Skip to main content
Skip to main menu Skip to spotlight region Skip to secondary region Skip to UGA region Skip to Tertiary region Skip to Quaternary region Skip to unit footer


A history of colorism sheds light on discrimination today

Katie Cowart

Colorism is a form of discrimination, typically within a racial or ethnic group, favoring people with lighter skin over those with darker skin.This pernicious form of discrimination is often overshadowed in discussions about racism, but it affects a broad swath of people across multiple populations.

A new study by a University of Georgia researcher explores the present-day impact of colorism, provides case studies of the effect of skin tone on U.S. politics, and discusses the appropriation of skin color seen in transracial performances, as well as the global skin lightening industry.

Researcher Vanessa Gonlin says the effects of colorism can be devastating within and across communities. Several studies since 2006 have documented how darker skin is associated with longer prison sentences for the same crime, decreased mental and physical health, lower marital rates for women, lower wages for men and immigrants, and lower perceived intelligence.

While this form of discrimination changes across cultures and through time, in most cases darker skin is associated with negative attributes and lighter skin is connected to positive attributes. The question is, why is more melanin seen as bad and lighter skin seen as good?

“In Asian communities, this was a part of their culture long before they met Europeans. People with the luxury of staying inside and avoiding physical labor outdoors had lighter skin. Lighter skin became a symbol of higher class,” said Gonlin, assistant professor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences department of sociology. “This was also the case historically in Europe, where having ‘blue veins’ or ‘blue blood,’ which refers to having pale and cool-toned skin thus making veins look blue, was viewed as having ‘noble’ and ‘untainted’ blood. Today, this has reversed in the western world as tan skin among white people has become more popular, as tan skin is now associated with the luxury of going on vacations or spending leisure time tanning.”

By highlighting historical examples and origins that connect to modern day experiences, Gonlin hopes to encourage more knowledge of this phenomenon and include history in conversations about colorism.

Continue reading...

Image: Assistant professor of sociology Vanessa Gonlin

Support Franklin College

We appreciate your financial support. Your gift is important to us and helps support critical opportunities for students and faculty alike, including lectures, travel support, and any number of educational events that augment the classroom experience. Click here to learn more about giving.