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Research Mentor and Department
Alan Lambert, Ph.D
Colorism: More Than Just Color?
Colorism, is typically defined as systematic discrimination against individuals with darker skin (Norwood, 2013). However, at least in the case of African Americans, emergence of “colorism” contains an inherent ambiguity: do such effects reflect a causal effect of skin pigmentation per se, or are such effects attributable to other phenotypic features (e.g. shape of nose) that are correlated with skin tone (Thompson & Keith, 2001) The evidence on this point is somewhat mixed. That is, some studies suggest that skin tone may matter independent of phenotype, but other studies have failed to find such effects (Dixon & Maddox, 2005; Hagiwara, Kashy, & Cesario, 2012; Mirira & Mitra, 2013; Stepanova & Strube, 2009; 2012).
Our goal was to provide further insight on this matter. In our research, we used the same core set of high-quality images of a series of Black male and Black female faces, but digitally manipulated the skin tone. This allowed us to generate a series of Black faces, each one having three parallel versions of that same face (i.e. light, medium, dark). Hence, skin tone was unconfounded from phenotype. Two experiments were conducted. Study 1 (N = 42) used a between subjects design, randomly assigning participants to render attractiveness and liking judgments of a series of Black faces that varied in their skin tone (light, moderate, dark). Study 2 (N = 43) used a within-subjects design, with participants forming judgments of all three classes of faces. Neither study revealed any significant evidence of skin tone bias, although there was a small trend of negativity towards dark faces. Although further research is clearly needed in this area, these null findings highlight the need for caution in this area, as evidence for colorism may not necessarily be due to skin tone per se.