We Need To Talk About Colorism In The Workplace

We Need To Talk About Colorism In The Workplace

In the past few years race has been the center of a national conversation, which has created division between professionals who care about underrepresented groups and those who pretend to care but actually don’t. You can tell who is performative and who isn’t very quickly, but many of us, Black people, don’t have the option to work somewhere that is psychologically safe or non-performative. And it’s even harder for dark -skinned Black people in the workplace according to research.

A report from Catalyst called Exposé of Women’s Workplace Experiences Challenges Antiracist Leaders to Step Up revealed that 51% of women from marginalized racial and ethnic groups in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and South Africa experience racism at work. The research showed that this especially true for dark-skinned women.

I spoke with Dr. Sarah Webb, who founded the speaking consultancy Colorism Healing two years ago. Dr. Webb doesn’t have light-skinned privilege. She described herself as “dark-skinned” and did not hold back when it came to discussing and confronting colorism.

“In the United States, there was something called the one drop rule. What happened is we had a group of people who had different ancestry and different skin tones and different physical appearances, but they were classified as Black people. Colorism in the United States context means that you have one racial category: people are a wide range of skin tones,” she told me.

Providing Context

The United States has a long history of stereotyping, excluding, and villainizing dark skinned Black people. Rewind to 1619, the year the first enslaved African people were brought to The United States. Enslavers created a system and divided enslaved people into two groups— house slaves and field slaves.

House slaves worked inside and had more proximity to whiteness and, at times, educational opportunities. House slaves were more likely to be able to read and write, or to have a white parent or child. The house and field slave system created a huge divide amongst Black people that still exists based on the intersectionality between skin tone and socioeconomic status.

For example, one side of my family comes from house slaves in Louisiana. My maternal relatives are mainly light-skinned and have had more access to educational and professional opportunities due to direct proximity to whiteness and wealth. My other side of the family comes from field slaves in South Carolina. Many of them are dark-skinned and have lived less privileged lives. This obvious difference in color within families is prevalent just like it is in the workplace.

When you look at prominent companies and their executive leadership you may notice that Black leaders are often fair-skinned. A lot of them attended competitive private high schools and prestigious universities with parents who work in fields like finance, medicine, and law. But Black people who aren’t light skinned or don’t come from privilege deserve just as much of a chance to thrive in their careers and lives. Archaic and harmful tropes about dark-skinned Black people have trickled into the workplace.

“Aggressive.” “Angry.” “Threatening.” All of which depend on someone’s personality, not their skin tone. I want to see more dark-skinned Black people in managerial and leadership roles. All Black people deserve the same level of respect regardless of the shade of our skin.

Debunking Myths

Myths from the colonial era about dark-skinned Black people are definitely present in the workplace, whether people want to recognize it or not. I spoke about colorism with Dr. Webb extensively. The Louisiana native has experienced colorism firsthand. “Even within my family context, and seeing very clearly very quickly from early ages, people spoke to my sister, affirmed her, and acknowledged her in ways that they would ignore me. I did stand out. It was typically negative,” she told me.

And Dr. Webb is not alone. So many dark-skinned Black people suffer at the hands of colorism— and it often comes from their own familiy and community. The divide enslavers created between Black people based on skin tone isn’t just evident in families. It’s in the workplace too.

“A lot of the research studies show that while all Black people experience racial stereotypes that the darker skin tone or the more Afro textured hair you have, the more exaggerated those stereotypes are, the more likely you are to be targeted based on those stereotypes,” Dr. Webb said. “And even amongst people of color, even amongst Black people, there’s still a perception that people with darker skin tones are supposed to be more aggressive or less approachable. I’ve seen it in my workspaces,” she said.

Dismantling Colorism

Dismantling colorism won’t happen overnight. Although dark-skinned people are more likely to experience colorism, in my experience it does go both ways. I left a revered historically Black college in Atlanta due to colorism and classism. I have been called a “light bright” and a “light-skinned Lynn.” Black people I don’t know often assume I’m pretentious or that I only date white people. Light-skinned Black women like myself are deeply fetishized— in film, music, and especially pornography.

I have been told “you’re different than the others” and “you’re pretty for a Black girl” because I am light-skinned and am from a predominately white suburb. A former partner once asked “you come from a good Black family, right?” And despite dealing with these microaggressions, I absolutely have light-skinned privilege in my personal and professional life.

We, Black people, can’t expect white people or any other race of people to stop practicing colorism towards us until we stop doing it to each other. Black professionals need to recognize the divide enslavers created between us and make it our mission to work together to close that divide for good.

Dr. Webb told me she believes that “it starts with acknowledging that we all harbor bias.” She continued, “I think one of the reasons why these conversations are so difficult to have is because people stigmatize bias. If you don’t currently have a diverse team to help identify what’s missing or identify those gaps, hire outside firms or agencies to help with that initial start to diversify your core team,” she told me.

“The next move for companies that are lacking the current internal diversity is to drive more of their hiring process going forward. Look for agencies that have a track record of providing that initial start for other companies like yours,” she said. Hiring diverse candidates doesn’t just mean Black people who are fair-skinned, come from privilege, or are perceived as non-threatening. That isn’t diversity. We are not and will never be a monolith.

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