Bonnie Berry. Encyclopedia of Gender and Society. Editor: Jodi O’Brien. Volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2009. 

The term colorism refers to the biased treatment of individuals based on their skin color and can occur interracially (similar to race bias) or intraracially (with members of the same race expressing bias against fellow members based on skin color). Colorism also refers to other identifiable racial features, such as hair texture, lip shape, nose shape, eye shape, and eye color. Like gender, skin color and related phenotypical features are readily visible traits that designate minority or majority status. Other minority statuses are not necessarily visible and thus not immediately identifiable: ableism, lesbianism, religious affiliation, social class, criminal status, and so on. The visibility of a minority trait, racial identity in this case, is key since it almost automatically invites a public response that can be experienced as bias. This entry explores the compounded effects of colorism and sexism.

Colorism: Past and Present

Historically, colorism derives from notions of supremacy, with white Northern European standards being the “ideal” against which all others are measured. For the most part, white Northern European features have been and are favored over “colored” (e.g., African, Asian, Indian) features. In short bursts, as in the 1960s and 1970s, darker skin color was revered among some progressive Americans in movements celebrating ethnic identity, as seen in the “Black is Beautiful” and “la Raza” movements. This cohesiveness, evident in prideful movements, served to unify ethnic groups, sometimes to the degree that light-skinned coethnics were viewed by some as inferior, their skin color being evidence of mixed-race ancestry. This type of intraracial colorism, as with interracial colorism, is also a form of racial bias.

With regard to women of color specifically and the effects of intraracial colorism, Margaret Hunter examines the advantages and disadvantages of light skin. Although light skin is considered a social advantage, Hunter explains the obscure disadvantages of light skin among colored peoples, with such skin tones representing a suspected absence of racial consciousness. Lighter-colored African Americans and Mexican Americans are often rejected by their own ethnic communities. Valid or not, a judgment of ethnic inauthenticity prevails, resulting in attitudes that the lighter-colored ethnic members are not “Chicano enough” or “black enough.”

In some respects, colorism in the United States may be seen as having “come a long way” and in some ways not. In the early 20th century, the United States experienced a eugenics movement that sought to eliminate people of color largely by denying them reproduction. Prejudicial strategies such as eugenics have been replaced by subtler forms of colorism. For example, for as long as it has existed, the Miss America beauty pageant has been viewed by some as principally having to do with race, gender, and the U.S. national culture as a “commodity culture.” More recently, overtones of objectification and exploitation of women, racism, and reactionary nationalism represented in the pageant have become complicated by the participation of increasing numbers of nonwhite contestants. In an increasingly multiethnic and multiracial society such as the United States, beauty pageants may be seen as enforcing dominant, universal norms of beauty, juxtaposing white women against “the other” (nonwhite) women. African American women did not participate in the pageant until 1970 and did not win until 1984. In the meantime, they straightened their hair and tried to “pass” for white. Some critical observers have suggested that the inclusion of women of color into beauty pageants creates an idea of tolerance while simultaneously underscoring white beauty standards. In other words, by allowing participants of color, the contest appears to observe equal opportunity; nonetheless, minority participants are most likely to qualify if they have European facial features and “good hair” (meaning straight and smooth).

Colorism and Social Prospects: The Impact of Color on Social Opportunity

Marriage is one means, in addition to employment, of advancing oneself socially and gaining access to social power. As will be discussed, Asian women, more than men, undergo leg-lengthening and eyelid surgeries to be taller and more Caucasian looking. Women of color are more likely to lighten their skin to attract a financially secure marriage and a good job. Iranian, African American, Jewish, and Asian women have their noses reshaped to land better jobs and marriage partners. African American women have their lips reshaped for greater acceptability.

Marriage Market

Color is a stronger predictor of social placement than is parental socioeconomic status. In other words, gradations in skin color affect the socioeconomic status of African Americans as strongly as does race itself. Several studies show that, as a way of advancing oneself via the marriage market, lighter-skinned African Americans are more likely than darker-skinned African Americans to marry and to marry higher-earning, better financially endowed spouses. In terms of gender and skin tone, skin color influences the attractiveness ratings assigned to African American men far less than it does the attractiveness rating for African American women. The same is true for Asian Indians, who are found to use skin color as a marriage (and employment) preference criterion and to show bias against darker-skinned Indians.

Education and Employment Markets

Herring, Keith, and Horton conclude that skin color is a strong predictor of educational attainment, occupational status, and income, with lighter skin color consistently influencing opportunities for higher social and economic status among African Americans. For example, darker-skinned African American men are 52 percent less likely to be employed than their lighter-skinned counterparts.

More broadly, Herring et al.’s studies of job discrimination found that Hispanics and Asians with darker skin are also more likely to face job discrimination. In Latin American societies, natives with darker skin and more-indigenous native Indian features are more severely socially disadvantaged than those with lighter complexions and more-European features. Regarding income, Mexican Americans and First Nation Peoples (Native Americans) with darker complexions and nonwhite phenotypic characteristics earn significantly lower earnings than those with lighter color and more-European features. The lighter-colored Mexican Americans and those with more-European features receive more education than do their darker and more “Indian-looking” counterparts.

Nancy Etcoff, a writer on the topic of beauty, notes that light skin is universally preferred by men in African, Japanese, and other societies. In response to this cultural preference, as discussed below, Japanese women use light-colored makeup, and African women bleach their skin. Light skin for women grants privileges and rights. White skin represents power. Etcoff echoes many other authors when she observes that those who “pass” or look most like members of the group in power are more likely to be considered attractive by that society’s standards and therefore have more social power.

However, she noted a change in the willingness of African American women to appear white, dependent upon their social mobility. African American women and men continued to straighten their hair during the 1960s, and 75% of African American women still process their hair with straightening combs and chemical relaxers. But upper-middle-class African American women with long hair are more likely to wear their hair in ethnic styles (dreadlocks, twists, and Afros), suggesting that with increased economic power, African American women are more likely to display their ethnicity and reject pressures to appear white. Those who are less advantaged economically and who hope to rise to the middle class, however, still succumb to social pressure to conform and thus straighten their hair.

Race-Denying Changes and Altering Looks for Social Advancement

Most people engage to some extent in physical alterations to make themselves socially acceptable or desirable. Such changes are made in order to gain access to beneficial employment opportunities, marriage arrangements, club memberships, and educational entry. Some of them are meant purely for beautification (such as hair coloring, dieting, and plastic surgery), while other alterations (such as hair straightening, skin bleaching, and leg lengthening) frequently are for the combined purpose of beautification as well as adopting a more Caucasian appearance. The now-defunct practice of footbinding and the current practice of leg-lengthening surgery are specific almost exclusively to a particular race and gender, Chinese women, undertaken to gain advantageous marriages as well as better employment. On the whole, these procedures are expected to bring upward mobility.

Feminists for the most part, but not entirely, adopt the attitude that women should not endanger their health by engaging in looks-altering procedures, such as dieting and surgery, and they should not support a male-dominated system of forcing women to appear sexually attractive to men. Looks alterations have also been criticized for preoccupying women with frivolities instead of more meaningful political pursuits demanding equality regardless of our appearance. On the other hand, empirical research suggests that it is still the case that to be socially powerful and economically competitive, women must appear a certain way. Women of color have undergone and still do undergo race-denying changes. The leg-lengthening surgery mentioned above involves a gruesome procedure of breaking the long bones in the legs, then placing the legs in “fixator devices” until the space between the bones knits to create longer bones, thus adding a few inches of height. As racially “wrong” as this may seem, Chinese women do this to be competitive in the marriage and employment market.

Worldwide, there has been a phenomenal growth in the availability and number of skin-lightening products used in India, Africa, Asia, and the United States, the result of a social pairing of fairer complexions with beauty and success. For example, until recently an advertisement appeared in India that pictured a young, dark-skinned woman whose father lamented that he had no son to provide for him and his daughter was not earning enough salary. The daughter, it was suggested, could not get a better job or marry unless she lightened her dark skin. She used the skin lightener and secured a well-paying position as a flight attendant, which made her father very happy. The ad met with considerable social protest, leading to its removal.

Kenya provides similar examples of both acceptance and resistance to the idea that lighter skin means greater beauty. Skin lighteners are robustly marketed to African women as part of their beauty routine. In response, African social critics state that skin lighteners are a negative legacy of white colonialism. Unfortunately, there is plenty of evidence that light skin does indeed lead to greater chances of success. In addition to the racism involved in the pressure to be white, skin-lightening products, which often contain mercury, pose risks of disfigurement and skin cancer. Yet despite these problems (racism, disfigurement, and illness), African women remain economically dependent on men, meaning that they need to “marry well,” due to the same gender-dependent economic disparity that many cultures face.

Virginia Blum observes that Jewish girls often undergo nose reduction surgery in order to marry successful Jewish men. In this intriguing case of colorism, Jewish men prefer to marry Jewish women with small, WASP-like noses. In other words, Jewish women who alter their looks this way are redesigning themselves in the conventional WASP image—not for a gentile market of prospective husbands, but rather to please men of their own ethnicity. Asian Americans report a similar cultural schism. Asian American teenage girls undergo surgery on the epicanthal fold to gain the effect of the “Caucasian double lid” so prized among the Asian community as the preeminent sign of beautiful eyes. It is noteworthy that this surgery is intended to appeal to the aesthetic taste of young Asian men, who presumably share the same racial traits Asian women want to change.

Sander Gilman addresses surgery to “correct” ethnic features, such as “ethnic noses” (the Irish pug nose, the African nose, the Asian nose, the Jewish nose), “bat” or “jug” ears thought to be common to the Irish, and “Asian eyelids.” Disguising the nose through rhinoplasty and thinning the lips through plastic surgery, for instance, along with skin lightening and hair straightening, became a massive concern among African Americans in the past century. The intent was not to “pass” or to be “invisible.” Rather, the intent was to not be too visibly black or too visibly ethnic, however these are defined. Even in cultures such as Iran and Turkey, where the bodies of women, including faces, are mostly covered, there are growing numbers of Westernizing nose jobs.

Gilman notes that body imagery reflects the preferences of those with cultural and political power. For example, during the Vietnam War, Vietnamese women underwent Westernizing surgeries (breast implants, eyelid surgeries). After the war, there was a backlash against such surgeries. As time passed and the war faded from memory, Vietnamese women returned to Europeanizing surgeries: increasing the size of the nose and rounding out the eyes. In the People’s Republic of China, after Mao Tse-tung’s death and the liberalization that followed, eyelid surgery boomed as a sign of the increasing affluence of the general population. The reason for these Westernizing cosmetic surgical procedures was and is the ability to increase one’s income or marriageability. Overall, skin lightening, nose lengthening, and eye reshaping in present-day Asia (predominantly Japan and Vietnam) reflect the globalization of beauty standards rooted in European American stereotypes. People of color continue to be pressured to not be “too Asian,” “too African,” or otherwise “too nonwhite.”

The feminist argument that women should not alter their physical appearance in order to accommodate an antiegalitarian patriarchal and white supremacist system is very similar to the argument against ethnic cosmetic surgery. Some see such surgery as denying one’s identity and see those who engage in it as race traitors. Women of minority ethnic status, however, engage in looks alteration for the same reasons most others do: to advance socially and to be accepted. Since the turn of the 20th century, people in the United States and Europe have used cosmetic surgery to reduce or alter physical signs that they believe mark them as nonwhite or “Other.”


Colorism continues to be a significant social phenomenon. It affects access to social power and denies equality to those who are nonwhite. Because of the visibility of racial and ethnic markers, people of color are pressured to appear as members of the powerful group, which then encourages a continuation of colorism.