Discrimination based on skin color

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Discrimination based on skin color, also known as colorism or shadeism, is a form of prejudice or discrimination in which people are treated differently based on the social meanings attached to skin color.[1]

Colorism, a term coined by Alice Walker in 1982,[2] is not a synonym of racism. "Race" depends on multiple factors (including ancestry); therefore, racial categorization does not solely rely on skin color. Skin color is only one mechanism used to assign individuals to a racial category, but race is the set of beliefs and assumptions assigned to that category. Racism is the dependence of social status on the social meaning attached to race; colorism is the dependence of social status on skin color alone. In order for a form of discrimination to be considered colorism, differential treatment must not result from racial categorization, but from the social values associated with skin color.[1] A 2015 study, for example, finds that among African Americans, skin color differences are associated with perceptions of discrimination from whites and other African Americans.[3]


Several meta-analyses find extensive evidence of ethnic and racial discrimination in hiring in the North-American and European labor markets.[4][5][6] A 2016 meta-analysis of 738 correspondence tests in 43 separate studies conducted in OECD countries between 1990 and 2015 finds that there is extensive racial discrimination in hiring decisions in Europe and North-America.[5] Equivalent minority candidates need to send around 50% more applications to be invited for an interview than majority candidates.[5] Recent research in the U.S. shows that socioeconomic and health inequality among African Americans along the color continuum is often similar or even larger in magnitude than what obtains betweens whites and African Americans as a whole.[3][7]

In the 20th century there has been a shift towards a preference for darker, tanned skin in white communities. The beginning of this change has been attributed to Frenchwoman Coco Chanel making tanned skin seem fashionable, luxurious and healthy in Paris in the 1920s.[8] Tanned skin has become associated with the increased leisure time and sportiness of wealth and social status while pale skin is associated with indoor office work.[9] A few studies have found tanned skin is regarded as both more attractive and healthier than pale or very dark skin,[10][11][12][13] and there is a direct correlation between the degree of tanning and perceived attractiveness especially in young women.[14][15]



In Liberia, descendants of African-American settlers (renamed Americo-Liberians) in part defined social class and standing by raising people with lighter skin above those with dark skin. The first Americo-Liberian presidents such as Joseph Jenkins Roberts, James Spriggs Payne, and Alfred Francis Russell had considerable proportions of European ancestry. Most may have been only one-quarter or one-eighth African American.[citation needed] Other aspects of their rising to power, however, likely related to their chances for having obtained education and work that provided good livings.[citation needed]

In addition to rivalries among descendants of African Americans, the Americans held themselves above the native Africans in Liberia. Thus, descendants of Americans held and kept power out of proportion to their representation in the population of the entire country, so there was a larger issue than color at work.[citation needed]

South Africa

Colored people consist of three mixed race populations in South Africa who were given more social privilege than other, unmixed, indigenous African groups. During the apartheid era, in order to keep divisions and maintain a race-focused society, the government used the term Coloured to describe one of the four main racial groups identified by law: Blacks, Whites, Coloureds and Indians. (All four terms were capitalised in apartheid-era law.) Many Griqua began to self-identify as "Coloureds" during the apartheid era. There were certain advantages in becoming classified as "Coloured". For example, Coloureds did not have to carry a dompas (an identity document designed to limit the movements of the non-white populace), while the Griqua, who were seen as another indigenous African group, did.[citation needed]


A popular phrase in Sudan is al-Husnu ahmar (Arabic: الحسن أحمر) meaning "beauty is red", although the whiteness is the ideal color in most Arab societies. The following rankings of beauty in descending order are: asmar (Arabic: أسمر) meaning light tan, literally "brown", dhahabi (Arabic: ذهبي) meaning "golden", gamhi (Arabic: قمحي) meaning wheatish, khamri (Arabic: خمري) meaning wine colored, and lastly akhdar meaning "light black" – literally, "green". Akhdhar is the polite alternative descriptive term for "black" meaning a dark-skinned Arab. Lastly, azraq (Arabic: أزرق) meaning "blue" is used interchangeably with aswad (Arabic: أسود) meaning "black"; however, in the past aswad has referred to white, light skin.[16]


File:Skin lightening ad.jpg
Skin lightening billboard advertisement in Bangladesh

East and South Asia

In East, South and Southeast Asia, a preference for lighter skin is prevalent, especially in countries such as [17] China, Korea, India and Japan.[18][19]

The history of skin whitening in East Asia dates far back to ancient times. In the ancient dynastic eras, to be light in an environment in which the sun was harsh implied wealth and nobility because those individuals were able to remain indoors while servants had to labor outside.[17] Ancient Asian cultures associated light skin with feminine beauty in particular. "Jade" white skin in Korea is known to have been the ideal as far back as the Gojoseon era.[18] Japan's Edo period saw the start of a trend of women whitening their faces with rice powder as a "moral duty".[18] Chinese women valued a "milk white" complexion and swallowed powdered pearls towards that end.[18] Four out of ten women surveyed in Hong Kong, Malaysia, the Philippines and South Korea use a skin whitening cream.[20] In many Asian cultures, colorism is taught to children in the form of fairy tales, just as the Grimms' fairy tales featured light-skinned princesses or maidens; Asian mythological protagonists are typically fair and depict virtue, purity, and goodness. A light complexion is equated with feminine beauty, racial superiority, and power, and continues to have strong influences on marital prospects, employment, status, and income.[21]

Globalized East Asia still retains these biases, but they are compounded by the influence of Westernized beauty ideals and media that equates whiteness with modern and urban wealth and success.[22] The legacies of European colonialism also influence the modern relations between light skin and power.[18]


"Black" symbolizes "dark", "evil" , "dirty", etc. in India.[18] On the opposite side, "white" has been a symbol of "purity", "fairness", "cleanliness", and "beauty", proving itself to be a symbol of power and privilege.[18] Aspects of Hindu mythology reinforce this idea with the goddess Kali. Kali is a dark-skinned goddess known for destruction and a symbol of ugliness. Kali's appearance and character traits visually demonstrate the negative association Indian culture gives to dark complexioned women.[18] Even so, there remain plenty of examples of black being exemplified as holy as with Krishna, Shiva and other gods, there have been positive connotations to the colour black as well as negative ones.

British historians observed that since the upper castes were not involved in tedious labor and weren't as exposed to the sun as the lower castes, they used to stay indoors and thus possessed lighter brown skin.[citation needed] The lower castes on the other hand had higher melanin concentration in their skin cells due to continued exposure to sun from working in agricultural fields and outdoors.[23] Indians prefer their matrimonial partners to be light-skinned.[citation needed] The deep-rooted color bias has ensured that there is extensive discrimination in the labor market, as people with light skin are generally preferred.[citation needed]

For example, in the state of Maharashta a group of young tribal girls trained to be flight crew through a government scholarship program that aimed to empower women. The majority of girls were denied employment due to their darker skin-tone. A few of those women landed jobs, but only as out-of-sight ground crew.[24]


Hiroshi Wagatsuma from Daedalus explains that Japanese culture has long associated skin color with other physical characteristics that signify degrees of spiritual refinement or primitiveness.[25]  The scholar gives an old Japanese proverb that says “white skin makes up for seven defects”.[25] More specifically for women, very light skin allows people to overlook her lack of other desired physical characteristics.[25] Skin color has and continues to affect the checklist for attractiveness and socioeconomic status and capability.[25]

The western hemisphere has long described east Asians, specifically Chinese and Japanese people as “yellow”, but the Chinese and Japanese seldom describe their skin color with that term.[25] The Japanese traditionally used the word shiroi meaning white to describe the lighter shades of skin in their society.[25]

The court ladies of Japan during the Nara period from 710 to 793 AD applied a large amount of white powder to the face and added red rosy cheeks.[25] Many references were made to plump women with white skin through both drawings and writings from 794-1186 AD.[25] An example to look at would be the literature the Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki.[25]


A survey concluded that three quarters of Malaysian men thought their partners would be more attractive if they had lighter skin complexions.[17]

In certain Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia, a common beauty ideal is the "Eurasian look" known locally in Malaysia as the "pan-Asian look" is an ideal that stems from the beauty ideal of fair skin – which Eurasians tend to naturally possess.[26] The overuse of Pan-Asian faces on billboards and on television screens has been a controversial issue in the country. The issue was highlighted in 2009 when Zainuddin Maidin, a Malaysian politician, called for the reduction of pan-Asian faces which he claimed dominate TV and billboards and instead increase the number of Malay, Chinese and Indian faces on local television.[27] Despite the controversy surrounding the preference for Malaysians who are of mixed Asian (Malay, Chinese or Indian) and European descent who possess features such as fair skin, some experts in the industry have said the use of pan-Asian faces can be used to promote the racial diversity of Malaysians. They can also be used to promote a product towards a diverse racial demographic because of their mixed appearance which the Minister of Information had suggested in 1993.[28]


Research suggests that police practices, such as racial profiling, over-policing in areas populated by minorities and in-group bias may result in disproportionately high numbers of racial minorities among crime suspects in Sweden, Italy, and England and Wales.[29][30][31][32][33] Research also suggests that there may be possible discrimination by the judicial system, which contributes to a higher number of convictions for racial minorities in Sweden, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Denmark and France.[29][31][32][34][35][36][37]

Several meta-analyses find extensive evidence of ethnic and racial discrimination in hiring in the North-American and European labor markets.[4][5][6] A 2016 meta-analysis of 738 correspondence tests in 43 separate studies conducted in OECD countries between 1990 and 2015 finds that there is extensive racial discrimination in hiring decisions in Europe and North-America.[5] Equivalent minority candidates need to send around 50% more applications to be invited for an interview than majority candidates.[5]

A 2014 meta-analysis found extensive evidence of racial and ethnic discrimination in the housing market of several European countries.[4] There is extensive discrimination against immigrant groups in the French housing and labor markets.[38][39]

South America


Brazil has one of the largest population of African descendants (living outside of Africa) in the world. Individuals with lighter skin and who are racially mixed generally have higher rates of social mobility.[40] There are a disproportionate number of mostly European descent elites than those of visible African descent. There are large health, education and income disparities between the races in Brazil.[41] A recent study even finds that skin color is a stronger predictor of social inequality in Brazil than 'race' (i.e. 'race-color' categories used on the Brazilian census); and highlights that socially perceived skin color and 'race' are not the same thing.[42] Even though browns and blacks comprise more than 50 percent of the population, they comprise less than 25 percent of elected politicians.[43]

A 2016 study, using twins as a control for neighborhood and family characteristics, found that the nonwhite twin is disadvantaged in the educational system.[44] A 2015 study on racial bias in teacher evaluations in Brazil found that Brazilian math teachers gave better grading assessments of white students than equally proficient and equivalently well-behaved black students.[45]

North America

United States


European colonialism created a system of white supremacy and racist ideology, which led to a structure of domination that privileges whiteness over blackness. Biological differences in skin color were used as a justification for the enslavement and oppression of Africans, developing a social hierarchy that placed whites at the top and blacks at the bottom. Slaves with lighter complexion were allowed to engage in less strenuous tasks, like domestic duties, while the darker slaves participated in hard labor, which was more than likely outdoors.[46] African American with a partial white heritage were seen to be smarter and superior to dark-skinned blacks, giving them broader opportunities for education and the acquisition of land and property.[47]


A 2014 meta-analysis of racial discrimination in product markets found extensive evidence of minority applicants being quoted higher prices for products.[4] A 1995 study found that car dealers "quoted significantly lower prices to white males than to black or female test buyers using identical, scripted bargaining strategies."[48] A 2013 study found that eBay sellers of iPods received 21 percent more offers if a white hand held the iPod in the photo than a black hand.[49]

Criminal justice system

Research suggests that police practices, such as racial profiling, over-policing in areas populated by minorities and in-group bias may result in disproportionately high numbers of racial minorities among crime suspects.[50][51][52][53] Research also suggests that there may be possible discrimination by the judicial system, which contributes to a higher number of convictions for racial minorities.[54][55][56][57][58] A 2012 study found that "(i) juries formed from all-white jury pools convict black defendants significantly (16 percentage points) more often than white defendants, and (ii) this gap in conviction rates is entirely eliminated when the jury pool includes at least one black member."[56] Research has found evidence of in-group bias, where "black (white) juveniles who are randomly assigned to black (white) judges are more likely to get incarcerated (as opposed to being placed on probation), and they receive longer sentences."[58] In-group bias has also been observed when it comes to traffic citations, as black and white cops are more likely to cite out-groups.[52] A 2016 paper by Roland G. Fryer, Jr, found that while there are no racial differences in lethal use of police force, blacks and Hispanics are significantly more likely to experience non-lethal use of force.[59] Reports by the Department of Justice have also found that police officers in Baltimore, Maryland, and Ferguson, Missouri, systemically stop, search (in some cases strip-searching) and harass black residents.[60][61] A January 2017 report by the DOJ also found that the Chicago Police Department had "unconstitutionally engaged in a pattern of excessive and deadly force" and that police "have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color".[62]

In criminal sentencing, medium to dark-skinned African Americans are likely to receive sentences 2.6 years longer than those of whites or light-skinned African Americans. When a white victim is involved, those with more "black" features are likely to receive a much more severe punishment.[63]

A 2013 report by the American Civil Liberties Union found that blacks were "3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession", even though "blacks and whites use drugs, including marijuana, at similar rates."[64]

A 2016 analysis by the New York Times "of tens of thousands of disciplinary cases against inmates in 2015, hundreds of pages of internal reports and three years of parole decisions found that racial disparities were embedded in the prison experience in New York."[65] Blacks and Latinos were sent more frequently to solitary and held there for longer durations than whites.[65] The New York Times analysis found that the disparities were the greatest for violations where the prison guards had lots of discretion, such as disobeying orders, but smaller for violations that required physical evidence, such as possessing contraband.[65]

A 2016 report by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune found that Florida judges sentence black defendants to far longer prison sentences than whites with the same background.[66] For the same drug possession crimes, blacks were sentenced to double the time of whites.[66] Blacks were given longer sentences in 60 percent of felony cases, 68 percent of the most serious first-degree crimes, 45 percent of burglary cases and 30 percent of battery cases.[66] For third-degree felonies (the least serious types of felonies in Florida), white judges sentenced blacks to twenty percent more time than whites, whereas black judges gave more balanced sentences.[66]


In 1954, Brown vs. the Board of Education was passed to ensure integrated, equal schools be accessible to all children unbiased to skin color. Currently in the United States, not all state funded schools are equally funded.  Schools are funded by the "federal, state, and local governments" while "states play a large and increasing role in education funding".[67] "Property taxes support most of the funding that local government provides for education".[67] Schools located in lower income areas receive a lower level of funding and schools located in higher income areas receiving greater funding for education all based on property taxes.  The U.S. Department of Education reports that "many high-poverty schools receive less than their fair share of state and local funding, leaving students in high-poverty schools with fewer resources than schools attended by their wealthier peers".[68] The U.S. Department of Education also reports this fact affects "more than 40% of low-income schools".[68] Children of color are much more likely to suffer from poverty than white children.

A 2015 study using correspondence tests "found that when considering requests from prospective students seeking mentoring in the future, faculty were significantly more responsive to White males than to all other categories of students, collectively, particularly in higher-paying disciplines and private institutions".[69] Through affirmative action, elite colleges consider a broader range of experiences for minority applicants.[70]

The phrase "brown paper bag test", also known as a paper bag party, along with the "ruler test" refers to a ritual once practiced by certain African-American sororities and fraternities who would not let anyone into the group whose skin tone was darker than a paper bag.[71] Spike Lee's film School Daze satirized this practice at historically black colleges and universities.[72] Along with the "paper bag test", guidelines for acceptance among the lighter ranks included the "comb test" and "pencil test", which tested the coarseness of one's hair, and the "flashlight test", which tested a person's profile to make sure their features measured up or were close enough to those of the Caucasian race.[71]


A 1999 study found that doctors treat black and white patients differently, even when their medical files were statistically identical.[73] When shown patient histories and asked to make judgments about heart disease, the doctors were much less likely to recommend cardiac catheterization (a helpful procedure) to black patients.[73]


A 2014 meta-analysis found extensive evidence of racial discrimination in the American housing market.[4] Minority applicants for housing needed to make many more enquiries to view properties.[4] Geographical steering of African-Americans in US housing remained significant.[4] A 2003 study finds "evidence that agents interpret an initial housing request as an indication of a customer's preferences, but also are more likely to withhold a house from all customers when it is in an integrated suburban neighborhood (redlining). Moreover, agents' marketing efforts increase with asking price for white, but not for black, customers; blacks are more likely than whites to see houses in suburban, integrated areas (steering); and the houses agents show are more likely to deviate from the initial request when the customer is black than when the customer is white. These three findings are consistent with the possibility that agents act upon the belief that some types of transactions are relatively unlikely for black customers (statistical discrimination)."[74]

A report by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development where the department sent African-Americans and whites to look at apartments found that African-Americans were shown fewer apartments to rent and houses for sale.[75]

A 2017 study found that "that applications [for Airbnb housing] from guests with distinctively African American names are 16 percent less likely to be accepted relative to identical guests with distinctively white names".[76]

Labor market

Several meta-analyses find extensive evidence of ethnic and racial discrimination in hiring in the American labor market.[4][5][6] A 2016 meta-analysis of 738 correspondence tests – tests where identical CVs for stereotypically black and white names were sent to employers – in 43 separate studies conducted in OECD countries between 1990 and 2015 finds that there is extensive racial discrimination in hiring decisions in Europe and North-America.[5] These correspondence tests showed that equivalent minority candidates need to send around 50% more applications to be invited for an interview than majority candidates.[5][77] A study that examine the job applications of actual people provided with identical résumés and similar interview training showed that African-American applicants with no criminal record were offered jobs at a rate as low as white applicants who had criminal records.[78]

Research suggests that light-skinned African American women have higher salaries and greater job satisfaction than dark-skinned women.[79] Being "too black" has recently been acknowledged by the U.S. Federal courts in an employment discrimination case under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In Etienne v. Spanish Lake Truck & Casino Plaza, LLC the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, determined that an employee who was told on several occasions that her manager thought she was "too black" to do various tasks, found that the issue of the employee's skin color rather than race itself, played a key role in an employer's decision to keep the employee from advancing.[80]


The media is responsible for influencing beliefs regarding ideas of beauty in the African American community. Mass media productions often perpetuate discrimination based on skin color.[citation needed] African Americans possessing lighter skin complexion and "European features", such as lighter eyes, and smaller noses and lips have more opportunities in the media industry. For example, film producers hire lighter-skinned African Americans more often, television producers choose lighter skinned cast members, and magazine editors choose African American models that resemble European features.[81] As a result, the media industry sends the message that African Americans with Eurocentric features are more likely to be accepted, diminishing the status of darker-skinned African Americans.[citation needed]

In regards to the magazine industry, African American women are rarely showcased in the most popular magazines.[citation needed] Therefore, African American girls have difficultly identifying with the models showcased in these magazines, because they do not represent the type of women that they come into contact with in their own communities. Recent studies have indicated that the number of racially biased advertisements in magazines have increased over the years. A content analysis conducted by Scott and Neptune (1997) shows that less than one percent of advertisements in major magazines featured African American models. When African Americans did appear in advertisements they were mainly portrayed as athletes, entertainers or unskilled laborers. In addition, seventy percent of the advertisements that features animal print included African American women. Animal print reinforces the stereotypes that African Americans are animalistic in nature, sexually active, less educated, have lower income, and extremely concerned with personal appearances.[82]

Concerning African American males in the media, darker skinned men are more likely to be portrayed as violent or more threatening, influencing the public perception of African American men. Since dark-skinned males are more likely to be linked to crime and misconduct, many people develop preconceived notions about the characteristics of black men.[83]


A 2011 study found that white state legislators of both political parties were less likely to respond to constituents with African-American names.[84] A 2013 study found that in response to e-mail correspondence from a putatively black alias, "nonblack legislators were markedly less likely to respond when their political incentives to do so were diminished, black legislators typically continued to respond even when doing so promised little political reward. Black legislators thus appear substantially more intrinsically motivated to advance blacks' interests."[85]

Some research suggests that white voters' voting behavior is motivated by racial threat. A 2016 study, for instance, found that white Chicago voters' turnout decreased when public housing was reconstructed and 25,000 African Americans displaced. This suggest that white voters' turnout decreased due to not living in proximity to African-Americans.[86]

Voter ID laws have brought on accusations of racial discrimination. In a 2014 review by the Government Accountability Office of the academic literature, three studies out of five found that voter ID laws reduced minority turnout whereas two studies found no significant impact.[87] Disparate impact may also be reflected in access to information about voter ID laws. A 2015 experimental study found that election officials queried about voter ID laws are more likely to respond to emails from a non-Latino white name (70.5% response rate) than a Latino name (64.8% response rate), though response accuracy was similar across groups.[88] Studies have also analyzed racial differences in ID requests rates. A 2012 study in the city of Boston found that black and Hispanic voters were more likely to be asked for ID during the 2008 election. According to exit polls, 23% of whites, 33% of blacks, and 38% of Hispanics were asked for ID, though this effect is partially attributed to black and Hispanics preferring non-peak voting hours when election officials inspected a greater portion of IDs. Precinct differences also confound the data as black and Hispanic voters tended to vote at black and Hispanic-majority precincts.[89] A 2010 study of the 2006 midterm election in New Mexico found that Hispanics were more likely to incur ID requests while early voters, women, and non-Hispanics were less likely to incur requests.[90] A 2009 study of the 2006 midterm election nationwide found that 47% of white voters reported being asked to show photo identification at the polls, compared with 54% of Hispanics and 55% of African Americans."[91] Very few were however denied the vote as a result of voter identification requests.[91] A 2015 study found that turnout among blacks in Georgia was generally higher since the state began enforcing its strict voter ID law.[92] A 2016 study by University of California, San Diego researchers found that voter ID laws "have a differentially negative impact on the turnout of Hispanics, Blacks, and mixed-race Americans in primaries and general elections."[93]

Research by University of Oxford economist Evan Soltas and Stanford political scientist David Broockman suggests that voters act upon racially-discriminatory tastes.[94]

See also


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Further reading

External links