I Wish I Were Light Skinned Like You: Colorism in the U.S. and Latin America 

By Keshia Harris, Ph.D.

Have you ever wished you were another color or race? Have you ever wished more people found you attractive or that you didn’t have to fight so hard to be valued by society? First, I want to say, this is normal. Second, I want to assure you that you can have this thought at some point in your life and STILL develop a profound sense of pride in your race and skin color. 

If colorism is a concept that is completely foreign to you or not at all a part of your social experience, I’ll take the liberty to explain. 

Colorism in the U.S.

During my master’s degree training in mental health counseling at Columbia University Teachers College, I interned as a youth development counselor at the Harlem Educational Activities Fund (HEAF). I’ll always remember the words of my 6th grade client, “I wish I were light skinned like you”. A gorgeous Jamaican American girl with espresso brown skin and thick curly hair, she longed so much to be as popular as her Dominican American friends with light brown skin and hair down their backs. 

I was shocked by her comment. As the darkest woman in my household and often the darkest person in my friend groups, I was keenly aware of where I fell on the skin color spectrum. No one, and I mean NO ONE, had ever referred to me as light skinned. 

My next reaction was deep remorse. How was it that such a majestic young queen could possibly see herself as ugly? Through introspective beauty activities such as having my client identify all of the Black female celebrities she admired (Beyoncé, Rihanna, etc.), we realized that she didn’t actually see me as light skinned. Rather, she saw me as pretty. In one of our final sessions, I put my arm next to hers so she could see the similarities in our skin tone. 

Colorism in Brazil and Colombia 

Unfortunately, the effects of colorism determine the life outcomes of communities of color far beyond popularity and far beyond our borders. My experience with the 6th grade student along with teaching English in Latin America inspired me to pursue doctoral research on colorism in educational outcomes of Black and Indigenous adolescents in Brazil and Colombia.  From 2014-2017, I studied how socioeconomic status, experiences of discrimination, and postsecondary goals varied by skin tone for high school seniors in Salvador, Brazil and Cartagena, Colombia. I wasn’t surprised to find that participants of darker skin tones reported the lowest socioeconomic status and the highest rates of discrimination.  On the other hand, postsecondary goals did not vary by skin tone.  

In other words, there were no differences in academic aspirations between light, medium, and dark skinned adolescents.  Oftentimes, researchers and policymakers place the blame of achievement and socioeconomic gaps on the individual.  However, the experiences of these young people clearly illustrate the atrocities of systemic inequalities, providing insight into differential life outcomes based on the lightness or darkness of one’s skin. Their voices speak to the reality that everyone should have a fair opportunity regardless of skin color.

Keshia L. Harris, Ph.D. is a research scientist at the Center on the Ecology of Early Development (CEED) at Boston University Wheelock College of Education and Human Development.  In March 2021, Dr. Harris presented her lecture titled, A social Justice Approach to Colorism in Education for Professor Richard Lerner’s Positive Youth Development and Social Justice Series at Tufts University Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development. 

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