Posted on April 3, 2015

With Colorism, It’s Often the Lighter Your Skin the Better

Doug Moore, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 2, 2015

On the color spectrum, Kimberly Norwood considers herself closer to Michelle Obama than Halle Berry.

Growing up in Harlem, N.Y., she remembers having darker skin than her mother, whose pigment was closer to Berry’s. People on the street would say to her mother: That can’t be your daughter.

“It was always in the tone of ‘she’s ugly, she’s dirty.’ I remember looking at my mother and others like her as beautiful. I didn’t go out for plays in school because my skin was too dark and people wouldn’t want someone like me.”

Colorism, which refers to how people are treated based on the shade of their skin, is a topic that Norwood, now a law professor at Washington University, turned into a book last year.

It is often referred to as an implicit bias, coming from people who say they are not racist but carry with them perceptions of beauty and intelligence based on skin color.

“We have laws preventing discrimination based on race, right? But in the workplace, a company can say, ‘Look, we hire blacks.’ But what you will see is blacks are lighter in skin color. Company after company, model after model, news anchor after news anchor, it’s lightness over darkness.”

A two-day conference addressing colorism and its ramifications begins Thursday at Washington University. Organizers say they believe it is the first international conference in the U.S. dealing with a topic that goes beyond African-Americans.

“Today in the U.S. and throughout the world, the darker one’s skin, and indeed the blacker one’s features–kinky hair, broad noses, large lips–the lower that person generally is on the economic and social totem pole,” Norwood said.

Vetta Thompson, a psychology professor at Washington University, said she was fully aware early on of her dark features as a black woman.

Men whom she dated–briefly–said to her: “If you weren’t so dark you would be pretty.”


But it wasn’t until Norwood’s trip to China in the spring of 2010 that she realized that colorism is a global issue.

No matter the weather, women were walking around with umbrellas. One of Norwood’s Chinese guides said to her: ‘Well, who wants to be dark?’ ”

“When she said that, I really started being more alert,” Norwood said.

“Chinese images portrayed in media were of very fair Chinese people,” Norwood said in her book, “Color Matters: Skin Tone Bias and the Myth of a Postracial America.”

The more she looked, “one could just barely spot any remnants of their ‘Asianness.’ Eye shape, eyebrows, noses and mouths looked strikingly Caucasian.”


As Norwood continued work on the book, she found skin bleaching products were outselling soft drinks in India, and in African countries, women were becoming sick and sometimes dying from the high levels of mercury in the creams they were using to lighten their skin.

Thompson, who also will participate in the conference, said colorism comes from within races as well as between races.

While an employer may pass over a darker-skinned black employee for one with a lighter complexion, paler-skinned blacks can be bullied by classmates because they are not black enough, she said.