Light Skin, Dark Skin: Colorism in the Black Community

This Encounter engages the discussion of colorism and challenges the racist notions of this ideology.

Contributed By: Mia Coward


In a world of systemic racism there is more than white and black. Even in the African American community, there is also discrimination.  Colorism is the practice of discrimination when those with lighter skin are treated more favorably than those with darker skin. To understand this definition we have to delve into its history.


The roots of this issue stem from slavery. Women slaves were raped by their owners; when a woman became pregnant from these forced sexual encounters, they usually birthed lighter skin children. The lighter skin children were then seen as a purer form of beauty and put on higher pedestal then their darker counterparts. Slave owners employed the derogatory term "house negro" to refer to those who were of lighter complexion and got to stay in the house. Because of their skin color, they were seen as much smarter or prettier than the darker women and men, although in reality they were still slaves.


Now, colorism has persisted in the African American community and outside of it, showing that the colorist ideologies stemming from slavery were internalized through history. In 2011, American filmmakers Bill Duke and D. Channsin Berry produced a documentary called Dark Girls that exposed the world to what colorism is and how it affects our culture. The documentary examined every scope of colorism within the black community. In the documentary one woman described the pain she felt as a child when no one would play with her because her skin was dark and how that made her very angry as an older woman.  An African American male in the film told the viewers that he only dates lighter skin women because dark skin women are not attractive.  When the film begins, a young child open up and tells the camera how she does not feel beautiful because of her skin tone and that the only women who are lighter than her are beautiful. These documented experiences are some of the many that the filmmakers exposed during the film that received started an important conversation about colorism.

While the discussions around colorism have produced positive effects, there is still work to be done to change the behavior and consciousness that colorism engenders.


Instead of the internalized notions of colorism, women and men of color must begin to promote a positive self-conception, no matter the color of their skin. The construction of a personal identity starts when a person is a young child. It has everything to do with how you perceive yourself. There are stories told in the documentary of how some of the women were taught or teased by phrases like “She’s pretty for a dark skin girl,” “Here comes blackie,” and “You stayed in the oven too long.” These phrases changed the way that women identify themselves because they immediately installed a notion that because their skin was darker they were not beautiful. They began to identify their darker complexion as meaning ugly or unworthy.

In our communities, families, and circle of friends, people should promote the beauty in all shades and not one over the other. The actions of empowering and understanding who you are and knowing that beauty is not determined by the color of your skin can put a stop to young girls and boys who feel that the skin color makes them inferior. The solution will be for the communities that we live in to not except the standard that colorism places on beauty and promote self-worth of all people. 


Mia Coward is a recent graduate of Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina. She has a BA in Journalism and Media Studies and dreams of writing children's books to make a positive impact on the child literacy rate. She recently completed an internship with The Upper Room, where she worked with a variety of projects, including Moyo. Check out her post about the water crisis in Detroit and Baltimore on The Feed.

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Team Light Skinned: Spoken Word Reflection

Watch this spoken word performance that illuminates the experience of colorism.

Extra wide screen shot 2015 08 18 at 2.07.05 pm

Listen to the voices of those affected by colorism. Allow this spoken-word poem to move you, to teach you so you can think more deeply about this issue.


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Take Action

Everyday Activism: Value the Worth of Others

Be an everyday activist by affirming the worth of others, no matter the color of their skin.

Contributed by: Mia Coward

How to be an everyday activist? Become conscious, educate yourself on issues like colorism. Learn to value your worth and the worth of others.

Become more positive. Take some time and come up with positive notes and sayings, then give them to the women in your life. Show them that you appreciate them.

Change the way you see. Embrace all shades of beauty and promote this mantra to children because loving yourself needs to be reinforced by people in your life.


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