Colorism – a silent bias in the world of diversity

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 located. In the United States, and especially in the Southern States, most people immediately think of race. In some parts of the US and most other countries, people think about race and gender. Within organizations that have launched diversity and inclusion initiatives, the meaning of “diversity” expands to include LGBTQ, age, ability, and many of the other differences between us that, when respected, create 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 discrimination in the workplace on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin. Although the word “color” is included as one of the many factors protected from discrimination, my work consistently brings to light, nationally and internationally, an unconscious bias regarding skin color, regardless of ethnicity. In the US, up until the 1960s and 1970s, the darker an African American person’s complexion was, the less likely that person was to achieve high status in the workplace; The lighter the skin tone and the straighter the hair, the more likely teachers would prefer black and white to that child. Although this bias towards career advancement is happily fading, research still shows that little girls prefer light skin and believe that dark skin is bad and/or ugly. In the 1980s and still today, various media portrayed lighter skin tones as more attractive and darker skin tones as scary or dangerous.

My global work reveals the same bias. I am often told, “We just need to focus on gender equality because race is not an issue here, our culture is open and accepting.” I am told, “We are all French, English or Mexican, there are none here Racial or ethnic bias.” However, as I observe the community in general and the workplace in particular, the bias around skin tone is evident. The lighter the skin, the higher the position held. Immigrants and their descendants in darker-skinned countries around the world hold the less prestigious jobs. Skin lightening creams are sold and used all over the world, even when the people who use them, usually women, are aware of the potential health hazards.

The roots of this bias run deep. Perhaps that is why acts of discrimination are so unconscious. Many communities and organizations celebrate diversity in October. In doing so, I invite you to take a real look at color.