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You Must Include Colorism If You Are Addressing Racism At Work

Author: Cassie Myers

A few weeks ago, I had an interesting conversation with a connection in my network about a program that was described as being for dark-skinned individuals. When we read that description, we both paused for a minute. I paused largely because I had never read a reference to skin tone, outside of ‘people of color,’ in any program before.  

Skin tone and Blackness was something that I regularly read about and in this instance agreed that it addressed a huge gap in programming. However, I questioned, how did it make other people feel? Are workplaces having conversations about colorism? 

Race and racism remains a topic that is not widely discussed or acknowledged in many workplaces. While race is socially constructed, it still has very real implications on someone’s life. When we talk about racism, I posit that it is critical we also discuss colorism. 

Colorism is a term first coined by activist, artist, and Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker in 1982. In her book, In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens, Walker defined colorism as, “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on the color of their skin.” 

Different from racism, but stemming from it, colorism can occur within racial communities and across races. For example, in a workplace, a hiring manager might have a bias against Black people and apply this bias across all candidates they perceive as Black; this is racism. However, if this same hiring manager was given an option to choose from three Black candidates with equivalent experiences, and preferred to choose the one with the lightest skin tone, this choice would be colorism.

Colorism dates back to the transatlantic slave trade in North America. The “one-drop rule” was a common practice that asserted any person with even one Black, Indigenous or other racialized ancestor, or “one drop of blood,” would not be considered white under the law, and therefore would be without rights. This ensured that even if slave owners had children with the Black women they enslaved, regardless of their proximity to whiteness, they would still not be free.

Today, when people discriminate against someone based on the color of their skin, it is commonly on this same spectrum with whiteness on one side, representing what is deemed acceptable or optimal. This spectrum is reinforced in our society as the ideal through movies that vilify dark-skinned people, makeup that only has colors to complement lighter skin tones, and items as common as band aids that until 2020 only had light skin tone options. As a result of this hierarchy, darker-skinned people across racial identity groups face more discrimination than lighter-skinned people. 

For myself, I have been both privileged and discriminated against because of my skin color. I am a mixed-race Black woman, my father is a Black man and my mom is a Fillipino woman, and I am what people would categorize as light-skinned. Research shows that lighter-skinned people are treated better in a multitude of scenarios. A study in 2013 in the journal for Race and Social Problems, found that Black women students with dark skin were three times as likely to be suspended at school compared to their light-skinned counterparts. In Race, Gender and Politics of Skin Tones, Sociologist Margaret Hunter wrote that Mexican Americans with light skin tones earned more money, lived in better neighbourhoods, and accessed better healthcare than their darker skinned counterparts. 

In the workplace, I receive a lot of benefits because of skin tone. I can be racially ambiguous, so people might not be able to guess my racial identity, or ever assume that I am Black, and treat me better as a result. Because of my proximity to whiteness, people can subconsciously think of me as safer, smarter or friendlier than a darker skinned person, without knowing anything about me. 

Colorism has real implications in the workplace today. Just as it is important to recognize the shared experiences and community between employees in a racial group, it is also critical to recognize that people can have very different experiences because of their other identities, including skin tone.

In workplace DEI efforts, colorism can lead to favouring a racialized person who is closest to white, while not removing barriers for those who are darker. It can look like having representation of different racial groups in leadership, but only light-skinned people. Colorism is a bleak reminder that racism is dynamic and that when we evaluate how we are doing, our measure of success needs to be well beyond a racial category. I am not suggesting that leaders categorize their employees by their skin-tone, however, I encourage leaders to create spaces for people of different racialized backgrounds to identify what is holding them back or not. Clear, objective and safe spaces for measurement gives leaders the data needed to identify if detrimental issues like colorism are growing in your organization.  

When we consider racial inclusion, we need to be conscious to ensure that colorism is not holding employees back.

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