Colorism in the Workplace

Colorism happens when people of the same racial group discriminate against each other based on skin tone.
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Colorism, like racism, generates unfair and inaccurate stereotypes about people based on the lightness or darkness of their skin. While racism exists between people of different races, colorism can exist between people of the same race. Colorism presents many challenges to a workplace environment which are often quite similar to the challenges racism presents. These issues have many implications for how a company might respond to colorism.


    Colorism in the workplace can result in discriminatory practices, both during the hiring process, as well as during the day-to-day activities of a job. According to professor of psychology Matthew Harrison, dark-skinned African-Americans are often overlooked during the hiring process when they are applying for the same job as light-skinned African-Americans. Similarly, light-skinned African-Americans are also shown preferential treatment compared to dark-skinned African-Americans when it comes to job assignments and salary increases.


    Members of racial communities in which colorism takes place -- such as African-Americans, Latinos and Indians -- are well aware of how colorism affects perception. Consequently, members of the same racial community can sometimes compete with other members of that same community, particularly when it comes to workplace performance. Marita Golden writes that the “colorism complex” causes some members of the African-American community to assume that lightness of skin is equivalent with superiority. According to Golden, this can cause light-skinned African-Americans to act dismissively to darker-skinned African-Americans, which in turn inspires darker-skinned African-Americans to compete with their lighter-skinned coworkers.


    Golden refers to colorism as a “mental health crisis” in the African-American community because of the amount of discord it generates between community members. Claudio Cabrera writes of this discord in his Dominican neighborhood in Queens. Cabrera states that many of his countrymen didn’t regard him as Dominican because of his darker skin color. In the workplace, this type of antagonism can affect coworkers’ willingness to work together and cooperate. The “mental health crisis” is also a workplace crisis, in that discord within a community generates unproductive in-fighting, rather than productive cooperation.


    Both Harrison and Golden regard colorism as a mental health problem. They both suggest addressing the problem of colorism in ways similar to those used to address racism. Harrison contends, “Shedding light on [colorisms’] inaccuracies will encourage the eradication of these false perceptions.” Specifically, colorism in the workplace can be addressed in training exercises and hiring practices that identify it as a problematic, unproductive and unacceptable practice. Doing helps create a more cooperative and productive workplace.

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