“The Skin You’re In: Understanding the Truth Behind Skin Color Preferences” (September 2013)

The Skin Deep Truth Behind Colorism

By: Jonelle Henry

Original post: emPower Magazine


Ugh! That ugly phrase: “You’re pretty for a dark-skinned girl” should be banished from all future conversations. I admit, I haven’t heard this phrase said to me in a long time, but it still pops up every now and then and I just cringe every time I hear it out on the streets. It’s a half-compliment, people. Imagine what would happen if millions of dark-skinned girls just heard the phrase “You’re pretty!” How much more confident and empowered would that young girl be today? Instead, the skin tone of our girls around the world is under attack. Their God-given skin tone – both fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139) – is in crisis mode thanks to colorism.  Simply put, colorism is discrimination based on skin color and it’s not just a problem within the African American community, but this skin deep problem travels worldwide.


A few weeks ago, I co-hosted a town hall in DC with clinical therapist Nichola Brown, founder of the group Wonderfully Made, to discuss the global effects of colorism. The panel was made up of women from different ethnic backgrounds who described several instances in their personal lives of the negative effects of colorism. Just preparing for this town hall alone was an eye-opening experience. In just a few short weeks, after combing through a ton of research and reading through several articles, I ran across many disturbing truths:

I watched in disbelief a video featuring a Jamaican woman bleaching her skin with such care and detail. I’ve read numerous articles saying the new Miss. America Nina Davulur – who is of Indian descent – would never win a crown in India because she would be considered too dark. Too dark for what I wondered?  I watched the documentary Dark Girls, where men openly expressed their preference for lighter skin. In Thailand, the Vaseline product line has a lotion called “Healthy White.”  Over in Nigeria, a recent World Health Organization report revealed that Nigerian women are the biggest users of skin-lightening products.  Nearly 8 out of 10 Nigerian women bleach their skin. And I could go on and on and on with the stats.

Colorism also rears its ugly head in advertising, in our conversations and throughout society. Its origins are deeply rooted in the history of slavery and colonization — but we often continue the tradition in the most insensitive and self-destructive ways. Remember the paper bag tests of yesterday? Colorism eats away at our self-esteem and throws us into a never-ending cycle of comparisons. It brings us down in every way and pits brother against brother, sister against sister, society against society.

At the town hall, one of the female panelists talked honestly about the half compliments she’d received about her complexion such as, “Oh colorism2you’re pretty for a dark girl” or “Your make up looks cute on your dark skin” or even, “Wow, you can pull of color lipstick?” Again, can we please ban these insensitive and completely ridiculous statements? She told the audience all these comments were just plain ignorant.

One audience member, a mother, stood up and asked, “What can I tell my child to make her believe you all when you tell her she is beautiful?” It was then that I finally noticed the beautiful girl sitting next to her, who bravely stood up in front of a large crowd of adults, and told us how she hated being dark skin. People this is real. Colorism, skin preferences, whatever you want to label it affects the lives of our young people, our young girls. It makes them feel inadequate or as if they did something wrong. There are consequences that we don’t often talk about in these cases.  “If we continue in self-dislike, we are leading to anxiety, promiscuity, mental illness or suicide,” said clinical counselor Paula Anderson, President & CEO of Pace Consulting.  

Colorism is often looked at as a social problem, but it has economic and political consequences. In some parts of the world, people aren’t getting jobs because of their skin color. Opportunities are being taken away. Darker skinned people around the world are generally poorer, less educated, without resources. Again, this is real and goes beyond what we see here sometimes in the United States. But we can do something about it. We can shut this down.

We talk about change, but what are we doing about it? Are we writing letters? Boycotting advertisers? Are we telling our family members how skin preferences that lead to favoritism hurts? Are we challenging the lyrics and speech of our leaders and celebrities? Exactly what are we doing about this crisis? The future of our young girls – and boys – is at stake. We want children to lead the way and be productive in our society, but do we set them up for a bright future? Do they feel confident and bold? Do we encourage them daily and tell them they are perfectly made?

A father in the audience summed it up best: “When you are consistently telling your child you’re gorgeous, you’re beautiful, I love your hair, man, you’re awesome, guess what sticks? You’re gorgeous, you’re beautiful, I love your hair, man you’re awesome. When you hear it all the time that is what you believe.”


No truer words could have been spoken that day. It’s time to put this into practice.  Start at home. Then go outside and lead the way in your community. Challenge the way our world sees our young people. Find your voice. Be the change you want to see. And for heaven’s sake, please stop with the half-compliments on skin color.

Jonelle Henry is a producer at C-SPAN and the founder & host of Districtly Speaking. She is a board member of emPower Magazine and the former President of the DC chapter of the Alliance for Women in Media. Jonelle is very active in her community and currently serves as a Girl Scouts Troop Leader in the Southeast Washington, DC area and as a Power Mentor for Everybody Wins! Reading Program. 


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