Colorism, what is it? The word “diversity” when used in the workplace conjures up many meanings, often determined by where in the world you are. In the United States and especially in the southern states most people immediately think- race. In some parts of the US and within most other countries, people will think- race and gender. Within organizations that have launched diversity and inclusion initiatives the meaning of “diversity” broadens to include LGBTQ, age, abilities and many of the other differences among us that when respected creates a healthy and productive diversity of thought. Rarely, however do people think of colorism as an aspect of diversity and bias.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. Although the word ‘color’ is included as one of the many factors protected against discrimination, my work nationally and internationally continually surfaces an unconscious bias related to skin color regardless of ethnicity. In the US, until the 60’s and 70’s, the darker an African American person’s complexion the less likely that person would reach a high status in the workplace; the lighter the complexion and straighter the hair the more likely teachers Black and White would favor that child. Although thankfully this bias is fading as it relates to job advancement, research still indicates that little girls prefer to have fair skin and believe dark skin is bad and/or ugly. In the 80’s and still present today, various media depict lighter skin tones as more attractive, and darker skin tone scary or dangerous.
My global work reveals the same bias. Often I am told, ‘we just need to focus on gender equity because race is not an issue here, our culture is open and accepting.’ I am told, ‘we are all French, or English, or Mexican no race or ethnic bias exists here.’ Yet, when I observe the community at large and the workplaces in particular, bias regarding tone of skin is evident. The lighter the skin the higher the position held. Immigrants and their descendants in countries around the world with darker skin hold the less prestigious jobs. Globally, skin lightening creams are sold and used even when the people, usually women, using them know of the potential health dangers.
The root of this bias runs deep. Perhaps that is why the acts of discrimination are so unconscious. Many communities and organizations celebrate diversity during the month of October. As you do so, I invite you to take a real look at color.