Social workers work with clients who face various disadvantages due to social stigma, discrimination, and oppression. These disadvantages range from race, to ethnic origins, to gender, to sexual orientation, and beyond. One important factor in social stigma and discrimination that social workers need to be more aware of is colorism.
“Colorism” is defined as discrimination based on skin tone. This form of psychological abuse continues to perpetuate internalized racism and has affected the physical, psychological, emotional, educational, financial, and relational outcomes of African Americans. Color stratification is a system that grants privileges and opportunities to those who possess lighter complexions within the African American community. Studies show that lighter-skinned people of color enjoy substantial privileges that are still unattainable to darker-skinned counterparts.
Colorism has a stronger effect on the lives of African American women versus the lives of African American men; this phenomenon is called “gendered colorism.” Issues of racial identity, skin color, and attractiveness are central concerns for women. What can social workers learn about colorism and its effects on African-American women?
In a recent issue of Health and Social Work, published by NASW Press, J. Camille Hall, PhD, LCSW, an associate professor at the College of Social Work at University of Tennessee at Knoxville, published her findings from a study of African American women that addresses the effects of colorism. The study was based on multiple focus-groups assembled to discuss the issue. A semi-structured interview guide containing six questions about skin stratification within the black community framed the focus group discussion: (1) What skin tone best describes you? (2) When did you discover there were advantages or disadvantages regarding your skin tone? (3) Growing up, what messages did you receive (and from whom) about skin color? (4) In what ways has skin color affected your education, employment, and success? (5) What lessons have you learned about skin color? Which lessons were most valuable or invaluable? (6) In what ways has your skin tone affected your interpersonal relationships?
Several themes emerged from these discussions:
While several participants agreed that dark-skinned black women never had to authenticate their “blackness”, the majority of the participants nevertheless agreed that there were negative consequences related to being dark-skinned. Participants noted that dark-skinned women were portrayed as intimidating, militant, ghetto, and loud.
Social and Relational Dynamics
Many of the participants indicated that their identities were fragmented when they experienced isolation from social or civic activities. One said, “I was usually the last person chosen for any group activity. When I was selected first, people would say, ‘She can help us fight.’ I was the bodyguard or more like the ‘bully’ for the group.”
Family Socialization Practices
Family socialization practices play a significant role in skin color stratification. One participant said:
My parents never expected me to do well in school, they were shocked when they learned that I was the salutatorian. In fact, my college fund was much smaller than both my lighter-skinned siblings; truth be told, my parents didn’t expect or intend for me to attend college.
This theme is related to participants’ experience of employment discrimination. Each of the women in the medium- and dark-skinned group discussed the additional advantages of light-skinned black women: social mobility, full social inclusion, and social worth. Conversely, they believed that there is a linked fate because of their dark skin, a belief that oftentimes leads to feelings of isolation and emotional vulnerability.
Dr. Hall notes that further research is needed in the area of colorism’s effects on women’s lives, and especially on their psycho-social well-being. When the women in this study discussed notions of darkness in their articulations of lived experiences with skin color, it was often in the context of indignity. Openly discussing the inequalities and subsequent emotional abuse that result from the colorism is the first step in eradicating it. Dr. Hall concludes:
This study supports the need for social workers to listen carefully to complaints about mistreatment based on race, sex, and skin tone and validate experiences of clients who are women of color, particularly because a black woman might minimize the effects of colorism. It will also be important to help clients generate a variety of ways to cope with the pain associated with incidents of colorism. The task for social workers working with black women lies in helping them to redefine their strength in ways that simultaneously enable them to reclaim historical sources of power and yet reject the exploitation that has often accompanied skin color stratification.