At a webinar on Global Colorism hosted by Inclusion Allies Coalition (IAC) last month, the moderator asked why colorism is not talked about more. My response was that while racism is primarily perpetuated by those outside your identity group- and frequently by those from a dominant group- colorism is often propagated within one’s identity group. This was a quick off the cuff answer – but it got me thinking about my own experiences with colorism.
I certainly grew up with colorism all around me in India. Friends and family routinely commented on the fact that I did not have my Mother’s beautiful complexion- yes, she is beautiful- but this was a euphemism for her light skin color. Colorism is not only a personal experience. – it impacts professional trajectories as well. And my experiences of colorism in India or the US are no exceptions. Colorism plays out in homes and workplaces around the world.
To effectively address colorism leaders and DEI practitioners need to recognize its complex intersections with race, ethnicity, caste, culture and history, especially globally.
Let’s consider racism and colorism and then take a look at how colorism presents around the world.
Racism is rooted in the idea of racial superiority or inferiority. It involves bias or discrimination against individuals or groups of people based on their perceived identity. Racism is both universal and highly specific. It is universal because it is prevalent around the world and is specific because every context has dominant and nondominant groups and these differ as race and racism are fluid and shaped by culture and history. And racism is often tangled up with ethnicity, religion, caste, color, which may take more prominence than race in some contexts.
Colorism, like racism, is a legacy of slavery and colonialism and is embedded in social status, notions of beauty and power and privilege. Colorism is a form of discrimination or bias based on the shade or color of a person's skin often, but not exclusively, within the same racial or ethnic group. Lighter-skinned individuals may be favored or receive privileges over those with darker skin tones. It involves the valuing or devaluing of individuals based on how closely their skin tone aligns with a culturally defined standard of beauty or social hierarchy. Colorism can manifest in subtle or overt ways, impacting various aspects of individuals' lives, including their self-esteem, opportunities, experiences within society and even within the same family.
Globally, colorism's manifestations are diverse due to the complex intersections of race, ethnicity, culture, caste and colonial history. In many countries, including in some parts of Asia, Latin America and Africa, lighter skin is often associated with higher social status and beauty ideals, while darker skin is linked to manual labor and lower social standing. Colorism has been well documented as part of slavery’s legacy in the US, but the global impact of colonialism, slavery and classism have also left lasting legacies in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, influencing beauty standards, and creating hierarchies based on skin color.
India: Intersectionality with Caste
Growing up in India, colorism was a part of my life. I learned from a very young age that being ‘fair’ was beautiful. Darker-skinned Indians, especially women, face discrimination at work, at school — even in choosing a partner. Job advertisements for receptionists, flight attendants and hostesses blatantly reference that only light skinned women need apply. Arranged marriage websites let families filter out prospective brides by skin tone. In fact the typical matrimonial advertisements start with “wanted bride, complexion wheat color" or "complexion fair.”
The megabillion dollar Bollywood industry perpetuates colorism by depicting only light skinned stars, reinforcing notions of beauty. So it is no wonder that about half of all skin care products in India, according to the World Health Organization, are skin lighteners. The WHO estimates whiteners are a $500 million industry in India alone. Until recently, some of them even came with shade cards — like paint swatches — so that users could track the lightening of their skin.
After the global spread of the Black Lives Matter Movement, Unilever changed the name of its highest selling skin lightening product in Asia from Fair and Lovely to Glow & Lovely. But the product stayed the same and 300 million people use it a year. In advertisements, dark-skinned women are often depicted staring at their reflection lamenting the fact that they are not able to get married or get good jobs; but as soon as they use the “magical” skin lightening cream, they appear more confident and fulfilled.
The roots of colorism go back to Hinduism's ancient caste system, roughly based on a hierarchy of professions people are born into. For centuries, members of the less privileged, lower castes traditionally did manual labor outdoors under the sun and were therefore darker. The Brahmins or the highest castes were landowners and priests and the absence of field labor in the sun meant they had lighter skin associated with the upper class; a symbol of wealth and prosperity.
European colonization reinforced the idea that lighter skin was more desirable. The British implemented a racial hierarchy that placed Europeans at the top, followed by Indians of mixed race, and then lighter skinned Indians and last, darker-skinned Indians. This hierarchy was reflected in colonial policies, with lighter-skinned Indians often favored for administrative positions and other roles of authority.
Colorism also exists within every caste. Even among Dalits, who have faced severe discrimination and social exclusion, those with lighter skin are given preference over darker skinned individuals. To further complicate the picture, colorism not only intersects with caste but with geographic regions with some upper caste Brahmins in the southern regions of India being darker skinned than individuals of a lower caste in the north. Colorism, caste, and other factors like socio-economic status and education are interconnected in India.
Rwanda: The Legacy of Colonialism
Both Germany and Belgium favored the minority Tutsi (14%) over the majority Hutus (85%) and gave them privileges and western-style education. The Belgians employed the colonial model of “divide and rule,” which allowed them to rely on indirect rule by Tutsi elites. Part of the “divide and rule” strategy included the introduction of ethnic identity cards, which solidified the identities of Hutu and Tutsi, which had previously referred more to social status and wealth and was fluid such that farming Hutus could move up to Tutsi social status if they became wealthy and Tutsis who were pastoralists could move down to the socio-economic status of a Hutu if they lost their wealth.
Among other indicators (such as the number of cows a family owned, and height) the Belgians used skin color to differentiate between the Hutus and Tutsis. They measured nose width and face shape, looking for the “missing link” between what they saw as savage Africans and superior Europeans. They claimed that the Tutsis had lighter skin, thinner noses and higher cheekbones so they must come from European descendants, unlike the Hutus, who were considered darker and shorter, with wider noses, and therefore determined to be from African descendants.
In Rwanda, colonialism codified ethnic conflict into a social structure and led to the genocide in 1994.
Latin America: “Whitening” through Immigration Policy
Many Latin American countries instituted aggressive White-only immigration policies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries —investing public funds to advertise their countries in Europe, and even offering land grants and other incentives to Europeans considering a move across the Atlantic. (1) This was called their blanqueamiento policy. Where policy makers believed they fell short of their goals, they then moved to actively encourage interracial marriages to further whiten their demographic. (2)
In stark contrast to the US “one-drop rule,” which categorized anyone with even one Black ancestor as Black—something that was codified into law in some states in the early twentieth century (3)—most Latin American countries manipulated their census data, to “understate the presence of persons of African descent” in an attempt to further whitewash the image they tried to project to the world.(4)
Some countries, such as Argentina, drastically whitened their population. Brazil, realizing that it would never have a completely White nation (over 50% are mixed race and Black) turned their attention to lightening the population – actively encouraging interrace marriage. In a survey conducted in 1976, when asked to describe skin color, Brazilians gave 136 different shades—including “honey-colored white,” “somewhat like cinnamon,” “sea blue” and “deep-dyed, very dark.”(5) It is a common notion among Brazilians that they do not discriminate on the basis of skin color, but the country’s rainbow of skin tones has a troubling history that still reverberates today: Brazil has one of the largest wealth gaps in the world and rates of poverty are closely correlated with skin color. (6)
Colorism is often expressed within particular groups – and particularly within marginalized or underrepresented groups – and because of this, it can be sensitive to unearth. Some groups might feel that discussing it is “airing dirty laundry” or painting their group in a poor light. Others might worry that exposing colorism could weaken the solidarity that they have built or distract from anti-racist and other efforts. Because of these sensitivities, there is a risk that colorism in our organizations remains unaddressed by DEI teams.
Unfortunately, colorism permeates all walks of life, and almost all societies. It is affecting people’s opportunities and careers. We need to be brave enough to examine how colorism may be playing out in our workplaces. Those of us who work globally need to remember that the particular histories of a place impact how colorism manifests itself – and therefore those contextual specificities need to inform the solutions we develop.
Recently at an organizations’ external DEI Advisory Board meeting, the CEO invited a Black employee to share her lived experiences with racism and colorism. This was a bold move to encourage authentic dialog! I urge more organizations to engage in dialog to explore colorism and its impact on the employees and the organization.
Given the toxic impact of colorism in all walks of life, we have to work actively to dismantle it. Change happens at the intersection of people and processes- and we have to ensure that we dismantle colorism in both. On a personal level, we have to confront and address colorism bias. These biases are reinforced by media, and blatant and subtle messages in our history, education and cultural ethos. They are reinforced through power structures that perpetuate colorism.
On a procedural level, the first step is to analyze how colorism may be manifesting in our organizations, and how it intersects with socio economic status, education, race, ethnicity, caste and more. My book, Leading Global Diversity, Equity and Inclusion discusses both racism and colorism around the world.
My hope is that this piece will spark dialog in organizations about a topic that is rarely discussed.
Did you know? You can subscribe to my newsletter to get access to incisive articles, analysis, and key data on global trends in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Sign up here.
(1) Hernández, Racial Subordination in Latin America, 26–31
(2) Hernández, Racial Subordination in Latin America, 34–38
(3) F. James Davis, Who Is Black? One Nation’s Definition (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991). Excerpt reprinted on https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/jefferson/mixed/onedrop.html
(4) Hernández, Racial Subordination in Latin America, 38–46
(5) Associated Press, “136 Variations of Brazilian Skin Colors,” Associated Press, July 8, 2014, https://apnews.com/article/692538d8883a4d20842425d1d265b862
(6) Grant Suneson and Samuel Stebbins, “These 15 Countries Have the Widest Gaps between Rich and Poor,” USA Today, May 28, 2019, https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2019/05/28/countries-with-the-widest-gaps-between-rich-and-poor/39510157/