If you asked a child to give an example of a time they witnessed or experienced colorism, you’d probably get drastically different answers. Some might speak about a fellow classmate calling them names for being too dark, while others wouldn’t be able to respond because they simply don’t know what colorism is.
Merriam-Webster tells us that colorism is “prejudice or discrimination, especially within a racial or ethnic group favoring people with lighter skin over those with darker skin.”
But we don’t need a dictionary to tell us it exists in our communities and negatively affects our children, both in school and out.
“Telling you your skin is too dark, or you’re pretty for a dark skin girl is something that happens a lot in the Black community,” says Los Angeles-based entrepreneur Kheris Rogers. “Some people try to normalize, or people try to act like doesn’t exist when it simply does.”
Rogers, 16, knew from an early age exactly what colorism is — and what being bullied at school because of it feels like.
When she was just 10-years-old, her peers at her LA elementary school began telling her that because of her dark skin, she looked like a burned biscuit or a dead roach.
“They’d do the light skin versus dark skin girl, and growing up, we all pretty much experienced that the light skin girl pretty much always wins,” Rogers tells Word in Black. “Then I always thought to myself, why can’t we all just be beautiful?”
As a result, Rogers launched Flexin’ in My Complexion, a clothing brand focused on empowerment, anti-colorism, and anti-bullying. “When I look at myself in the mirror, I say nice things like, ‘I am smart. I am kind. I am confident,’” Rogers wrote on the Flexin’ in My Complexion site.
The Effect of Colorism on Black Students
Plenty of research has shown that lighter-skinned Black people are perceived as more beautiful, are more likely to get a job, and are given more lenient prison sentences than darker-skinned Black people.
Bias in favor of light skin shows up in the nation’s schools, too.
One recent study found that in schools, “the odds of suspension were about 3 times greater for young African American women with the darkest skin tone compared to those with the lightest skin.”
Another study found that “skin tone is strongly associated with black Americans’ educational attainment,” with “a gap of six months of schooling between the lightest- and darkest-skinned black Americans.”
“As you move along the color spectrum, the darker you are, the less important, beautiful, viable, or all of those things that society has imposed upon based on that notion of supremacy,” Dr. Joy DeGruy, author of “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome” explained to Good Morning America in 2020.
Watching her sister experience the academic consequences of colorism is a vivid memory Dr. Camika Royal, the author of “Not Paved for Us: Black Educators and Public School Reform in Philadelphia,” has of life during elementary school.
“She was treated like she was troubled the entire time she was in school,” Royal, an associate professor of urban education at Loyola University Maryland, tells Word in Black.
“She struggled in school. It was easier to ignore her needs, and amplify her issues because she was dark-skinned and because she was overweight.”
Royal says years later, people are surprised by the level of success her sister has achieved.
“I think a lot of people are shocked that she now has a doctorate — a Ph.D. in education — and is an administrator at Michigan State University.”
Even if they’re not perpetuating colorism, many educators aren’t prepared to deal with it in the classroom.
“Almost daily, I witnessed high school students identify, categorize and stereotype their peers based on skin tone,” David Knight, a former teacher at Boston Arts Academy, wrote for Learning For Justice in 2015.
Growing up in Louisiana, he was well aware of colorism and its roots in white supremacy. But, Knight explained, “I did not expect that so many young people of diverse ethnicities—including Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, and Cape Verdeans—would actively engage in everyday forms of skin-color bias. As one teacher in one classroom, what was I to do?”
Bring ‘Black is Beautiful’ Back
Knight also wrote that “Staying current on the research related to colorism and implicit bias is an important first step” for educators to take.
Indeed, to stamp out colorism, experts say establishing a culture of inclusivity and encouragement amongst students is crucial.
“Schools absolutely have a responsbility, but the schools don’t have the only responsiblity,” Royal says. “The adults who work in schools have to start with examining their own biases and prefrences.”
But simply being anti-colorism and anti-bullying isn’t enough. Impressionable students need to have the concept that “Black is Beautiful” explicitly taught to them.
“I think it’s important to go to school or system where the curriculum is focused and shaped by Blackness,” says diversity, equity, and inclusion expert Chinedu Nwokeafor.
Nwokeafor has spent years galvanizing people to fight for inequities impacting the Black community — including the HBCU Equity Case that brought $577 million to the four HBCU institutions in Maryland.
“I think it’s important to go to places where the importance of skin color is even talked about,” he says.
In Nwokeafor’s case, his experience as a Black Albino makes his perspective on colorism dramatically unique.
“Sometimes I wonder if my activist spirit is because I’m so in love with my Black people, or is there a hidden sign of me trying to prove how Black I am? That’s why I think it’s very dangerous — what we do,” Nwokeafor says.
For those unsure how to start teaching about colorism, a toolkit by Learning For Justice suggests ways educators can incorporate candid, student-centered conversations about these issues into the classroom.
The toolkit features an opportunity for self-reflection that educators, parents, or caregivers could use: “How do colorism and color privilege affect my students’ perceptions of themselves and others?”
Pay Attention to What Kids See in Pop Culture
Parents and teachers might not know the names of the latest rappers and influencers, but their kids do — and talking about colorism in hip-hop or pop culture can open the door to conversations about how light-skin privilege affects Black children and youth.
For example, a recent interview with Houston recording artist Monaleo, who is darker-skinned, and influencer Meghan James, who is lighter-skinned, ignited a heated discussion across social media platforms on how colorism shows up when Black people interact with one another.
However, James inaccurately defined it as including discrimination happening to people with lighter complexions. She subsequently shared examples of people being mean to her due to her skin tone.
“I stand by what I said about colorism still being a very real and prevalent issue. And there is no such thing as “reverse colorism,” Monaleo tweeted after the interview aired.
Many Twitter users showed their support for Monaleo’s attempt to explain that although lighter-toned people from the community go through their own struggles, it does not equate to the experience of their darker-skinned counterparts.
But young fans who aren’t on Twitter might not have the opportunity to see that online discussion and so run the risk of being confused about colorism if they don’t have a trusted adult to talk to about it.
“It starts in the media,” Royal says about print, television, and social media as a collective.
Being aware of and teaching students to analyze pop culture can ensure they’re clear about what colorism is and isn’t.
Ensure Students Know What Colorism Is
A big part of dispelling colorism is ensuring students — pre-K through 12th grade — understand what it is and know it is the result of white supremacy.
“It’s just very damaging to our community simply because of what it does,” Nwokeafor says. “It’s also very important to understand — no matter what it’s doing in our community — it’s doing something that has emanated from an enemy, who set it up to do just that.”
Old rhymes like, “If you’re Black, stay back; If you’re brown, stick around; If you’re yellow, you’re mellow; If you’re white, you’re all right” are prime examples of the traumatic mental effects of slavery in the United States. It’s well-documented that lighter-skinned enslaved people were often assigned domestic chores, while darker individuals worked outside.
This system of division and skin color privilege took root and recreated itself over generations — molded into intraracial judgment within the Black community.
“I was struck by how often students of color referred to each other as “light-skinned” or “dark-skinned,” Knight wrote.
Too often, colorism in the Black community leaves students questioning their identity, and even, as Kheris Rogers experienced, starting down a path toward self-esteem issues.
Create Spaces for Black-on-Black Love
Implementing lessons into the curriculum and helping kids understand racism as the root of colorism is only part of the journey toward fostering healthy interactions among students.
Creating what many call spaces of ‘Black love’ in the home, workforce, the media, and other places also plays a role in how kids interact with students who share their genetic makeup, but may not look like them.
“A lot of people think teasing someone or making fun of someone is a regular thing, but these things start at home. They’re not picking this up out of nowhere,” Rogers says.
And it’s true. As children grow, they absorb what they hear and see. Something as seemingly simple as rap lyrics encouraging lighter skin as the best skin can do harm. On the other hand, a popular movie with glamorous, powerful darker-skinned actors — like “Black Panther” or “The Woman King” — can influence a child’s perception of what they believe to be “beautiful.”
“I think it matters that we remember Black comes in all types of shades, and every single one of them is beautiful,” Royal says.
Meanwhile, Rogers has become an inspiration to her 306,000 followers on Instagram, and she continues to amplify a message she hopes people of all shades in the Black community can embody.
“Every day, I do affirmations, and I feel like that’s what everyone should be doing,” Rogers says. “No matter how confident you claim that you are, you still have to remind yourself who you are every single day. I try to sustain that.”