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Recognizing and Addressing Colorism in Schools

This educator and researcher illustrates what colorism looks like in schools—and how to counter it.

In 1983, Alice Walker used the term colorism to describe “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color.” (Read more on the topic in TT’s feature story “'What’s ‘Colorism’?'”) Although the focus is often on skin tone, colorism is also associated with prejudice based on other physical traits, such as hair texture, eye color, nose shape or lip size.

Although I experienced colorism growing up, it wasn’t until my first year of teaching that I decided to do something about it. I realized the urgency of addressing colorism while teaching freshman English at a predominantly African-American high school in south Louisiana. Students would say things like, “I’m ashamed because I got dark over the summer,” “I wish I was light-skinned like my mother” and “I don’t like dark-skinned people until I get to know them. Then I might like them.” There were even times when students expressed judgements about characters in stories based solely on descriptions of the characters’ skin tones.

In my own experiences as a student and as a teacher, I’ve witnessed how significant the school environment is in perpetuating colorism among children. Many people place the burden of dealing with colorism on “the home,” but children spend way too many waking hours at school to deny the influence of this environment in their lives. At a recent workshop for middle school faculty, I presented the following information on how colorism might affect students, along with strategies for identifying and addressing it.

How Colorism Might Affect Your Students

Colorism is a social phenomenon that, like racism, leads to disparities and inequalities between groups. Studies have shown that students of color with lighter skin are perceived and treated more favorably. These kinds of biases can be held by educators, a factor that could directly impact the quality of education certain students receive. “The Relationship Between Skin Tone and School Suspension for African Americans,” a study published in 2013, found that among the students sampled, African-American girls with the darkest skin tones were three times more likely to be suspended from school than African-American girls with the lightest skin tones. [1]

In many cases, the colorism displayed by educators stems from implicit biases they have about people with darker skin—biases they may not know they have. Yet, the effects are damaging for students, whether it results in unfair disciplinary action or prevention from taking more advanced courses. They key for educators is to recognize, understand and counteract these biases.

On a more micro scale, colorism might also be the source of interpersonal conflict among students, leading to bullying, harassment or fighting. Individual students might struggle with depression, alienation, negative body image and low self-esteem. [2][3]

Recognizing Colorism in Schools

Colorism can readily be identified by listening to what students—and adults—say. Notice labels such as light-bright, yellow, high yellow, red, red bone, caramel, jigaboo, blackie, darky, burnt, blue-black and charcoal. [4] Notice evaluative comments such as “Pretty for a dark-skinned girl,” “I’m not black; I’m brown,” “Black and ugly,” “Pretty light-skinned girls,” “Acting light-skinned” and “Why are your lips so big?”

Common behavioral cues might include excessive attention to personal appearance, avoiding direct exposure to sunlight, playing with a classmate’s hair, excessive grooming of one’s own hair, attempts to alter or minimize certain facial features, and any signs of insecurity or hyper aggression. When it comes to identifying colorism as the motivation for various behaviors, it’s important to consider context and to check for patterns of behavior, such as consistently forming teams with students of a particular complexion.

Classroom and Schoolwide Strategies for Addressing Colorism

One thing all educators can do immediately is address colorism when and where you see it. If a public display of colorism occurs in your presence, make an immediate effort to publically address and counteract it. Consider it a teachable moment. Silence condones, validates and sustains colorism, especially in the eyes of young people. Here are some strategies for addressing it:

  • Provide targeted counseling and mediation. Acknowledging colorism as one distinct source of common adolescent issues like low self-esteem, poor anger management, depression or self-destructive behaviors can be more effective than merely addressing these issues generically.
  • Provide ongoing mentorship. Researchers have found that positive experiences and conversations with role models can be effective interventions for students dealing with colorism. [5][6]
  • Monitor school and classroom discipline. [1][5] Check for colorism bias in patterns of both punishment and reward. Consider shifting from a punitive discipline model to one that is responsive and that integrates mentorship, mediation and counseling.
  • Commit to culturally relevant curriculum, pedagogy and programming. [6][7] Because whiteness is affirmed by default throughout U.S. society, educators must not be afraid to proactively center and affirm other races, ethnicities and skin tones.

Recommended Readings:

Flake, Sharon G. The Skin I’m In, 2007, YA fiction

Hunter, Margaret L. Race, Gender, and the Politics of Skin Tone, 2005, non-fiction

Rawles, Calida Garcia. Same Difference, 2010, children’s book

Russell, Kathy; Midge Wilson, Ronald Hall. The Color Complex (Revised): The Politics of Skin Color in a New Millennium, 2013, non-fiction

References:

[1] Hannon, DeFina & Bruch, 2013

[2] Breland-Noble, 2013

[3] Cunningham, 1997

[4] Wilder, 2010

[5] Monroe, 2013

[6] Stephens & Few, 2007

[7] Ladson-Billings, 1995

Webb is a Ph.D. candidate at Louisiana State University and the founder of ColorismHealing.org.