Posted on March 21, 2005

Skin-Deep Discrimination

John Stossel, ABC News, Mar. 4

We all know about racism, about whites discriminating against blacks. The prevelance of “colorism” — black on black discrimination, is less known, but it’s an open secret in the black community.

Imagine this. You’re asked to look at photos of faces and then give them a score of 1 to 5 to rate how smart you think the people in the photographs are. But there’s a trick.

Mixed in with the 60 photos are pictures of the same person, but the photos are altered to make the person look darker skinned. Will that affect whether someone is rated smart? You bet.

There is still plenty of discrimination by skin color in this world, and in test after test like this one, the lighter-skinned people are perceived to be smarter, wealthier, even happier. It may surprise you that among those who rated differently, both whites and blacks give lower scores to people with darker skin. In our test, on average, the lighter faces were rated smarter.

While many blacks do not discriminate against each other by color this attitude is not unique. The fact that blacks often treat other blacks differently, based on the shade of their skin, is an open secret in the black community.


I spoke to University of Maryland students who say they’ve grown up with colorism.

“My mom said they used to always call me, um, chocolate baby,” said Shondra. “African-Americans went out of their way to make sure that I knew that me being black was something that wasn’t to be seen as beautiful,” said Ted.

“The worst insult a dark-skinned boy as a child, ever got is to be called African,” Jason said. “You can call me anything in the book when I was younger. Just don’t call me African,” he added.

Jason said people equate Africa to “savage.”


The Black Power movement was supposed to change those attitudes, and it did change some things. Suddenly there were some dark-skinned male stars who played the “hero” — Richard Roundtree played “Shaft,” and other stars followed, like Samuel L. Jackson, Wesley Snipes, and Oscar winners Denzel Washington and Jamie Foxx.

But the acceptance of darker skin seems to apply mostly to the macho guys. The part of the successful, educated black almost always goes to someone with lighter skin.

Actor Mel Jackson says light-skinned men like him tend to get the role of the “business executive.”

“If the character’s supposed to be more successful or more, more articulate or have a better background, they’ll easily cast me in that character,” he said.


For a black actress to become a leading lady, she’d better be light. Or maybe Hispanic, like Eva Mendes, Will Smith’s love interest in the current hit, “Hitch.” The light-skinned Mendes has played Denzel Washington’s wife in two films.

Colorism is especially prevalent in music videos. Kids we talked to on the street noticed that. And said they liked it.

“They all light skinned and they all look good,” one boy said. “There’s a lot of dark-skinned girls that are pretty, with long hair, bad, but they’re not in the videos though, it’s just the light-skinned ones that’s in the videos,” another added.

“The darker the woman takes on what I refer to as a “Ho” complex. She is the prostitute,” said Karen a University of Maryland student. “The lighter a woman is, well, she’s the goddess. She’s the untouchable. She is the woman that all the men in the video aspire to have,” she said.