How Colorism Privileges Light Skin Black Women

The term colorism describes social hierarchies that privilege light-skin people of color over their darker-skinned peers. I see colorism mentioned from time to time in stories about Black women actresses in Hollywood, for example, in this 2017 Teen Vogue article written by Tiffany Onyejiaka. For me the first time I think I noticed colorism in Hollywood was when I observed one of my favorite shows The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air switch out the dark-skinned actress Janet  Hubert with the lighter-skinned Daphne Reid.

Sociologist Margaret L. Hunter explores the ways skin tone predicts educational attainment, income, and marital status for Black American and Mexican American women in a study published in a 2002 issue of Gender & Society. In the article, Hunter provides background on how colonialism contributed to an association with beauty light skin, and beauty among Black and Chicana women. For both groups of women, light skin signals European ancestry, which society attributes more value and status to than dark skin because darker skin tones suggest indigenous or African heritage. In practice, this means European colonizers divided enslaved Africans based on skin tone in the U.S. while also differentiating among indigenous people and mixed-race Spaniards in Mexico.

Using Survey Data to Study the Effects of Colorism on Women of Color

According to Hunter, one reason why colorism continues today is because people of color have internalized the belief that lighter skin is more beautiful. Due to this belief, light skin women gain a more favorable reputation, status, and even access to social networks than do darker-skinned women. However, this privilege also has the danger of perpetuating white supremacy because it reinforces the belief that beauty comes from white European ancestry and not indigenous features. In some cultures the desire for the social rewards given to people with light skin has prompted women to use skin bleaching products.

Hunter used survey responses from two national studies: the 1980 National Chicano Survey and the 1980 National Survey of Black Americans. Hunter chose to measure if six different factors had an effect on three different outcomes for African-American and Mexican-American women. The six different factors included: skin color of the respondent, average years of education for the respondent’s mother, average years of education for the respondent’s father, the respondent’s age, the respondent’s marital status, and whether or not the respondent resided in an urban setting. Hunter wanted to know if these factors determined the years of education the respondent had completed, the average personal annual income of the respondent, and the years of education the respondent’s spouse had completed.

Light Skin Women Have More Years of Education

Hunter used a statistical procedure called regression analysis to measure the effect of skin color and other factors on the years of education Black American and Mexican American women completed. Hunter found a statistically significant effect on skin color for both groups of women. For each category, lighter women were on the five-point scale of skin tones Hunter used, the more education they had – about four more months worth at each level on average. According to Hunter, “this means that a woman described as very dark brown-skinned will have completed one less year of education than a very light brown-skinned woman with similar background characteristics” (p. 182).

Light Skin Black Women have Higher Amounts of Personal Income

Hunter also ran a regression analysis on the effect of skin color for average annual personal income. While Hunter did not find a statistically significant effect for Mexican American women, the results for Black women showed a statistically significant difference. Specifically, a lighter a Black woman was on the scale, the higher her income increased by about $673. This results in an outcome where a very light brown skin woman earns over $2600 annually compared to a very dark brown skin one of a similar background.

Light Skin Black Women Marry Spouses With Higher Levels of Education

Hunter did not find a statistically significant difference for Mexican American when it came to years of education earned by their spouses. Hunter speculated that this occurred due to Mexican-American men having a more similar educational background as a group than Black American men, since both groups tend to marry intraracially. Light skin Black women, however, date men with more years of education than do dark skin women. Each increment lighter a woman’s skin tone was on a scale equated to about four more additional months of education for her spouse. As a result, a married woman with very dark skin would have a spouse with entire year’s worth less education than the spouse of a married woman with very light skin.

What Hunter’s Research Means for Colorism Today

Hunter’s research brings important attention to how colorism privileges some women of color over others. Nevertheless, Hunter points out that this data comes from a data source from the late twentieth century. Additionally, Hunter acknowledges that colorism might be a factor for Mexican American women, but less so than other factors like immigration status or whether or not they were a native English speaker.

What would the outcomes look like today if we did similar surveys on Black and Mexican American people today? I imagine not much has changed since the 1980s. I think popular media and social media privileges a beauty standard that suggests women of color with light skin or European features are more desirable than dark-skinned women. Based on Hunter’s research, we should take seriously the idea that these privileges lead to inequality between women and could potentially undermine feminist solidarity.