When it came time to choose a dissertation topic I always knew that I would be writing about colorism, a form of internalized oppression in which stereotypes, discrimination and privilege based on the hue of one’s skin occurs intraracially. Most of the time it’s the physical embodiment of the belief that Eurocentric features, such as fair skin, light eyes, and straight or wavy hair are more valuable and attractive than those within one’s own ethnicity. As a dark skinned African American women myself, I have definitely been negatively impacted by colorism. And so it seemed completely natural to want to explore this phenomenon from a psychological perspective.
The dissertation journey (and those who have embarked on it, know it is truly a journey!) began with collecting data by interviewing 10 self-described dark skinned African American women from Northern California, ranging in age from mid 30’s to late 60’s, about their experiences with colorism, how it impacted their self-esteem and the ways in which they were resilient to its negative effects. Because it’s not just about the problem, it’s also about how people bounced back from adversity and began to thrive!
So here’s where it got crazy. I suspected I might hear about hurtful experiences but I didn’t know that these women would be describing actual trauma symptoms when they discussed the impact of colorism on their sense of self. The pain of colorism as described by participants in the study incorporated characteristics of three different types of trauma: acute (usually one disturbing event), chronic (repeated experiences of trauma) and intergenerational (accumulation and transmission of the historical trauma from one generation to the next among ethnic groups). Participants reported intrusive thoughts, hypervigilance, and avoidance. Additionally, the impact of colorism is relatable to chronic trauma in that it is experienced repeatedly. “The reaction to the chronic trauma of constant rejection, being seen as less than, and unattractive becomes a maladaptive way of being. . .” such as “low self worth & acceptance of the fallacies of colorism,” and depression in regards to colorism (Pearson-Trammell, 2010). Intergenerationally, the research demonstrated that assumptions of colorism are passed down from the actions and behaviors of primary care givers, as well as other authority figures in the community.
The thing that makes colorism so disturbing is the insidiousness and pervasiveness of the phenomenon. It seems to be woven into many different cultures, mostly those impacted by colonialism and racial oppression. Additionally, its usually never talked about within the culture as a problem. Shhhh, it’s a secret! Yet, I know that for myself I grew up hearing derogatory comments about my skin tone from relatives and my fellow African American peers. And of course there were the ridiculous depictions of dark skin Black females in the media as unattractive, masculine, uneducated, or mammyish. It was so confusing! Say it loud I’m Black and I’m Proud, but not too Black!
But I digress, back to my dissertation summary. The other really important areas of interest in this study was the experience of resiliency in regards to colorism. Just how does one regain a positive self image in the face of this pervasive attack on one’s skin tone? See, what makes colorism so painful is that is experienced two-fold. It’s not just an intraracial phenomenon, but is reinforced by the dominant society via media images and when members of one racial group make distinctions based upon the skin color between members of another racial group (Herring, 2004).
Participants in the study discussed several different ways in which they were able to bounce back from colorism via their faith, various forms of resistance, positive reinforcement, passing along positive affirmations to the next generation and of course self-love! In fact, an identifiable experiential process of resiliency in regards to colorism became apparent while reviewing the data. This process of the internalization of positive self-image includes several different stages, including those previously listed. Of course these stages are described in more fabulous detail in my dissertation.
The psychological impact of colorism needs to be further discussed and researched, as do all forms of internalized oppression. When it’s kept a secret, these various forms of cruelty can be confusing and even crazy-making (Why do people of my own ethnicity dislike our ethnic features?). As noted in my findings, education and awareness are important factors to healing the wounds of oppression. I hope that we as psychologists will take an active stand against racial oppression by examining the emotional distress of caused by such injustice. But even more importantly, I hope that we can contribute to the healing of these wounds through compassionate exploration of resiliency.