleasing actions. For instance, in the play “Homicide: Life on the Street,” the light skinned officers James C. Harris, the District commissioner, and Colonel George Barnfather are seen discriminating against the main character Baltimore Police Lieutenant Al Giardello.

The officers are high in authority but they discriminate against Al Giardello because he is dark skinned. Beauty has also been viewed with some racial stereotypes about color. The lighter skinned are considered being the best while dark-skinned people are perceived as ugly. This kind of discrimination has resulted to other bad practices such as skin bleaching. Young women are involved in most cases of skin bleaching and the main reason they give is that they want to be beautiful (Kerr, 2006).

In measuring the economic statuses of people, most of the wealth is measured based on the side of the lighter-skinned. These kinds of results have been depicted year after year and it raises questions to why this method and yet there is no colorism in this. What comes out as a cause of this kind of wealth distribution is that light-skinned people tend to have more networks that are positive and more chances of succeeding than the blacks. Even with inheritance as a cause of the wealth gap, it is also clear that color is a key factor contributing to this.

It would be impossible to consider the light skinned first and then you expect the dark skinned person to have more income. Another area where color discrimination comes out openly is in criminal sentencing. In this, the brown and the dark skinned are likely to be given longer sentences than the light skinned and yet they have committed the same crime.

In cases where the victims of some crimes are to be punished, the dark skinned are likely to receive severe punishment than the light skinned with the idea that the latter are of higher value (Durr & Hill, 2006).

In recent years, it has been established that the sales of the skin bleaching products has increased rapidly. Due to many positive treatments towards light-skinned people, many dark skinned people are compelled to use skin bleaches so that they can change their color. For instance, we can see Michael Jackson, the late, who by his time of death he was whiter more than many whites. He was at one time a brown person with a smaller nose than those of whites.

He later changed his look to look as whites in order to receive similar opportunities as light-skinned people and whites. This was a threatening thing happening and most of the black were in disbelief. Many dark skinned people have perceived color bleaching positively and they think it will give them a solution to their many color discrimination problems (Kerr, 2006).

Politically, the best leaders and highest-ranking leaders in the government are the whites. Janis Inness’s who says, “if you are black, get back, if you are brown stick around, if you are light you are alright” is clearly depicted in the politics of U.S. large number of African Americas who are or were prominent politicians are very light skinned. Some of these include Eric Holder, David Peterson, Deval Patrick, Malcolm X and the current president Barrack Obama.

President Obama was capable of getting the seat as the president of the United States because he is light skinned and he had no good Negro dialect. Many however denied this and they said that they got leaders with leadership qualities. Many of the voters do not mind casting their votes to the “right.” This has been unpleasant to the dark skinned since in time immemorial and they have been fighting tooth to neck to ensure that all people are treated same in disregard of skin color (Hall, 2008).

In a case, we see the Black Power Movement of the 1960’s when James Brown came out openly and said, “Say it loud- I’m black and I’m proud.” It was however very clear that the efforts of the blacks were only for some time. Many dark skinned supported James and they fought for equality.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s the blacks were supreme and they could fight for their rights. Within that period, both colors were treated equally in schools and at workplaces. This led to some dark skinned people rise politically, economically and socially. Despite these changes towards equality, after the 1970’s life became as usual with the light skinned being considered first (Johnson, 2003).

The Skin Color Paradox is an act that deals with blackness. It deals with blacks’ issues economically, politically and socially. This issue began during colonization of America in 17th century with the fact that the lighter skinned, the dark skinned were treated differently, and they both seemed to have different experiences.

It opts for a situation whereby the political preferences are similar and the African Americans can benefit from the governments just like the others. The paradox has one of its important issues as the Affirmative Action. Most of the aid to support education has been directed towards the light skinned and that is why most of the families with light-skinned people are more educated than the families of the dark skinned people.

What has been happening is that most aid has been directed to the light-skinned portion of the blacks leaving behind the dark skinned blacks. This has been targeted at confusing the blacks that they are all treated similarly and yet the lighter skinned are the only ones who are benefiting. This has made the dark skinned to remain poor and un-educated (Shrage & Sartwell, 1998).

Brazil has the greatest number of people with African ancestry as compared to other nations in South America and North America. The reason for this is related to the slave period when slaves were transported from West Africa to work in white farms in the state. Since then, the social status of the dark skinned has remained low compared to that of the light skinned.

According to Hall 2008, ”the light skinned are more racially nixed and they interact fully hence they have higher rates of social mobility than the dark skinned” (p.67). It is the worry of the dark skinned that discrimination based on color that has been in place some thousands of years ago is still in practice today. What has changed is that the disparities in education, health and income have increased between the two. In Mexico and Brazil, light skin stand for authority (Hall, 2008).

This discrimination is high to the extent that some positions cannot be held by the dark skinned. They are considered more attractive than the dark skinned females and thus they are involved in acting to attract customers. These forms of discrimination in the latter states have resulted to uneven distribution of wealth with more of it on the side of the light-skinned (Rondilla & Spickard, 2007).

Colorism in other parts of the world

No matter how the dark skinned are discriminated against in America, Africans are also victims of the same discrimination. When looking at the rapidly rising film industry in Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa, it is evident that most of the characters are the light-skinned Africans. They most people perceive the light skinned as beautiful compared to ugly blacks. It would sound ironical that the blacks are in a position to discriminate amongst them because of skin color.

This reveals clearly that skin color is a vital factor to consider not only in Africa but also in the entire world. It can also be seen with discrimination of Italians who are mostly dark skinned due to interactions with the Africans in the north. Arabs are also seen as inferior because of their dark skins. The big issue remains on Africans and Arabs because if they also see the light skinned as superior and more powerful, then it could be very difficult for the light skinned to deny this big privilege (Durr & Hill, 2006).

In Tanzania, a country in eastern Africa, the sale of skin bleaching products has been banned. This step has been taken by the government in concern with the rising cases of skin cancer and other fatal infections. Women in this country have their own belief that beauty comes with cost. In addition they are sure that beauty is on the skin and the light skinned are the most beautiful.

The women have had complains that the light skinned are put in consideration first and this is what has led to many women using the skin bleaching products (Johnson, 2003). The sales of these products have been increasing rapidly in the recent past. This has provided markets for countries like France, Ireland and United Kingdom that are households of the bleaches.

The government in Tanzania has banned most of these imported products. Following the Tanzania’s government step, other countries in Africa have also begun banning use of these bleaching products. In addition, the government in Tanzania has set programs to educate people on what is beauty and helping them to understand their complexion. It is expected that by 2015 the country will have minority cases of bleaching (Hall, 2008).

One of the big and unpleasing encounters that greatly affected the people in Liberia was slave trade whereby the nationalities were captured and taken to slavery by the Europeans.

This caused a great enmity between the Africans and the Europeans. Despite the rivalry between the Americans and the Africans, the Americans held the big positions. This clearly shows that the color issue is at work. The light-skinned people in Liberia have also received education and work hence higher living standards. The dark skinned have little education and yet they are the natives of the country.

The Europeans were the initiators of slave trade in this country and they made many families break, increased sufferings among the people and increased inhumanity such as kidnappings. With this, it is very unrealistic that the Liberians see the light skinned as powerful. In addition, they also view the light skinned as beautiful and yet they were their enemies during slave trade (Kerr, 2006).

In many countries in the world, when it comes to beauty competitions, the light-skinned people are the ones who mostly win beauty contests. Women going for these competitions apply a lot of makeup to make their skin light. Light-skinned females are perceived to be most beautiful.

In many colleges and universities in America, the most beautiful girls are light skinned. Even in lower class institutions of learning, the light skinned are perceived as the most beautiful. When it comes to marriage, dark skinned black Americans have greater chances of marrying a light-skinned black American as a sign of upper mobility. In doing this, the dark skinned person is seen to be successful by others.

Color discrimination has also been practiced in the music industry. Many of the rap stars in the U.S. use light skinned people in their videos and on labeling their CDs. In addition, the light-skinned American artists are at an advantage of marketing their music with high sales compared to a dark skinned musician (Shrage & Sartwell, 1998).

Recent data shows that the dark skinned have a higher death rate as compared to the light skinned. There are many reasons given contributing to this. First, the dark skinned are given less attention in health centers. Many of them are also poor and cannot cater for their treatment bills.

The dark skinned are work heftily and thus they end up weakening early. In another case it was seen that the lighter skinned Latinos in the United States made over five thousand dollars more on average than darker skinned Latinos. The education gap between the light skinned and the dark skinned is equally same to the gap between the blacks and the whites (Kerr, 2006).

In south Asia, colorism is one of the biggest issues most countries such as China and India. The nationalities are possessed with the idea that the light skinned are the most beautiful. In both countries, the number of the dark skinned people is high but it becomes hard to see any one of them in films as actors.

Most of the actors are light-skinned women or women who have applied a lot of makeup so that their skin may be light. For instance, actor Bipasha Basu who is dark skinned than a number of the Indian actors has been seen applying makeup to make her skin light.

In addition, her pictures have been airbrushed for the same latter reason. The individuals who are light skinned and mostly in the British India territory gained preferences in education and in employment thus making them rich with high living conditions (Johnson, 2003). Dark-skinned persons were discriminated against both socially and economically. This led them to live a poor lifestyle and in low living standards.

Also in East Asia, the same kind of discrimination has been seen. In ancient Japan for instance, the goddesses they drew and worshipped were light skinned. The light skin is also viewed to be a sign of wealth. This makes the skin whitening products to be in high demand and use in Asia. Hong Kong, Malaysia and South Korea are the ones with the high markets of the skin whitening products (Durr & Hill, 2006).

In the Arab world, colorism has been seen in practice. In Sudan, most of the people in northern part are Arabs characterized by a light skin. The people in south Sudan are dark skinned. This has resulted in much chaos in the past whereby the southerners were complaining of more wealth being accumulated to the light-skinned north. Employment opportunities were also set first for the latter. Moreover, much of the developments as setting up new institutions of learning was done on the side of the light skinned.

These caused great wars between the two where over one thousand people were killed. Recently, this has forced the country to have two governments, one in north Sudan and the other in southern Sudan. Colorism is therefore a cause of great enmity among the nationalists in Sudan (Hall, 2008).

Middle-Class Lower Class in the United States

Based on color, people living in the United States have been put in two classes such as the middle class and the upper class. This type of classification is only meant to make sure that the middle class benefits from the lower class with all possible means, in either behaviors, policies of the land and other practices.

It is unfortunate that these classes are not in the U.S alone but also in other developed countries. In looking at the middle class in United States, they are further divided into two groups, the lower middle class and the upper middle class.

The lower middle class are mostly the house helps that are light skinned. They are about 30 per cent of the population in the United States. The upper middle class are mostly semi-professionals such as accountants, schoolteachers and people from technical colleges. The latter mostly own a bachelor’s degree or a diploma from colleges. They are the same individuals who mostly went to good colleges and universities and they are mostly the light-skinned (Kerr, 2006).

The upper middle class is 15 per cent of the population in the U.S. the working conditions of these people are favorable and their work is not hectic as in most cases it is computerized. They also work for less hours and get high wages. The high wages mean that their living standards are high.

They are also involved in other activities since they have a lot of free time. In addition, there jobs have securities. These are the light skinned and they will also be the ones to afford quality schools for their children and therefore the trend continues (Rondilla & Spickard, 2007).

The lower class are also categorized into, the working class and the poor. These people are mostly the dark skinned and they are generally described with lower living standards and have poor working conditions. The lower class is also perceived to work for longer hours but only earning little incomes. The middle class benefit from the works of these lower class people. For instance, a person working in a firm of an accountant will work for longer hours than the boss will and yet he or she ends up getting fewer wages than the boss gets.

In another case, the drivers of public vehicles work for almost half a day or more hours of a day and they end up earning less as compared to teachers who work for few hours. The work of the lower class is also hectic, as it requires more of manual power. This people cannot afford quality education for their children and thus they continue being poor and generating wealth to the light skinned the middle class (Hall, 2003).

The first group of the lower class is the working class. These in most cases have reached the qualification of secondary school education (Rondilla & Spickard, 2007). They are around 43 per cent of the population.

There jobs have no securities and they have very closed routines making them unable to engage in other activities. They are just living slightly above the poverty line. The poor class is characterized by limited participation in labor force. Most of them do not qualify for any type of labor. They live below poverty line and earn less than a dollar per day.

Some of them have secondary education. Moreover, some of them are illiterate. These people, the poor are currently 12 per cent of the population in the United States. Most of these people depend on aid from the government and other non-governmental organizations. Their children in most cases miss the basic education in the United States. This simply means that the future of their children will also be dark and hopeless. Therefore, the cycle remains that the poor continue being poor while the rich continue being rich (Hall, 2008).


Colorism is one of the many types of discrimination in practice in the world. In the United States, this has been shown in various ways. Since the slavery period, colorism has remained there in the United States.

It began there with the Africans been used as slaves. The dark skin was been abused as they were separated from their families and denied their basic rights. Since the Europeans were ruling the Americas, they should have used them as workers in the farms, but on contrary, they opted for the darks simply because the Americas skin looked more like theirs.

The dark skinned Africans were also put to do the heavy and hectic duties in the farms while the light-skinned Africans worked as house helps. Although in the 1960’s and 1970’s the blacks fought for equality, it only took a number of years and the same culture continued. This has led to classism in the United States where we have the middle class and the lower class.

The middle class is characterized by high living standards, high prestige and job securities. On the contrary, the lower class is characterized by poor working conditions, low education, some living below the poverty level and low living standards.

Most of the middle class are the light skinned who are given the first priority in schools and in employment. In other countries, they have perceived the light skinned to be superior, beautiful and wealthy. In most of the films acted in Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, India and china, most of the characters used are light skinned.

This is also seen in the music industry in the United States whereby the celebrities and the most grown rappers are the light skinned. This has led to use of skin whitening products in the entire world. Each woman wants to be seen as beautiful and thus is why they end up using the bleaches. This has been with an example of Tanzania where the government has resolved by banning some of the bleaches exported due to increased cases of skin cancers among users.


Durr, M. & Hill. A. (2006). Race, work, and family in the lives of African. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.

Hall, H. (2008). Racism in the 21st century: an empirical analysis of skin. New York: Springer.

Johnson, R.K. (2003). Mixed race America and the law: a reader. New York: NYU Press.

Kerr, A.E. (2006).The paper bag principle: class, colorism, and rumor and the case of Black Washington. Washington, DC: University of Tennessee Press.

Rondilla, J.L. & Spickard, P.R. (2007). Is lighter better?: skin-tone discrimination among Asian Americans. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.

Shrage, C. & Sartwell, C. (1998). Race, class, gender, and sexuality: the big questions. New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell.

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