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Colorism: the rarely-talked about workplace bias that affects millions

A painful truth: my lighter skin afforded me a certain level of acceptance within society when I was growing up in Singapore.

But. I was never quite “light enough” and I was also regularly accosted by salespeople trying to sell me skin-lightening creams.

What am I describing? Colorism – an insidious saboteur of inclusion efforts around the globe.

Colorism is the biased preference for people with light or white skin. Globally, we’ve been conditioned, through decades of oppression and media messaging, to associate whiteness with beauty, power, and prestige.

But skin tone only makes sense in comparison – so at the same time we’re taught these positive associations with white and light skin, research shows we’re taught to associate more melanated skin with ugliness, poverty, and criminality (it hurts even to type those words).

These associations deny darker-skinned people access to opportunities and quality of life. And not only from other communities, but often, from within their own too.

One area where this plays out is in global beauty standards, which are heavily linked to lightness and whiteness thanks to colonialism. Skin lightening creams and treatments are a multi-billion dollar industry in Asia and Africa, despite how dangerous they are.

Why U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar focuses on eradicating Colorism

When Minnesota State Representative Ilhan Omar was in high school, a boy said to her friend that she would be “more beautiful if she had lighter skin like Ilhan.” 😡

Can you imagine the pain of that experience for Rep. Omar and her friend? All these years later, that incident motivated her to take a strong stance on busting the availability of toxic skin-lightening products, which Representative Omar told me about in an interview for The New York Times.

But the beauty industry isn’t the only one plagued by colorism.

All workplaces perpetuate colorism which harmfully impacts dark-skinned women of color, in the form of getting passed over for promotions, mentoring opportunities, and other career achievements (if they get hired at all).

And it’s not just in the US. Colorism is affecting the career aspirations of women across Asia as well, where colorism is rampant. One study conducted in India found that dark-skinned women’s constant exclusion from access to work opportunities has trained them to stop striving for advancement altogether.

What can you do?

For starters, we can all get educated on this issue. Dr. Kimberly Norwood’s work and book on this topic are a must-read to get up to speed.

Greater awareness helps take the onus off dark-skinned women to “try harder to advance in their careers.” If you’ve been subscribed to Inclusion Is Leadership for some time, you know I never put the onus on individuals to address the systemic oppression that impacts them.

Instead, leaders must demonstrate their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion and the eradication of colorism in the recruitment process, policies, and especially in their everyday actions and practices.

And the most important pieces of advice for ending colorism at work?

Take responsibility, especially if you have white-skin privilege, to call out colorism when you see it and consistently check yourself for your own biases.

We all have the tools and opportunity to unlearn our own cultural biases through awareness and acting intentionally.

Educating ourselves, listening to others’ stories, and exploring other perspectives are an important starting place.

Have you experienced colorism? Have you witnessed skin tone bias in your life or in the media?


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