Colorism: It’s Harmful Effects on Women//La Toya Hampton

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So what exactly is this concept of colorism all about? Colorism is a practice discriminating against individuals of darker skin tone. The practice is a product of European colonialism that upholds the White standards of beauty. During slavery, dark skinned slaves were given the physical tasks while their lighter skin counterparts were expected to complete indoor and less physical tasks ( Despite its long historical roots, colorism is still prevalent within the twenty-first century (Glenn, 2008). Some researchers have found that people’s judgements about some individuals are solely based on skin tone whereas dark-skinned individuals are seen as less intelligent, trustworthy, and attractive than lighter-skinned individuals (Herring, Verna, & Hyward, 2003). Unfortunately, the relationship between skin color and attractiveness affect women more because society has placed most of her worth solely on of her appearance. For instance, a man’s worth is based on his ability to provide wealth and exhibit education. If he provides these things, he is considered to be “a good catch.” A woman’s worth is based on her physical attributes despite her ability to present other important characteristics (Glenn, 2008).

Sometimes skin tone can be can viewed as a way to increase privilege. This could include seeking a lighter-skinned martial partner to raise one’s status and to create intergenerational mobility by having children that are lighter-skinned. Especially for women, this thought process may include the use of cosmetics or other treatments to alter the look of their skin into a lighter complexion (Glenn, 2008). Although, skin tone may affect marital preferences for some individuals, Filipino women may desire to obtain lighter skin as a result of wanting to secure a better paying job in places like the Middle East, Asia, Europe, and North America. Additionally, research has shown that African Americans and Mexican Americans with lighter skin tones have higher educational attainment, income, and occupational status than individuals of darker skin tones (Hughes & Hertel, 1990).

Skin lightening has been practiced around the world for a long time and has accelerated during the twenty first century in all parts of the world as women are seeking light skin, free of imperfections. Globally, the production and marketing of products that offer lighter, brighter, and whiter skin tone has become a multi-billion-dollar industry. This boom in product sales are a result of its wide range of appeal to women across all demographics. For example, and, websites designed for South Asians in India and other parts of the world have chat rooms on skin care and lightening and, a Filipino site sponsored by a magazine for Filipina teens, has extensive forums on skin lightening. In India the preference for lighter skin seems almost universal and Indian diasporic communities around the world are the largest consumers of skin lighteners. Although the use of skin lightening products may appear trivial, further examination can show a unique view in how the ideas of beauty based on the Western-dominated global system may propitiate a “white is right” ideology that promotes an acceptance and desire for Western culture and its products (Glenn, 2008).

Skin lightening products are not just cosmetic, but could lead to harmful side effects. In Africa, it is estimated that 35% of women in Pretoria, 52% in Dakar, and 77% in Nigeria use skin lightening products. Despite bans on the importation of skin lighteners, they create serious health issues in Southern Africa because the products include mercury, corticosteroids, or high doses of hydroquinone. Long-term use of hydroquinone may cause ochronosis, a condition that causes blue-black and grey discoloration of the skin; neurological damage, or kidney disease. In America, African Americans partake in various skin lightening products, many of which contain hydroquinone and mercury while some claim to only use natural ingredients. Although, many Indian women continue to use commercialized skin lighteners, some choose to use traditional homemade products made of ingredients from plants and fruits. In East Asia, 30% of Chinese, 18% of Hong Kong, and 20% of Taiwanese women used skin lighteners on a regular basis. In Latin America, the high-end products choose hydroquinone as their chemical of choice. In North America and Europe White women use hydroquinone, along with skin peeling, exfoliants, and sunscreen to remove and decrease hyperpigmentation such as freckles ad age spots (Glenn, 2008).

Societal awareness of cultural and racial diversity is imperative to eliminate pressure to change an individual’s appearance. Although, these initiatives address social inequalities, they must also include discussions on skin tone as it is the first observable characteristic that is used to evaluate individual differences (Thompson & McDonald, 2016). In fact, colorism helps us better understand how racism works in our contemporary society and as long as racism remains intact, colorism will continue resulting in women engaging in harmful tactics to achieve unrealistic beauty standards (Hunter, 2007).

Written by LaToya Hampton


Colorism (2015, October). National Conference for Community and Justice   
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Glenn, E. N. (2008). Yearning for lightness: Transnational circuits in the marketing and
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Herring, Cedric, Verna M, Keith, and Hyward Derrick Horton, eds. 2003. Skin deep: How race
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Hughes, Michael and Bradley R. Hertel. 1990. “The significance of color remains: A Study of
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Hunter, M. (2007), The Persistent Problem of Colorism: Skin Tone, Status, and Inequality.
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Thompson, M. S., & McDonald, S. (2016). Race, skin tone, and educational achievement. Sociological Perspectives, 59(1), 91-111. doi:10.1177/0731121415580026

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