Dark Skin Pain, Light Skin Privilege: Nine Solutions to Dismantling Colorism in the Black Community

Suzanne Vierling PhD
8 min readOct 14, 2017


Colorism finds its origins in slavery. During this time, we found that white slave owners preferred Africans who possessed European features. Light-skinned slaves were oftentimes products of rape between the European slave-owner and African women. The lighter skinned black slave worked closer and was sometimes related to the slave-owners family. They also receiving higher valued work assignments. This color based acceptance /rejection continuum is still internalized by African Americans over 300 years later. In turn, we use the same color value-based system to discriminate against each other.

Research on colorism indicates that racism exists and delineates the benefits of light skin privilege, even to the point of equating it to the power of male patriarchy and white feminism. It can’t be denied that colorism gives some black people advantage. Colorism hangs over our heads divisively and impacts our lives. We end up pitted against each other and the pain seems to be never ending.

Solutions to colorism have been focused on the victims of colorism and not to those who maintain it. We are accustomed to seeing dark skinned and light skin women process their emotional pain related to their “status” inside the black community. We hear about who’s been given privilege and who didn’t and why. We silence those who we feel have privilege for the sake of raising the voices of those who suffer from blatant rejection. We are accustomed to accurately stating “It’s the fault of white supremacy.” Indeed — white supremacy created colorism — a form of intraethnic, intraracial discrimination practiced globally. However, pleading with and waiting for racist systemic forces to take the lead in extinguishing this product of colonialism is not going to happen anytime soon. Many are working on it but don’t wait on it.

Rarely is there discussion on those inside our community who perpetrate colorism.

The power behind maintaining colorism lies in all of us who participate in applying hierarchical value on someone’s physical features. Dismantling colorism lies in going after those who perpetuate it.

Here are 9 solutions that we can work on today to dismantle colorism. (Please find your own style in which to communicate the recommendations below!)

1. SELF. Do you show a preference? Do you assign high value to lighter skinned black people? Lower value to browner black people? Work on shaking up your own level of self-hate. Be mindful of your reactions. Study your history. Take pride in all the contributions made around the world by men and women that look like you. Have empathy for all the children around you who are placed in a value based hierarchy before they can even speak. Mourn how badly you may have been treated. Acknowledge your privilege.

2. FAMILY, INFANTS and COLORIST LANGUAGE. Family members assign value to black babies the day they are born. A great many grandmother, mother, auntie inspect and imprint a hue-based value on black babies in the hospital before they even make it home. Konrad Lorenz, the psychologist known for his work on imprinting, shares that we are powerful in shaping our children’s psyche’s at birth. The goal is to be aware that this happens and to interrupt the pattern laid down since the days of slavery by blocking and diverting colorist imprinting of your infant. Family members scan the following parts of the black baby’s body:
A. Hair texture. Will the curly hair become “nappy?” The curlier the hair, the more concern there is that it won’t stay that way and it’ll become kinky. “Her hair is going to break the comb!” “I hope she get her momma’s straight hair.” “Ooh I hope it’s long!”

B. The nose. Unfortunately, the African continent gets thrown under the bus on this one. If the nose is wide at birth, the concern is that it will be too “African.” Mothers spending hours pinching the bridge of the nose in hopes of straightening it out. Some grandmothers have been known to put a clothespin on the bridge of the nose. The assumption is that the bones of an infant are pliable and that the nose can be straightened. “He got a big old nose!” “Her nose went back to Africa!”

C. The ears, knuckles and knees. If this color is darker than the rest of the baby’s skin, the well-ingrained belief is that those areas are a strong indicator of how dark the baby will become. It’s believed that the rest of the infant’s body will darken up to match those areas. Sadly, prayers have been sent up to stop this from happening! “I hope he doesn’t get too dark!”

3. FAMILY and COLORIST LANGUAGE. Actively check family members for their use of colorist language. It might be helpful to counter colorist comments like so:
A. “Dad, my sister is beautiful just the way that she is. Saying she is pretty for a dark girl makes me and her sad and hurts her feelings.”

B. “Mom, I don’t care if my children come out browner than me. Please don’t say negative things about color to your future grandchildren.”

C. “Kinky hair is great hair. The texture is normal. Please do not make my kids feel bad about themselves.”

D. “Uncle, black girls grow up in a lot of emotional pain when they get picked over like clothes on a rack because of their color. Stop.”

E. “Auntie, black boys grow up to hate black women when jokes are made about their black skin. Stop.”

F. White/Latin/Asian mom, don’t throw your hands up in despair in front of your daughter when combing her hair. Handle your business, watch some YouTube tutorials or get some sisters to help you.

G. White/Black/Latin/Asian dad, do not sit silent while family members make tone deaf comments. Silence signals your agreement and it hurts. Speak up and protect even if you’re scared you’ll meet resistance.

H. “Before you come over, please don’t say anything colorist about my kids.”

4. MEN. Black men have no idea how painful it is to women and men when they scan the room and make it obvious that their choices are based on colorism.
A. Acknowledge your privilege in this area. Men carry the bulk of the power in maintaining colorism inside the community. No matter how many times the womanists may clap back, most black women who want a black man as a lover/life partner/husband, seek to be considered desirable to the men in their culture. The rejection by men because of the woman’s hue is most painful. While it is not fair that colorism was handed down to men, a contribution towards dismantling it will go a long way — for generations to come.

B. Check colorist language: “Hey I don’t like that you said she is pretty for a dark girl/he is fine for a dark guy. Our race has been through enough for you to make dark skinned sisters/brothers feel rejection. Not feelin’ it. Don’t do it again.”

C. Showing preference for light skin children: Raising black children in this culture is difficult, regardless of their complexion. Disregarding a potential partner because you fear having dark skinned children is wrong. Avoidance of a woman for the concern of how the children will come out is akin to eugenics.

D. Engage in dialogue: Be bold and gather your friends together to discuss this issue. Discuss your fears, concerns, personal pain, and privilege and make a pledge to eliminate colorism from your community.

5. CHURCHES. Ask your pastor for time to speak in which you can read these solutions to the congregation. Your congregation is going to be filled with all the black baby loving little old grandmothers who make the colorist comments and pinch those babies noses’ hoping for a slimmer nose!

6. YOUNG CHILDREN. Control the TV to the best of your ability for younger children so that they don’t internalize colorist messages. Small children are impacted by images more than words. Images on TV permeate so powerfully to the point that black children continue to view a white person’s image as superior to that of a black person’s image. A 1949 study wherein black children were presented with a white doll and a black doll were asked to identify what they thought was the superior image. The study concluded with black children pointing to white images as superior to black images. The study is replicated time and time again and concludes the same every time. http://www.cnn.com/2010/US/05/13/doll.study/index.html

A. Teach boys not to assign teenage girls value based on a color hierarchy. Girls are more likely to be on the receiving end of being permanently placed on a colorist-based hierarchy.

B. Teach girls not to make fun of dark skinned boys. We cannot afford anymore Tommy Sotomayors. We owe it to the next generation.

C. Teach girls and boys the definition of colorism and to not use colorist language.

8. RICH BLACK HOLLYWOOD/ATLANTA. They have the power and money to produce films and cast any way they wish. Let them know that there is no need to pander and beg for casting and EGAT awards. Produce and lead. Issa Rae has already demonstrated that content is king, no matter the medium.

9. EMPLOYMENT. Employment law is indeed on the side of stamping out colorism. It can’t be denied that lawsuits are correcting colorism in the workplace. As early as 1998 the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) settled a “same race” case.
(Veterans Admin., EEOC №140–97–8374x-RNS (Sept. 21, 1998).) https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/initiatives/e-race/caselist.cfm#color
This precedent was set without much fanfare. But it wasn’t until 2003 when a dark skinned brother retained the EEOC and brought visibility to a successful lawsuit against his light skinned male supervisor and Applebee’s corporation.
(EEOC v. Applebee’s Int’l Inc., №1:02-CV-829 (D. Ga. Aug. 7, 2003).) https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/release/8-07-03.cfm
Nothing can put corporate America in its place more than a lawsuit. This case in particular continues to reverberate amongst employment law firms and corporate America. The EEOC centers colorism on their site and many law firms have carved out a niche industry as an increasing number of lawsuits are settled every year. It’s well known that companies actually have to abide by protected class laws and protect black people from discrimination experienced in the workplace not only from white people but also from black people. Don’t mess with the white man’s money. Employers now know to think twice.


In short, radical protest through calling out the perpetrators of colorism is necessary. We may lose some friendships but it will be worth it for subsequent generations to not being raised with self-revulsion and to heal. We need to do this in order to better our communities and ourselves.