As long ago as 2005, an ABC News report on colorism called it "an open secret in the black community." Two more recent documentaries about the issue, 2011's Dark Girls, and its 2015 offshoot, Light Girls, present it primarily as a source of pain inflicted both on and by African-Americans.
There's a broad assumption that this phenomenon — a preference for light skin over dark and accompanying discrimination — is contained within the black community and other communities of color. But now, research suggests that some white people buy into colorism, too.
In a new study published in the journal Social Currents, Villanova University's Lance Hannon found that, all things being equal, white interviewers deemed lighter-skinned blacks and Hispanics more intelligent than darker-skinned people who had identical educational achievement, vocabularies, scores on a political test, and a variety of other factors.
The results provide good reason to believe that what Hannon calls "white colorism" exists. And they raise concerns about what unfair, complexion-based beliefs about who's smart and who's not can have in every area of American life.
Skin color discrimination by white people isn't a new concept. As Hannon writes in the paper, "The history of white colorism runs as deep as the history of white racism in U.S. society. For African Americans, the skin color hierarchy is firmly rooted in the slavery regime, where white owners gave certain work privileges to slaves with more Eurocentric features."
And in fact, colorism in various areas of American life has been studied before. In his write up of the new research, Pacific Standard's Tom Jacobs summed up the findings of previous studies on the topic, with conclusions including:
- lighter-skinned black men with bachelor's degrees have a distinct advantage in job application processes over black men who have MBAs;
- lighter skinned black women in North Carolina received lighter prison sentences than their darker peers;
- African-Americans with more education are remembered as being lighter than they actually are.
But Hannon's new research is the first to focus on how colorism determines white people's perceptions of the intelligence of people of color.
He analyzed data from the 2012 American National Election Study, which is a face-to-face survey on social and political values and opinion. Interviewers are required to describe each subject's skin tone on a 10-point scale, and also rate intelligence on a five-point scale from "very low" to "very high."
Looking at the results for 223 African-American and Hispanic subjects who were interviewed by white interviewers, he found that African Americans and Latinos who were deemed to have lighter skin tones were also significantly more likely to be seen as intelligent.
If you're wondering whether it could be that the lighter-skinned subjects really were more intelligent (perhaps because of the way colorism in the larger society affected their educational opportunities) you're wrong — Hannon controlled for all of that. "Importantly, the effects of skin tone on intelligence assessment were independent of respondent education level, vocabulary test score, political knowledge assessment, and other demographic factors," he wrote.
Consequently, the interviewers could look at two identically qualified black or Hispanic subjects and assess the lighter one as being smarter.
Why white colorism matters
The research drives home the point that colorism is not just a form of prejudice people of color impose on each other. Also, it's a reminder that that while it's certainly a relevant part of conversations where it most often arises — about things like worldwide demand for skin bleaching cream, debates about dating preferences, and more diverse representation of black women in Hollywood — the harm it causes extends far beyond these realms.
A belief among some white people that darker-skinned black and Hispanic people aren't smart could have (and is likely already having) society-wide impacts that perpetuate inequality. "If white adults have a tendency to equate lighter skin with intelligence," Hannon concluded, "this may impact the quality and level of expectations white teachers and other school authorities have for certain students."
It's reasonable to conclude that this type of thinking — whether it's conscious or the result of implicit bias — could taint decisions about everything from hiring and promotions, awards and internships, to mentorship and all of the other judgments that determine the trajectory of a person's life.
The paper calls for future sociological research to stop treating colorism as something that only happens within racial groups, and insists that if American racism is to be fully addressed, white colorism will have to be a part of the conversation.