C is for Colourism

prejudice or discrimination, especially within a racial or ethnic group, favouring people with lighter skin over those with darker skin

C is for Colourism

Welcome to our IDEA Glossary series, where we discuss important terminology in the inclusion, diversity, equity and access space, we’re onto C, and C is for colourism.

Here’s the official definition.

prejudice or discrimination, especially within a racial or ethnic group, favouring people with lighter skin over those with darker skin

Colourism is prejudice or discrimination, especially within a racial or ethnic group, favouring people with lighter skin over those with darker skin.

Let’s break this definition down a bit to understand some of the key aspects; as usual, I highlight words in each description that I want to explore further; for colourism, we are focusing on: 

  • prejudice, 
  • within, and 
  • favouring people with lighter skin.


Prejudice is the dislike of a particular group of people — it’s an opinion formed beforehand and based on inadequate facts.



When looking at racial or ethnic groups, colourism is prevalent. Colourism is in numerous cultures, from the African content to South and Central America, South and East Asia and many communities.

Colourism is a worldwide issue related to colonialism and reinforced through the fashion and beauty industries; its impact is seen in music and media and within the education, justice, and health systems. Colourism even has implications for employment and marital status.


Favouring lighter skin

Historically, enslaved people with lighter skin were usually assigned domestic tasks. In comparison, enslaved people with darker skin were forced to work outside in the fields, doing much more gruelling tasks. Lighter-skinned people were favoured because they were often the product of an enslaver sexually assaulting them, thus creating a lighter-skinned child.

I included a couple of quotes to help articulate this point:

“As you move along the colour spectrum, the darker you are, the less important, beautiful, viable, or all of those things that society has imposed upon based on that notion of supremacy … Colorism is rooted in proximity to whiteness.” 

– Dr. Joy DeGruy

“Historically, a lot of communities have held ‘blackness’ as a bad thing and there are lots of connotations of [people who have darker skin tones] being ‘dirty’ or ‘less educated’ that people have culturally transmitted across time, within and outside of their groups,” 

– Alisia (Giac-Thao) Tran, Associate Professor of Counselling Psychology at Arizona State University.


Remember, colourism can also be known as shadeism within the Black Canadian community. It is related to texturism and phenotypical racial bias. Although we see it play out within ethnic groups, it is enforced very much outside of ethnic groups and through institutional racism. Colourism may also impact men and women differently.


I’ve included some resources that may be helpful to understand the term colourism and it’s impact a bit better:

  1. Colourism: How skin-tone bias affects racial equality at work [World Economic Forum ]
  2. 3 Things You Should Know About Global Colorism [Harvard Kennedy School]
  3. Fellow: “Colourism” is a hidden human rights challenge [United Nations]
  4. Confront Colourism Guide [Do Something]
  5. Colourism Vs Racism [The Black Story]


Do you have any questions, comments or thoughts on the colourism? Leave a comment below and lets discuss.

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