Do cultures really favor one skin
color over another when it comes
to socioeconomic status?
Colorism is a persistent problem for people of color . Colorism, or skin
color stratification, is a process that privileges light-skinned people of
color over dark in areas such as income, education, housing, and the
marriage market. Research demonstrates that light-skinned people have
clear advantages in these areas, even when controlling for other
background variables. However, dark-skinned people of color are
typically regarded as more ethnically authentic or legitimate than light-
skinned people. Colorism is directly related to the larger system of
racism around the world. The color complex is also exported around the
globe and helps to sustain the multibillion-dollar skin bleaching and
cosmetic surgery industries.
COLORISM VS. RACISM
The term "colorism“ describes the system that privileges
the lighter skinned over the darker-skinned people.
Although I have differentiated racism and colorism, these
processes are completely interconnected. The connection
between racism and colorism is evidenced in the fact that
colorism would likely not exist without racism, because
colorism rests on the privileging of whiteness in terms of
phenotype, aesthetics, and culture. However, it is also
useful to see these two processes as distinct because
people of color may experience racism in different ways
depending on the color of their skin.
SKIN COLOR & CLASS
Skin color functioned as an indicator of socioeconomic status. In Vietnam, lighter
skin indicated privileged status in the same way that lighter skin once served as a
sign of upper-class status in various parts of Europe and the United States.
Importantly, the connection between skin color and class status not only exists in
Vietnam, it appears elsewhere in Asia. Sociologist Evelyn Nakano Glenn reports
that, “Japan has long idolized ivory-skin that is ‘like a boiled egg’— soft, white and
smooth on the surface.” She suggests that this preference has historical roots
dating at least to the mid nineteenth century when upper-class Japanese men and
women donned white-lead powder makeup to indicate their elite status. In almost
every country in Asia, the celebrity class, and especially movie stars, are noticeably
lighter and taller, with more angular features, than the general population.
Importantly, while concluding that “colorism in Asia is a class imperative . . . to be
light is to be rich.
SKIN COLOR & NATIONAL ORIGIN
While skin color is an indicator of socioeconomic class, it may also be a marker
of national origin or ancestry. People use skin color as a way of differentiating
among Asians and Asian Americans (i.e., to identify who is of Chinese, Korean,
Japanese, Cambodian, Laotian, and South Asian ancestry or origin). Awareness
of this additional use of skin color is important. Severe gaps in income,
educational attainment, and professional status are emerging between White
Asians (Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos, and Chinese) and those who are more
likely to be darker and among the Collective Black (Vietnamese, Cambodian,
Hmong, and Laotians).
COLORISM & LABOR FORCE
COLORISM IN THE WORKPLACE
Colorism has significant implications in the workplace. White
skin is associated with higher levels of competence and ability.
For males, a darker-skinned Black male with higher levels of
education and past work experience was significantly less
preferred than a lighter-skinned Black male with less education
and work experience. For females, skin tone was not as salient
as education and work experience, but when held constant,
skin tone was a determining factor in regard to preference
where the lighter-skinned female was preferred. The
preferential treatment found in the workplace for Black males
and females is quite disturbing.
OBSERVATIONS & CONCLUSIONS
Skin color is a significant aspect of Asian and Asian-American identity, one that may be used to further intragroup divisions and
skin color gets its meaning from race and indeed that colorism is primarily a subset of racism.
To be sure, the likelihood that skin color differences assume greater significance in places like South Asia, Vietnam, and the
Philippines, where the effects of European imperialism are perhaps most keenly felt, suggests that race and racist ideologies
play an important role in creating a desire for lighter skin in these areas. However, preferences for lighter skin also exist in
Japan, China, and other parts of Asia.
The practices of colorism tend to favor lighter skin over darker skin. For example, it has been shown that lighter-skinned
minorities, particularly blacks and Latinos, attain a higher educational level and a higher workforce status than darker-skinned
minorities. Colorism continues to be a significant social phenomenon. It affects access to social power and denies equality to
those who are nonwhite.