By Dr. Sarah Webb, Colorism Healing

Speaker, consultant and coach Dr. Sarah Webb joins us this week for our monthly Voices of Firefly series. In addition to sharing her insights in this article, Dr. Webb will also takeover Firefely’s Instagram account May 18-19. Follow us over there to learn more about the impact of colorism in the workplace.

It is commonly understood that when Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” that he was denouncing the destructive reality of racism. But what if we interpret his words more literally?

Even if racial categories were no longer relevant, we still face a system of oppression based on the literal color or shade of people’s skin. This system is known as colorism.

What is Colorism?

Colorism is a social system in which individuals with darker skin color are more likely to experience discrimination, stigmatization, and marginalization than individuals with lighter skin color. This pattern is consistent within and across diverse ethnic groups around the world.

The difference between racism and colorism can be a bit confusing at first, especially in cultures where “race” and “color” are used interchangeably. But race and color are not synonyms. It’s important to remember that people can be the same race yet have very different skin tones. Inversely, people can be of different races yet have the same skin tone.

In some regions of the world, however, racial categorization is more directly tied to phenotype (skin color, hair color and texture, eye color, etc.) than to ancestry. In those places, colorism and racism have a much stronger correlation.

The pattern remains, though, that greater social and economic status is afforded to groups with lighter complexions, whether or not the country or region is considered racially homogenous or racially diverse.

Why is Colorism Important?

Understanding the impact of colorism in society is a crucial component to furthering diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in any company or industry. Without being proactive in addressing colorism, companies and organizations run the risk of creating what I call “monochromatic diversity,” which happens when a group is racially and ethnically diverse, yet all members of the group have the same or very similar skin tones and features.

The billions of people around the globe constitute a very broad spectrum of human skin colors; therefore, businesses, organizations, and institutions simply cannot achieve true diversity or inclusion without addressing two key areas where colorism exists in most organizations:

#1: Address How Colorism Impacts Your Workforce

Photo: WOCInTechPhoto: WOCInTech

Colorism has a direct impact on employees and workers at all organizational levels. Though the biases and inequalities based on race are more widely known, there are also parallel biases and inequalities based on color.

In hiring, for example, studies show that interviewers are more likely to perceive lighter-skinned job candidates as having above-average intelligence than they are to perceive above-average intelligence among darker-skinned job candidates. Again, this is true even when all the applicants are of the same race. Furthermore, the research indicates that having lighter skin was actually more impactful in being perceived as intelligent and suitable for the job than having more education or more work experience.

After employment, however, is the question of pay. Researchers present data that show pay inequalities even among people of the same race. As skin tone darkens, they explain, the wider the pay gap between white workers and non-white workers.

Then, there is the important issue of workplace culture. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a government agency in the United States, has settled multiple cases of colorism within the workplace. These instances of creating an unsafe and hostile work environment on the basis of color include repeatedly being called “charcoal” by lighter-skinned management, being demoted or reassigned for being “too dark” for white clientele, being advised to change your skin color to better fit in, and being terminated after reporting such treatment.

The above examples demonstrate how much of a barrier colorism can be in not only getting a job but also in one’s ability to thrive while on the job. Hopefully, these examples also demonstrate to you just how important it is to include colorism in DEI efforts.

While addressing colorism within the workplace is an essential practice, businesses and institutions can also benefit from avoiding colorism in their customer or client-facing operations as well.

#2: Address How Colorism Impacts Your Customers

What does it take to attract diverse students, athletes, customers, or clients, and how do you make them feel comfortable enough to continue working with you in the future?

In many cases, your first engagement with a potential client might be through your branding or marketing. This is one of the most visible and measurable sites for identifying and rectifying colorism. You might conduct an audit of your visual marketing to determine if it is monochromatically diverse. Do most of the models, featured clients, characters, or spokespeople have similar skin tones?

It’s important to do such an audit in an intersectional way that considers other aspects of identity as well. For example, if there are images of darker-skinned people, how many of them are women?

Similarly, it’s vital to consider not just quantity but also quality of representation. How often in your ads or promotional materials or general marketing efforts do dark-skinned people appear in a leadership role rather than a supporting role?

This type of auditing, of course, requires ditching the “colorblind” approach. Because most people demonstrate an implicit bias in favor of lighter skin, we must tap into a conscious awareness of color in order to mitigate the unconscious bias.

Lastly, there is direct customer engagement. Employees at all levels must be trained in and committed to avoiding or mitigating instances of colorism in their interactions with clients.

It may seem overwhelming at first to think about adding yet another layer to your diversity, equity, and inclusion work. However, colorism must be addressed. Fortunately, attention to colorism will likely facilitate and bolster your efforts.


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