“I am very dark, but lovely, O daughters of Jerusalem, like the tents of Kedar, like the curtains of Solomon.” (Song of Solomon 1:5 ESV)
“Blackie” “Dirty toothpick” “Dark Vader.” These were just a few of the names that I was called growing up. Naturally, I began asking myself why my skin tone seemed to be a constant topic of ridicule, and why I was being compared unfavorably to my lighter skin counterparts.
It was my people who were calling me these names, after all. It was my people who were posing questions such as, “Why aren’t you pretty and light like your older sister?” And, it was my people who were pointing out my misfortune of being “nappy-headed, skinny, AND dark.”
This subtle message of inferiority ultimately led me to feel significant feelings of shame, and at the age of ten, when my identity was beginning to form, I began to internalize the belief that I was considered less than. The dissonance of wanting to be loved by people, but feeling unloved, led me to years of self-consciousness and sadness. It wasn’t until I entered college that I realized I wasn’t alone in this experience, and that there was a name for it…
Colorism /ˈkələrˌizəm/: Prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group.
Colorism is a form of racism that people of color use against their own people, where dark skinned people are treated as lesser than by those with lighter skinned hues—and, sometimes even by other dark people. This pigmentocracy is a common experience among many within the African American community, but is also pervasive among culture groups beyond the boundaries of North America where colonialism has reinforced a sense of white superiority.
In fact, its origins may even extend back to biblical times. In the poetic book of Song of Solomon, for example, being dark was equated with something shameful (1:6). We see in this story that Solomon’s young lover was self-conscious because her dark skin identified her with being from a lower class from being an outdoor worker. As one commentator puts it, it is the allegorical significance of being “Black through sin, but comely through grace.”
In the modern American context, however, the origins of colorism can be traced to the practice of putting lighter-complexioned slaves in a higher position of house labor and deeper-complexioned slaves in the field during slavery. Slave owners gave their lighter skinned slaves more “privileges” because they were considered more attractive and perceived to be of higher intellect due to their white ancestry (Thomas, 2017).
This pigmentocracy has had negative effects that have carried over throughout generations and still impact those in the African American community today. Consequently, we can understand colorism as fruit of the poisonous tree of racism. And, while it goes unrecognized (or denied) by many, there are some who are beginning to acknowledge its significance and influence. Danyelle Thomas (2017), for example, explains that “Even if you don’t know the concept by name, you’ve surely seen it in action.”
An example is how the ideology of colorism can be seen on social media, sometimes shielded in humor or braggadocio through the use of hashtags such as #teamlightskin and #teamdarkskin, with participants loosely mocking one another as if it’s a historical crosstown rivalry between two football teams. The problem, however, is that in this competition, nobody within the Black community wins, as the wounds from the battle, are literally skin deep.
Another more poignant example comes from Obaahema (2002), as he re-tells the story of Grace, a 16-year old student:
"Nose is broad and her lips are thick, in a world where noses are keen and lips are thin. Her dark brown eyes suggest she is ugly and, having no way to escape, resorts to applying bleaching creams to her skin. Each time she resorts to the bleaching creams is an opportunity to escape her ugliness. With each application she can get closer to the idealized light-skinned Western beauty. When the cream wears off, Grace is forced to acknowledge the fact that she is Black. She must admit that she is undesirable to men and only by bleaching to lighten her skin can she be rescued from her fate. She believes her failure to bleach will sentence her to a life of horror and shame in her dark skin (2002)."
So, what does this mean in the context of counseling?
1. Listen and learn.
Be a student of your client. Colorism is virtually non-existent in the discussion of multicultural counseling, yet it is a common, but complex and traumatic issue. Just discussing race as an abstract ideology is no longer sufficient. It is wrought with nuances such as colorism that affect one’s mental well-being.
2. Do not trivialize.
Because colorism is a “mutation” of racism, it is common to erroneously conflate the two into one issue. More times than not, colorism is disregarded as a “non-factor,” and is seen as trivial in comparison to more overt, overarching societal ills. This approach is not only dangerous to the discussion of race relations as a whole, but more importantly, detrimental to the client. Conflating the two issues can lead to the minimization of the client’s experiences, which can lead to feelings of rejection, shame, and further dissonance within their ethnic group. The symptoms (colorism) are just as important as the illness (racism).
3. Lastly, acknowledge.
It is not only crucial to the field to acknowledge the issue of colorism, but it is irresponsible if we fail to do so. In America, color indeed matters…even more than some of us realize.
D. Danyelle Thomas (2017). Unfit Christian. Retrieved from: https://www.unfitchristian.com/colorism-black-church/.
Obaahema Network. (2002). Effects of skin bleaching. Retrieved from: https://www.obaahema.com/Channels/health_fitness/article.cfm?ArticleID=7.
Bio: Dr. Mary Hendrickson (Ed.D) is Adjunct Professor of Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Moody Theological Seminary, and Adjunct Professor of Counseling Psychology at North Park University in Chicago, IL. She is a marital and family therapist, working with individuals, families, and couples from diverse backgrounds. Dr. Hendrickson’s research focuses in the field of race psychology, with a particular emphasis on the psychological and emotional effects of colorism within the African American community. In her spare time, she enjoys learning Spanish, as well as deepening her knowledge in her newest area of interest, neuro-counseling. She is married to Dr. Craig Hendrickson, her husband of 17 years, and together they have a 12-year-old daughter, Amaya.