Research consistently shows that individuals with the darkest skin tones receive less income, less education, lower-status occupations, less adequate housing, reduced marriage opportunities, and are at greater risk for negative life outcomes such as substance abuse, various forms of trauma, and incarceration (Hothschild & Weaver, 2007; Hunter, 2007; Keith & Herring, 1991; Porter, 1991). In contrast, individuals with western European characteristics such as light-colored skin, straight hair, a thin nose and lips, and light-colored eyes are associated with beauty, competence, intelligence, trustworthiness, and greater opportunities in life. This phenomenon is known as colorism (Hunter, 2007; Maddox, 2004; Maddox & Gray, 2002).
Colorism is skin-tone bias, a form of prejudice in the same way that racism, sexism, faithism, and ageism are forms of prejudice (Harrison, Reynolds-Dobbs, & Thomas, 2008). Colorism differs from racism, which is a preference between groups for specific racial or ethnic groups, in that colorism is based upon skin tone, hair type, and facial features. Research has demonstrated that colorism occurs throughout the world on an inter-group and intra-group basis, and even within families (Hunter, 2007; Maddox & Gray, 2009; Stephen, 1990; Wilder, 2008).
Averhart and Bigler (1997) explored intra-racial beliefs and attitudes among African American children in kindergarten and the first grade. Averhart and Bigler’s colorism research found that the children who were in greater agreement with inter-racial stereotypes identified their own skin color as being lighter than it was, and rated photos of lighter-skinned individuals more positively than darker-skinned individuals. In contrast, children who expressed less endorsement of inter-racial stereotypes attributed more positive attributes toward African Americans, and more negative bias toward and favoring light-skinned individuals. Averhart and Bigler found that the influence of negative stereotypes regarding African Americans is so potent that young children only showed bias towards dark-skinned individuals when they strongly rejected the negative dark-skin prejudice of the majority culture (Averhart & Bigler, 1997).
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Averhart, C. J., & Bigler, R. S. (1997). Shades of meaning: Skin tone, racial attitudes, and constructive memory in African American children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 67, 363-388.
Harrison, M. S., Reynolds-Dobbs, W, & Thomas, K. M. (2008). Skin color bias in the workplace: The media’s role and implications toward preference. In R. E. Hall (Ed.). Racism in the 21st Century (pp. 47-62). New York: Springer.
Hunter, M. (2007). The persistent problem of Colorism: Skin tone, status, and inequality. Sociology Compass, 1(1), 237-254.
Keith, V. M., & Herring, C. (1991). Skin tone and stratification in the Black community. American Journal of Sociology, 97(3), 760-768.
Maddox, K. B., & Gray, S. A. (2002). Cognitive representations of Black Americans: Reexploring the role of skin tone. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28(2), 250-259.
Maddox, K. B. (2004). Perspectives on racial phenotypicality bias. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 8(4), 383-401.
Stephen, L. Y. (1990). The Black tax: Skin tone and social stratification in the United States. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from UMI Microform (3275614).
Wilder, J. A. (2008). Everyday colorism in the lives of young Black women: Revisiting the continuing significance of an old phenomenon in a new generation. (Doctoral dissertation, University of Florida, 2008). Dissertation Abstracts International, 70, 02.