Colorism: Does Skin Complexion Determine Our Status in Society?


DNA has become one of the most important aspects in our daily lives. It is our genetic makeup that tells everything about us such as: eye and hair color, height, gender, and skin complexion. In 2008, Americans have been obsessed with DNA regarding murder cases, paternity testing and ancestry heritage. DNA determines our skin complexion then who determines our ethnic association and status in society?  When skin complexion becomes an important factor in our lives then we are blinded by a new kind of racism called Colorism.

Colorism has been around ever since miscegenation between black and white races. It differs from any form of racism because it is tension among a certain group of people: “More simply, colorism is “the tendency to perceive or behave towards members of racial category based on the lightness or darkness of their skin tone” (Hochschild).When white slave owners used to have sexual intercourse with their slaves; they would breed fair skinned children. This was seen as blasphemy in the eyes of the master and his mistress. Social Scientists were confused about how to characterize these new breed of people. The “One Drop Rule” was established to separate and classify biracial people into one category. The “One Drop Rule” states if you have one drop of black blood in you then you are considered black. “With the advent of DNA testing that claims to trace ancestry back to specific African tribes, and a growing rejection of the one-drop rule that said anyone with even one drop of “black blood” was black, the question of what makes you black or white is more complex than ever” (Thomas).

This rule was racially charged because if the mother or father are black then the child will inherit the trait of one of their parents even if they the lightest skin. If they have one drop of black blood then they are automatically identified as black.

Biracial were all identified as black then it was up to the black community to decide what their identity or stereotype will plague them for the rest of their lives. In the book don’t Play in the Sun, author Marita Golden explains how black people defines social acceptance based upon physical descriptions and with these names it pigeonholes biracial and dark skinned people to determine their worth.

And then there are the more specific descriptive terms that separate blacks and

create castes , and cliques , and that are ultimately definitions not of color but of

culturally defined beauty and ugliness, and that can end up distributing

everything from power to wealth to love.  High yellow, high yella, saffron

                        octoroon , quadroon, redbone, light brown, black as tar, coal, blue-veined,

                        café’ au lait, pinkie, blue-black (Golden 7).

These labels create strife and status placement among African Americans and it continues to taunt and mirrors their progression throughout life. The division between light-skinned and dark-skinned African Americans has been battle of two groups trying to achieve the same goal. Light-skinned African Americans seem to have more access to resources and opportunities than dark-skinned African Americans.

Dark-skinned blacks in the United States have lower socioeconomic status,

more punitive relationship with the criminal justice system, diminished

prestige, and less likelihood of holding elective office compared with their

lighter counterparts (Hochchild 643).

Dark-skinned blacks have been at a disadvantage and were always view in the media as savages. They always have to work much harder and more qualified than the average light-skinned applicant. Even though colorism is ancient mythical history some of rules and shame is still attached skin color. Skin complexion still plays an important role in selecting qualified applicants for job positions. Meanwhile light-skinned African-Americans can use their “white privilege” to overcome the many “extra” qualifications that a job may require. On the other the darker skinned applicants have to be overqualified just to be considered for the job. “We found that a light-skinned Black male can have only a bachelor’s degree and typical work experience and be referred over a dark- skinned Black male with an MBA and past managerial positions… (Shipka 20). If you break these two groups down the light-skinned Blacks (Dominant) have more availability to resources than the dark skinned Blacks (Subordinate). There is a power struggle for jobs, equality, housing and most of all status in recognition in society.

Colorism has recently appeared in politics and how we choose our leaders. Biracial African Americans seem to get elected to more prestigious political position than dark-skinned Blacks.

“People with lighter skin are overrepresented among elected political elites” (Hochschild 650).

Dark-skinned politicians are seen as angry and too aggressive, while light-skinned politicians and leaders are praised for taking matters into their own hands. Dark-skinned politicians and leaders such as Fannie Lou Hamer are criticized for being too rough and uneducated to achieve success. “..Fannie Lou Hamer was too black and too angry and too country to achieve the icon status her sacrifice and hard work should have earn her (Golden 14).

The 2008 Presidential Campaign Barack Obama, an Illinois senator, is running for President of the United   States. African American community always wanted this moment to have a Black president in office. Unfortunately, colorism has blinded some African Americans to consider Obama not apart of the African American community. “Some African Americans think Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., isn’t really Black. Anyone with unimpaired vision can see that he is” (Cooper). Why some African Americans wish not to identify Obama as a black man? Senator Obama is fairly light-skinned because his mother is white and his father is black. His education and experience background carries a lot of credentials and he has execellent oral communication skills. Yet, some African Americans do not think he should be classified as a Black man. Although the one drop rule suggest that one drop makes you black; however, one drop in African American community does not make you black enough. “People who identify themselves as African American are disassociating themselves from someone who is half African. What sense does that make? It used to be ”one drop” of Black blood made you Black. Now being half Black is not enough? (Cooper). Civil Rights leaders such as Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Rosa Parks, Huey Newton and Coretta Scott King were all fair skinned and were not questioned about their race. They recognized by their contributions and sacrifices for the civil rights movement. Colorism takes our focus off the mission and concentrates on the person.

Another historical political moment came in 2006 when Harold Ford Jr. decided to run for Tennessee Senator. Ford family has been the powerful political family in Memphis, Tennessee. The name Ford carries so much positive and negative weight around the political arena. When Harold Ford Jr. decided to talk about his heritage during his campaign; it became a divided issue among his family. He announced that his grandmother Vera Ford is white ,however some of other family members  declared that she is identified as black. “The race of Vera Ford, the paternal grandmother of U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr., came up when Harold Jr. declared she was white while campaigning for the U.S. Senate in Tennessee” (Thomas).

The debate became heated over what is Vera’s race. Her daughter Barbara claims that Vera is a black woman and was highly respected in Memphis. She married N.J Ford a Black man and had many children. What was Harold Ford’s logic of revealing his white ancestry in his political campaign? Commercial Appeal reporter Wendy Thomas, who wrote the article Even in the Ford Family, reported that this major decision may have cost him his votes in the White community. “In fact, it could drive some white voters away, because it reminds them of the tortured relations that created these mixed-race children and the prejudices the issue dredges up” (Thomas). Whatever the reason was for Harold Ford Jr. to acknowledge his ancestry; the debate over race becomes a divided issue even in the most political powerful family in Tennessee. The problem continues to have the same issue that which social acceptance of one’s mixed race and personal acceptance of one’s ancestry.

As the old ancient saying “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. Everybody tries to shape their faces and bodies to become socially accepted. What if the images on television reflect a certain type of people? What if the cover of the magazines only highlighted one distinctive race or fair complexion person? This beauty concept of “if you are white your right” and “if you are black get back” has haunted the African American community since the beginning to the television age but most of all Black women have been the main target of this ideology. In the early 1920 actress and singer Lena Horne became a cultural icon during the Harlem Renaissance. She was very beautiful, talented and most of all fairly light-skinned. Ironically, she was widely accepted by White viewers unknowingly realizing that she too is Black. “When black women actresses like Lena Horne appeared in mainstream cinema most white viewers were not aware that they were looking at black females unless the film was specifically coded as being about blacks” (Hooks 119). Another acceptable character in mainstream media was Dorothy Dandridge a fair-skinned actress that oozes sexual appeal. In her breakout role in Carmen Jones, Dandridge was temptress that caught the eye of a solider. Her character became acceptable to play opposite of Harry Belafonte. Meanwhile, filmmakers used another test called the brown paper test and this proved if your skin was darker than the brown paper bag; you were disqualified. Light-skinned women were labeled as timid and submissive to authority. “Light-skinned slaves-particularly women-were considered “gentler, kinder, more handsome, smarter, and more delicate” than darker-skinned slaves” (Goodwine). This display of favoritism toward light-skinned women is still going on today in entertainment business. HalleBerry, Beyonce’ and Alicia Keys are successful black women in the Entertainment Industry and has been accepted by people of all cultural backgrounds.  On  the other hand the stereotype of dark- skinned women still remains in the same category as being angry, unacceptable and most of all evil.

Unlike light-skinned women, dark-skinned women had to overcome harder adversities than their competitor. Hattie McDaniel is a prime example on how America sees dark skinned women. McDaniel was a heavy Black woman with an amazing gift of acting but she was cast into role as the mammy or maid to the rich Scarlet O’Hara The mammy was not attractive, lacked sex appeal, and her body was covered in undesirable clothing. This is the image that was seen by so many people and widely acceptable for dark-skinned black women.  McDaniel was the first black woman to ever win an academy award but she played degrading role that type cast black women.  Actress HalleBerry wins best actress for Monster’s Ball in 2002 playing an undesirable role in which she has sexual intercourse with a White male.  These two examples still operates off of “the gaze” other groups wish to identify African Americans. Many dark-skinned girls have always been taught to not play in the sun. The myth was your skin will become dark and nobody would want to date you. Before the “Black is Beautiful” movement Blackness was seen as ugly and evil. Kiri Davis a seventeen-year-old filmmaker recently did the experiment with the two dolls and these dolls were black and white. This experiment was done fifty years ago by Kenneth Clark who first tried it for the Brown v. Board of Education case. Even today little black girls still see white dolls as beautiful and easy to identify with. In the film Davis asks the little girl which doll she would prefer and this was the result

Can you show me the doll that you like best?” Davis asked a black girl in the film. The girl picked the white doll immediately. When asked to show the doll that “looks bad,” the girl chose the black doll. But when Davis asked the girl, “Can you give me the doll that looks like you?” the black girl first touched the white doll and then reluctantly pushed the black doll ahead (Feng).

Even I have struggled with acceptance of my skin color with all the media images, teachings and stigma attached. I always thought Blackness was socially unacceptable and I had to work harder to prove myself. I have always thought that my complexion would overshadow my talents and qualifications. At one point in my life I wish to have lighter skin just to be loved because I saw popular figures like Janet and Mariah who has had success in the business. They were the ones who grace the covers of Ebony and Jet magazine. I thought that is what society wants me to be. As I grew older and began to recognize social institutions, classism and racism then it came to me that this image is nothing more than a fallacy. This image is not real but a form of control to make me mutilate my body and to be accepted by others. Colorism is disease that is slowly destroying the Black community and it a skin-deep issue that breeds self-hatred.


Banerji, Shilpa. “Study: Darker-Skinned Black Job Applicants Face More Obstacles.”

Diverse Issues in Higher Education 23:16 InfoTrac. U of Memphis Lib., 26 Feb. 2008

Cooper, Kenneth. “Questions About Obama’s Race Defy Logic.” Online posting. 14 Feb.2007

9 Apr 2008


Feng, Yuqing. “Why Black Girls Still Prefer White Dolls.”  9 Apr. 200s

Golden, Marita. Don’t Play in the Sun One Woman’s Journey Through the Color Complex.

New York: Doubleday, 2004.

Goodwine, Nina. “The Legacy of the Brown Bag.” The Hilltop  16 Sept 2005. 9 Apr. 2008

Hochschild, Jennifer L., and Vesla Weaver. “The skin color paradox and the American racial

order.(Report).” Social Forces 86.2 (Dec 2007): 643(28). Academic OneFile. Gale. University of Memphis. 15 Apr. 2008

Hooks, Bell. Black Looks race and representation. Boston, South End Press, 1987.

Thomas, Wendy. “Even in the Ford Family, Race divides generations.” Commerical

Appeal19 March 2006. 27 February 2008


2 thoughts on “Colorism: Does Skin Complexion Determine Our Status in Society?

  1. Pingback: Meanwhile | words away

  2. Pingback: Black Ice « messymandella

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