Authors: Erica Talbert, LMFT | Amber Flanigan LISW-CP, MPH, CHES
Colorism is one of the many destructive outcomes of slavery that became deeply embedded in the Black community and other communities of color. Colorism is defined as “a practice of discrimination by which those with lighter skin are treated more favorably than those with darker skin” (Colorism, n.d.). Colorism occurs interracially and intraracially. The root of colorism can be traced back to slavery resulting from preferential treatment of fairer skin slaves on the plantation. Historically, slaves of fairer skin have been noted as “house slaves” versus “field slaves,” which I imagine sparked resentment and jealousy for those unable to receive those privileges. However, those special privileges also came with heavy burdens, particularly for the women. Sexual abuse from slave owners was common during slavery towards Black women, which played a significant role in the diverse complexion of Black people. The slave owner’s offspring were often also noted to receive better treatment than those of darker skin.
After slavery ended in the 1900s, colorism continued. Black fraternities, sororities, and churches have a history of using the paper bag test to determine whether or not a person could be considered for membership. The infamous doll study conducted by African American Psychologists Kenneth and Mamie in 1940 is another example of colorism’s ugly mark on our history. In this study, children were presented with a black doll and a white doll. They were then asked to identify the good and bad dolls based on adjectives like “smart,” “pretty,” or “ugly.” The children tended to apply positive adjectives to the white dolls and negative adjectives to the black dolls. The results of this study have been duplicate with dolls with a spectrum of skin tones.
The residual effects of slavery and colorism continue to impact Black people, especially women, negatively. The remnants of colorism are often reflected in our family system when we notice family members of lighter skin being deemed as favorable or constantly receiving attention. When children observe fairer skin individuals being treated better than darker skin, this narrative carries on with them into adulthood. In addition to family members, society reinforces these beliefs by the over-representation of fairer skin Black women in media portrayed favorably. Consequently, this communicates to many women that fairer skin is the world’s beauty standard and anything outside of it is inferior.
Colorism and Mental Health
Impact on Self-Concept: Colorism causes division amongst Black women of different complexions and division within ourselves. The ramifications of colorism prevent Black women from developing a healthy self-concept, which, unfortunately, impedes our ability to have a healthy relationship with ourselves. When women of darker skin believe the world perceives them as unattractive and experience mistreatment due to their skin tone, it fosters feelings of self-hate and self-rejection.
Encounters of mistreatment can impact how we view ourselves and shape how we define our worthiness. Colorism can fracture our sense of self and lead to mental health challenges such as depression and anxiety due to poor self-esteem. To overcome the plague of colorism as a Black woman, we must confront the narratives and belief systems that hinder us from loving ourselves and living in our truth.
Impact on Mental Health Outcomes: The mental health outcomes of colorism have been compared to psychological and emotional abuse. Experiencing colorism may increase the risk for aggression, substance use, self-injury, and risky sexual behavior. Colorism is also associated with depression and anxiety. Poor self-concept and low self-esteem increase the risk of developing depression, while constant scrutiny, teasing, and mistreatment increase anxiety.
Emotional and Psychological abuse also increases the risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. Symptoms of PTSD may include feeling disconnected from others, having difficulty trusting others and receiving or feeling love, flashbacks to abusive experiences, feeling guilty about or ashamed of the trauma, and feeling like you are always on guard for another emotional attack.
How do we heal colorism?
Practice Affirmations: Positive affirmations have a powerful impact on our brains. Studies show that positive self-affirmations activate networks in the brain that are associated with reward and positive valuation. Positive affirmations may also promote the production of endorphins, natural mood-boosting hormones produced by the brain.
Externalize It: Externalization is a cognitive defusion technique that comes from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Cognitive Defusion helps separate from unhelpful thoughts. Externalization is a great way to separate ourselves from colorist ideology.
Colorism is not our shame to own. Racist colonizers created colorism to promote white supremacy. The more we understand this and name colorism as a racist-made phenomenon, the easier it will be to separate ourselves from these false standards of beauty and blackness.
Instead of thinking this skin tone is good or bad, think colorism says that this skin tone is good or bad. Shifting your thinking will help train your brain to think of colorism as racist myths instead of absolute truths that can harm your self-esteem or your sister’s self-esteem.
Seek Professional Help: If you believe that you are experiencing depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder, consider consulting the Therapy for Black Girls Therapist Directory to locate a therapist. Therapy is also helpful if you are experiencing substance use concerns, self-injury, low self-esteem, or would like to reduce risky sexual behaviors.
Celebrate the Shades of Sisterhood
Extend Affirmations: Speak to your fellow sister with love. We all exist in a world that seeks to tear us down with racist ideologies, stereotypes, systems, and structures. When we speak about each other’s skin tones, let’s use language that affirms and celebrates our complexion. Consider positive adjectives that evoke the richness of our skin tones like honey, chocolate, and mocha when describing skin tones instead of dark, light, or black.
Acknowledge Privilege: Acknowledging privilege is an important and sometimes uncomfortable step in healing Colorism. Has your skin complexion afforded your special treatment or spared you from harmful jokes or stereotypes? It is important to acknowledge these privileges and to be mindful of how these privileges impact your relationships. Are you perhaps being treated better than a friend or loved one with a different complexion? If so, talk to your loved one about how this may be impacting your relationship or how that person sees themself. Are you promoting this privilege by accepting preferential treatment while your loved one is treated as lesser than? Are you silent about this type of injustice? These are all important questions to ask if we truly want to celebrate all skin tones.
Apologize: Have you participated in colorist jokes or made insensitive comments about someone’s skin tone? If so, do not hesitate to apologize to those that you may have hurt. Be receptive to hearing out the perspective of others who feel hurt by words or jokes from you or your peers. Consider holding others accountable with grace for the way that they speak about black skin tones.
Avoid Assumptions: Assumptions based on skin complexion are often based on colorist stereotypes. Have you ever assumed something about a person based on their skin tone? It is possible that your assumption was incorrect and may have caused you to interact with that person in a way that promotes colorism.
Embrace Community: Surround yourself with like-minded people that celebrate you for who you are and are willing to do the self-work necessary to help our community heal from colorism.
Colorism. NCCJ. (n.d.). https://www.nccj.org/colorism-0.
Burnett, N. (2015). Colorism in Mental Health: Looking the Other Way. Journal of Colorism Studies, 1(1), 1-5.
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