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Colorism is the Conversation DEI Leaders Aren’t Ready For

When it comes to desirability, there is a narrow box that Black and Brown people must fit into to be deemed attractive and beautiful. Attempts at fitting into that box can result in decreased confidence, self-esteem, and self-worth, as these standards are rooted in White supremacist values. Colorism sits at the top of these values and upholds the idea that whatever is closest to White is right.

Colorism is one of the many ways internalized oppression shows up in people of color, and we consciously and subconsciously take those lessons at an early age.

We learn it from the grandparent, aunt, or uncle who shamed your hair texture and scolded you to stay out of the sun lest you get any darker.

We learn it from the high school crush who was shameless in admitting that they only dated light-skinned people but had no problem fetishizing darker-skinned people.

We learn it from the taunts on the playground and the teachers who more easily embraced lighter-skinned, straighter-haired students.

We learn it from the media, where light-skinned women are overwhelmingly cast as love interests in movies and television shows, and darker-skinned men fetishized as womanizing love interests.

We learn it from celebrities and public figures, like Erica Mena, who go out of their way to put down darker-skinned Black women.

And as adults, we also learn it in the workplace when darker-skinned colleagues are deemed more difficult to work with or denied leadership and visibility opportunities for inexplicable reasons.

Colorism is one area of DEI that the workplace has yet to fully understand the gravity of or how to approach and uproot it. In a field that is now dominated by White voices and perspectives, it is easy to lose the nuance and depth of pain that colorism has brought to Black and Brown people for centuries. It’s a pain that darker-skinned people know far too well and that lighter-skinned people are far too detached from and in denial about. However, the safety and benefits that are seemingly gained by being closer to Whiteness are short-lived, at best.

Research has shown that there is a wage gap linked to skin color and that those with lighter skin and more Eurocentric features receive more opportunities and better treatment on the job. Employers and leadership teams hold immense power in undoing the centuries-long harm of colorism. Asking the following questions can be a starting point in your organization’s journey:

  1. Is pay equitable across all Black and Brown employees? Examine rates across similar roles and determine what discrepancies you have.

  2. Have we given all Black and Brown employees equitable opportunities for growth and visibility? Take this a step further by imagining what those opportunities may look like, not based on what you think an employee can handle but on what their greatest strengths and aspirations are.

  3. In what ways have we reinforced what a leader here should look or be like? And be willing to receive feedback from employees on how this is impacting them on a tangible, daily basis.

Colorism takes its toll on the mental and spiritual health of those who are harmed by it, and workplaces compound on that harm by denying wealth and opportunity based on skin color. Schedule a consultation with ShiftED Consulting today to learn more about how your organization can take the first step in dismantling colorism and anti-Black racism in your workplace today.

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