We have already seen that racism is an ideology. In this chapter, we will learn about a related yet distinct ideology – colorism. Whereas racism relies on the belief that some races are better than others, colorism is the idea that, within races, lighter is better. Whereas racism is based on the worldview that the people of the world can be divided into discrete categories and judged on that basis, colorism gives differential value to people in the same racial group, based on a continuum from light to dark. Colorism primarily refers to skin color but also encompasses physical characteristics that are related to skin color, such as eye color, hair texture and color, and facial features (Nakano Glenn 2009).

The prevalence of colorism has led to skin-color stratification, in which resources such as income and status are distributed unequally according to skin color. In the United States, lighter-skinned people have higher incomes and education than their darker-skinned counterparts, and are more likely to own homes and to marry. Darker-skinned people have longer prison sentences and lower job statuses on average than lighter-skinned people (Hochschild and Weaver 2007). Edward Telles (2009) shows that, in the United States, whites earn, on average, the most, followed by lighter-skinned blacks, with very dark-skinned blacks earning the least. Similarly, Verna Keith (2009) found that lighter-skinned African Americans have advantages over their darker-skinned counterparts in earnings, education, and occupations. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and David R. Dietrich (2009) contend that the United States is a pigmentocracy – a society in which blacks, Asians, and Latinos have different social statuses according to their skin color.

Skin-color stratification is also evident among U.S. immigrants from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Using data from the 2003 New Immigrant Survey, Joni Hersch (2008) found that darker-skinned immigrants earn less than their lighter-skinned counterparts. This nationally representative survey includes interviews with people who had recently been granted legal permanent residence in the United States. Each interviewee’s skin color was rated on a scale of 1 to 10 – from lightest to darkest. Overall, Hersch found that light skin color is associated with higher wages across the spectrum – including immigrants from Latin America, Asia, and Africa. There is a pay disparity of 17% between the lightest-skinned immigrants and the darkest-skinned immigrants, net of gender, education, English-language skills, visa type, and occupation. This pay disparity indicates that there likely is discrimination on the basis of skin color.

The History of Colorism

When and how did colorism originate—not only in the United States but also around the world? Some scholars argue that the preference for light skin stems from the history of slavery and genocide in the Americas. Their argument is that the preference for light skin is fundamentally a preference for whiteness and thus colorism has the same history as racism (Hunter 2005; 2007). For these thinkers, colorism is a modern phenomenon. Scholars who focus on Asia (Rondilla and Spickard 2007; Saraswati 2011; 2012) attribute the preference for light skin to earlier ideas that equated leisure with light skin and work with dark skin. Most scholars of colorism would agree that colorism is a global phenomenon, with a long history and distinct manifestations around the world.

Skin Color, Gender, and Beauty

How does skin color relate to gender and beauty? Colorism is evident in the U.S. entertainment industry – especially for women of color. Many of the most prominent Latina stars – Salma Hayek, Jennifer Lopez, and Eva Longoria – are very light-skinned. The same can be said for prominent female African-American stars such as Halle Berry and Beyoncé, who are both very light-skinned. In 2012, People magazine featured Beyoncé on its cover as the World’s Most Beautiful Woman. She was the first black woman to land this cover issue since Halle Berry was featured in 2003. Jennifer Lopez – named most beautiful in 2011 – is the only Latina to have ever been called “Most Beautiful.” It is not a coincidence that very light-skinned black and Latina women are the only ones who have graced this cover – it is a direct reflection of the fact that light skin is seen as more beautiful. It is thus not surprising that the first black woman to be crowned Miss America was Vanessa Williams, a light-skinned African-American woman who won the title in 1983.