What exactly is “colorism” in the workplace? While racism is a topic that frequently hits the news, not much is said about colorism. Yet, colorism can be just as pervasive — and may affect darker-skinned people just as much — as racism.
Colorism is discrimination based on an individual’s skin tone, irrespective of that person’s race. People of darker skin tone are usually treated in a discriminatory manner — while people with lighter skin are not. It can occur between races (such as when a white person treats light-skinned black people better than darker-skinned black people) or within racial groups (such as when light-skinned blacks discriminate against blacks with darker skin).
In many ways, colorism may be more persistent than racism. Dark skin is heavily associated with the lower classes in many societies. Their dark skin was a sign that they were uneducated and forced to labor outside, while light-skinned people were privileged and able to work indoors. That begat associations of dark skin with roughness, uncouthness and other negative or undesirable traits in an employee.
In America, colorism runs so deep that black job seekers once used to note that they were light-skinned on their job applications, knowing that fact alone could help them obtain their preferred employment. Those days, however, may not be so far behind.
In 2017, a study conducted by researchers at the University of Kansas found that darker skin still negatively affects someone’s chances at a job — at least among men. This was true whether the job applicant was black, Latino or Asian. The fact that women didn’t experience the same discrimination based on color indicated to researchers that dark-skinned men are often perceived as threatening or frightening in nature.
Could colorism be affecting your workplace? If you hear comments about someone’s dark skin, notice that dark-skinned employees or job applicants are treated differently than light-skinned ones, notice that there’s hostility or stereotyping going on toward dark-skinned employees, it’s a possibility that colorism is involved.
Racial and ethnic discrimination in the workplace is not just wrong — it’s illegal. If you believe that you are being targeted for discrimination due to your race or ethnic group, an attorney can help you understand how to fight back.