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Discrimination based on skin tone is global problem; conference here looks at colorism

Kimberly Norwood, author of a book on the topic, says the effects of colorism remain pervasive.
Washington University and Amazon

While conversations about race have become more common since the shooting death of Michael Brown, some scholars are hoping to expand the dialogue to include colorism, discrimination based on degrees of skin tone.

The Whitney R. Harris World Law Institute at Washington University School of Law is hosting a two-day conference, “Global Perspectives on Colorism.”

The conference starts today and will feature panels on color distinctions in Asia, Latin America and among black people in the United States. It will also explore the impacts of discrimination based on skin shade.

Kimberly Norwood, a professor of law at Washington University helped organize the conference. Norwood is also author of the book “Color Matters: Skin Tone Bias and the Myth of Post-Racial America,” She says it’s important to talk about colorism now.

“Unless we open our eyes we and do something different, we are going to keep reproducing this system where white males are on the top and they own everything and everyone else falls (like) dominoes behind them,” she said.

Highlights from interview with Kimberly Norwood

On why she started her book talking about bleached pistachios

One day I was reading this article. It was a newspaper. I think it was called the China Daily, and they had a story on how the people were reacting to these bleached nuts ... and so they were talking about how China is the largest consumer in the world of pistachios and what they do is they bleach these pistachios. In their natural state, pistachios come in a caramel-colored shell, but if you sell them in their natural state people won’t buy them.

"So what they found is that if they bleach them, if they make them lighter, then people will buy them. So they interviewed all of these folks and said, 'Well, these are the same. What’s the deal? Why would you choose the lighter ones over the darker?' and everybody uniformly said lighter is better, lighter is clean. It’s unblemished; it’s pure; it’s better. And it just hit me like a bolt, like from everything, from skin even down to food, whiter is better.”

Defining colorism and differentiating from racism.

"So, colorism is the preference for lighter skin over darker skin. Lighter skin tone, over darker skin tone. I like to use the example of lighter skin Chinese over darker skin Chinese  because the question that I get most often is how is colorism different from racism … and so colorism deals with the tone of the skin. When you're talking about Chinese people for example, and when I say to you all of my female Chinese students tell me that their parents want them to marry first of all a white male, but if they cannot get a white male then they should marry a very light Chinese male.

"We are talking about a light-skinned Chinese person over a dark-skinned Chinese person. That has nothing to do with racism. ... I was at a school the other day and a young black male said to me that he would date black women, he doesn't have a problem with that, but they have to be light in skin color. So that within the same quote unquote race, within the same ethnicity, you are still making choices based on skin tone. So that’s how they differ. They can be the same, but they don't have to be.”

On what’s unique or misunderstood about colorism

"I’ve learned through this journey that people often don't understand the toll this takes on a community. Colorism is killing a black community in lots of ways … what I’m talking about now is this infighting that occurs among black people in the United States. Within families, within all kinds of communities there is preference for lighter skin over darker skin.

"Children tell of stories of how their parents prefer their siblings who are lighter than those who are darker. Grandparents, teachers ... this affects the child, particularly girls, so that they hate the skin they are in. People are still talking about bleaching themselves; people are still talking about scrubbing the black off. Little girls who have the same skin color as Michelle Obama are still saying 'My skin looks nasty. I don’t want to be brown.' They don’t want to play with brown dolls. They associate all sorts of negative things with brown skin."  

You can find a conference schedule here.

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