Exploring the Role of Skin Tone Among Low-Income Black College Students
IN THIS ARTICLE
Colorism or skin tone bias is a form of discrimination based on skin tone that typically awards advantages to light-skinned people while penalizing dark-skinned people within an ethnic group. There is very little research on colorism in higher education, so this study aims to shed light on an under-studied aspect of Black undergraduate student life. The research question that I explore is: To what extent do Black, low-income undergraduates at a selective university believe that the skin tones of Black students matter on campus?
I conducted 23 semi-structured interviews with low-income men and women who represent a range of Black ethnic identities at a selective university on the East Coast. Using purposive sampling, I gathered a group of respondents who fall along the entire skin tone spectrum. I applied the New Immigrant Survey Scale of Skin Color Darkness (Massey and Martin, 2003) to determine a respondent’s skin tone. Bodily capital theory (Wacquant, 1995) and intersectionality theory (Crenshaw, 1991) provide the frameworks to understand the study’s findings.
This study concluded that students of all skin tones believe that the bodily capital of light-skinned students grants them advantages in friendships, relationships, student clubs, and at social events. However, in academic settings, both dark and light-skinned students face color- based stereotypes. Based on these findings, there are implications for universities seeking to commit to diversity and racial equity. Recommendations are provided for universities to begin addressing skin tone bias on campus.
Colorism or skin tone bias within the African diaspora originated with the advent of colonization by Europeans and Western slavery (Hunter 2007). Europeans associated darker skin with negative characteristics such as aggression, ugliness, and inferiority. On the other hand, white skin has historically been tied to the opposite, positive characteristics such as civility, beauty, and superiority. These socially constructed associations between skin tone and personality traits created a skin color hierarchy during plantation slavery in the Americas (Hunter 2007; Dixon and Telles 2017).
Light-skinned slaves, who were often the children of Black female slaves who were raped by their White masters, received slightly privileged treatment in comparison to their dark-skinned counterparts. For example, light-skinned slaves were allowed to work in the house of the master instead of working on the field. They also had more access to learning trade skills and received some schooling (Hunter 2007). During slavery, there was a small class of freed people who were early business and community leaders; these individuals were more likely to be light-skinned. After slavery, light-skinned Blacks were able to achieve upward mobility because of the skills that they were privileged to acquire. Even today, light skinned Blacks earn thousands more yearly than their dark-skinned counterparts, have higher occupational prestige, and tend to live in homes with higher property values (Hunter 2007). As a result, colorism is tied to a system of socioeconomic stratification.
The creation of the skin tone hierarchy, where light-skinned people were seen as superior to dark-skinned people, was a mechanism to divide the Black slaves in order to maintain slavery and capitalism (Koepke 2007). The color hierarchy functions in a similar manner today, where skin tone is singled out as a difference among Black people that has often resulted in advantages for lighter people and disadvantages for darker people. Thus, colorism works internally in the Black community to reinforce the system of racism.
The popularity of skin-lightening products demonstrates the impact of colorism. In an effort to achieve some of the positive characteristics associated with light skin, some people of color resort to skin bleaching products (Hunter 2007). The process of skin bleaching includes using a soap, a cream, or even tablets with mercury, hydroquinone, or corticosteroids, to lighten one’s skin. Despite the negative dermatologic consequences such as skin disease, keloid scarring, and fungal infections (de Souza 2008), the strong desire to achieve light skin continues to drive the bleaching industry.
The beauty industry and bleaching is just one of the ways that colorism lives on. Research shows that colorism is ubiquitous, appearing in various industries and settings. There is scant amount of studies exploring the existence and experience of colorism on American college campuses. However, there is an abundance of literature exploring the lives of Black students on college campuses (Griffin 2006; Stewart 2009; Danoff-Burg and Prelow 2004). Studies have looked at the role of race in campus experiences, but have ignored colorism. It is important to explore whether skin tone plays a role in undergraduate education because skin tone could affect a student’s social and academic life on campus. Research needs to differentiate the ways in which race might be affecting campus life from the effect of skin tone so that universities can address the impact of skin tone on campus appropriately. Therefore, more work is needed to bridge the gap between the literatures on colorism and Black undergraduate student life.
The present study also considers the relationship between socioeconomic class and skin tone. As mentioned earlier, light-skinned African Americans are more likely to have higher-status occupations, higher incomes, more years of schooling, live in better neighborhoods, and marry higher status individuals than their dark-skinned counterparts (Hill 2002; Hughers & Hertel 1990; Hunter 2005, 2007). Furthermore, skin tone is often a predictor of self-esteem in Black women, where light-skinned women display greater levels of self-esteem than darker women. However, darker women of a higher social class tend not to be impacted by the effects of colorism as much as their low-income dark-skinned peers (Thompson and Keith 2001). As a result, low-income dark-skinned people bear the brunt of colorism, making this population the most crucial to the study of colorism. This study specifically looks at access to bodily capital based on skin tone, and research shows that class matters in the acquisition of various forms of capital (Lareau 2011). Therefore, it is important to illuminate the role of skin tone and campus experiences for Black students, independent of the effects of class.
The present study seeks to address the gaps in the prior literature by exploring the following research question: to what extent do low-income Black students at a highly selective university perceive that their skin tone and the skin tone of other Black students matter in social, academic, and socio-academic interactions on campus?
To answer this question, I draw on in-depth interviews conducted with Black college students at a highly selective university on the East Coast of the United States. In order to examine the link between skin tone and college experiences net of the effect of social class, I focus my analysis on low-income respondents.
According to Bourdieu (1984), “Capital, which, in its objectified or embodied forms, takes time to accumulate and which, as a potential capacity to produce profits and to reproduce itself in identical or expanded form, contains a tendency to persist in its being, is a force inscribed in the objectivity of things so that everything is not equally possible or impossible.” Therefore, capital can be seen as tangible or intangible labor that results in advantages and resources for some and not others.
Bodily capital theory was developed by Bourdieu (1984) and Wacquant (1995). According to Wacquant (1995), bodily capital is the advantages and resources that one gains from the physical aspects and appearance of the body. The body is the means of production and raw material that can be refined and used for access to capital. Bodily capital has been shown to lead to advantages in areas such as fitness (Wacquant 1995), modeling (Mears 2011), and promotes a system of racial division in Brazil (Monk 2016).
Bourdieu (1984) states that in order for bodily capital to function, it is important to consider the context or field where such capital is valued. Likewise, Monk (2003) writes, “Certainly, skin tone and hair are not bodily capital in and of themselves, no, they only become such when invested in a game/world (or more properly, field) where such traits make a difference.” The field or context for the present study is an American college campus. Skin tone matters in this field based on previous research relating to skin tone and campus life that shows that light-skinned, medium-skinned, and dark-skinned Black college students experience campus life differently because of skin tone.
This study also relies on intersectionality theory as a framework. Developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectionality argues that the many social categories determine an individual’s identity and intersect at the individual level to reflect larger, societal systems of oppression and privilege (Crenshaw 1991). The first major tenet of this framework is that an individual has multiple, intersecting identities. One social category cannot explain the oppression of an individual, rather the intersection of social categories helps us to arrive at a full picture of the oppression that individual faces or privileges that individual has. Intersectionality is a useful framework for this study because I consider participants who are different genders, ethnicities, and various skin tones. I use intersectionality theory to uncover skin tone as an aspect of multiple oppression of Black college students.
In this study, bodily capital and intersectionality theory work together to demonstrate how appearance of skin tone determines access to resources on an American college campus by calling on Black, low income, male and female college students as participants to draw conclusions that include diverse and intersectional experiences.
While colorism is largely understudied in general, the literature that does exist shows that skin tone discrimination exists across many contexts in the United States including within the family, the media, the criminal justice system, healthcare, the K-12 educational system, and American college campuses.
Colorism is often learned in the family. Black families teach color consciousness to Black women in three primary ways (Wilder and Cain 2011). First, maternal figures such as biological mothers or non-biological maternal figures instill in Black women ideologies about colorism. Maternal figures often tell Black women to date a lighter-skinned man, praise children in the family with light skin or light eyes while alienating dark-skinned children, and hold high expectations of success for light-skinned children. Second, family is the site for reaffirming and transforming color consciousness. In the process of reaffirmation, family can confirm one’s understanding of colorism. In the process of transformation, family can change one’s view of colorism, either positively or negatively. Lastly, family can create oppositional ideologies about colorism through emphasizing Afrocentricity and self-love.
Mass media is often used as a tool to inculcate the preference for light skin (Hunter 2011). From television to print media to social media, there is higher visibility of light-skinned people and greater association of positive stereotypes with light skin. Disney Channel’s animated series, Proud Family, centers around an African-American family and was among the first shows to be written and produced by a predominantly Black staff. Using textual analysis, Steele (2016) discusses that the show portrays light-skinned characters as beautiful, intelligent, and wealthy. On the other hand, dark-skinned characters are seen as just the direct opposite: unattractive, unintelligent, and poor. Colorism also appears in advertisements. Blacks in advertisements tend to be light-skinned with Eurocentric features (Keenan 1996;Leslie 1995).
Skin tone often influences involvement in the criminal justice system for Black people. Using a range of data collection methods, researchers have come to the conclusion that there is a disparity between how dark-skinned Blacks and light-skinned Blacks experience the criminal justice system. Based on nationally representative surveys, darker-skinned African Americans are more likely to be arrested and incarcerated, when sociodemographic variables are controlled (Monk, 2018; White, 2015). Based on booking photos and sentencing records, King and Johnson (2016) made a similar finding-- that Black defendants with darker skin tones and Afrocentric facial features are more likely to receive harsher sentences. Likewise, Viglione et al (2011) found that correction officers’ perception of skin tone often resulted in less time behind bars for light-skinned Black women.
There is a relationship between skin tone and health outcomes, but socioeconomic class mediates this link. Dark-skinned African-Americans are more likely to suffer from hypertension than light-skinned African-Americans (Harburg et al. 1978). Researchers ruled out genetic differences as the culprit for the disparity in hypertension. Instead, researchers believe that increased psychosocial stress in dark-skinned African-Americans caused by feeling inferior in daily social interactions could be the reason for the higher incidence of hypertension in this population (Klag et al. 1991; Sweet et al. 2007). However, when controlling for education and income, the relationship between skin tone and hypertension disappears. Among individuals who had not completed high school, dark-skinned people had higher blood pressure, but among those with more education, light-skinned people suffered from higher blood pressure. Similarly, self-reports of physical and mental health show that there is no relationship between poor health and skin tone, when socioeconomic factors are controlled (Borrell et. al, 2006). The effects of socioeconomic class in research on skin tone and health further establishes the need for the present study to control for class by exploring only a low-income population.
In the K-12 education system, light-skinned African Americans tend to have higher academic achievement than dark-skinned students. Because light skin is associated with positive characteristics such as beauty and civility, teachers may expect their light-skinned students to be smarter and well-mannered; as a result, light-skinned students desire to meet these expectations thereby increasing their academic achievement (Hunter 2007). Teachers are more likely to be receptive to light-skinned parents, and school counselors and teachers are also more likely to encourage light-skinned students to pursue college (Hunter 2007). On the other hand, dark-skinned female students are three times more likely to be suspended than light-skinned students (Hannon et al 2013). The ability to succeed in educational institutions typically leads to the attainment of higher socioeconomic class. Therefore, the success that light-skinned students achieve in academic performance and academic relationships also contributes to their higher socioeconomic standing; again, this supports the need to hold class constant in research about the effects of skin tone.
There are a few dissertations examining the existence of colorism on college campuses, but these studies are not based in sociological theory. In contrast, the present study is based in intersectionality theory and bodily capital theory. Intersectionality theory shows that Black students on the college campus perceive their skin tone and the skin tone of other Black students as an aspect of identity, in addition to other well-researched layers of identity such as race, gender, and socioeconomic class. Bodily capital theory encapsulates the advantages that one gains from the physical aspects of the body in a context where those physical features are valued. These frameworks enable this study to highlight how skin tone confers capital. However, previous dissertations on campus life and colorism have not discussed the relationship between skin tone and capital. Additionally, previous studies do not consider the role of socioeconomic class. Socioeconomic class can be a confounding variable, which will influence the relationship between skin tone and capital on campus. The present study controls for the effects of socioeconomic class to isolate the role of skin tone.
Gray (2017) examined how Black women experience and navigate colorism in college. Gray finds that Black women in college experience White colorism, or discrimination by White people based on skin lightness through stereotypes, micro aggressions, and restricted opportunities in the areas of employment, academics, and extracurricular opportunities. However, the small sample size of 10 students means that there are not enough perspectives from each skin tone category.
Bryant (2013) interviewed 18 alumni of Black Greek organizations to learn about the experience of colorism within these groups that are often central to Black life on college campuses. Bryant interviewed 2 representatives from each of the 9 Black Greek organizations. Bryant’s respondents noticed that light-skinned members of the group were placed in external-facing roles such as liaising with administration or other students on campus, whereas dark- skinned members were behind the scenes, typically doing more labor-intensive work. Additionally, there are color-based expectations for how members of each organization is supposed to look. For example, Omega Psi Phi brothers are typically “dark, loud, barbaric.” On the other hand, Kappa Alpha Psi brothers are light-skinned with softer hair. Delta Sigma Theta sisters are medium-skinned to dark-skinned but Alpha Kappa Alpha sisters are light-skinned, have long hair, and “pretty.” Similarly, respondents in Gray’s study (2017) note that Alpha Kappa Alpha has the reputation of being for light skin women, whereas Delta Sigma Theta has the reputation of being for darker skinned women.
Of the few studies presented here on colorism on college campuses, only Abiola (2017) effectively gathers the most varied perspectives based on skin tone. Abiola interviewed 30 students: 15 men (5 light skinned, 5 medium skinned, and 5 dark skinned) and 15 women (5 light skinned, 5 medium skinned, and 5 dark skinned). Abiola utilized the social-psychological framework of stereotype threat to understand how the social, academic, and personal experiences of Black dark skinned students, Black medium skinned students, and Black light skinned students vary. Abiola found that dark skinned respondents observed that their skin tone played a role in negative interactions with faculty and less faculty support. For example, dark-skinned students mentioned that faculty were less forgiving with courses absences and lateness. Thus, dark-skinned students reported higher stereotype threat effects. Light-skinned students had challenges in social settings because of their skin tone. Their light skin contributed to their perceived attractiveness by others; however, these students were seen as racially ambiguous and often had to defend their Blackness. Abiola’s stereotype threat framework presents a valuable perspective on the role of skin tone on college campuses. However, Abiola does not control for effects of socioeconomic class, which can conflate the role of socioeconomic class with that of skin tone in the experience of students.
The present study fills a gap in the research on the role of skin tone in a higher education context by controlling for class effects and remaining rooted in sociological theories of bodily capital and intersectionality.
This is a qualitative study using semi-structured interviews as data to understand participants’ perceptions of skin tone at Lighthouse University. Lighthouse is a highly selective university in the Northeast of the United States. Lighthouse has about 10,000 undergraduates, and 773 of these students identify as African American or Black. White students make up a majority of the school’s population (around 4,000 students). Lighthouse has an almost equal gender ratio, with 48% males and 52% females. I, the researcher, identify as a dark-skinned woman who is Afro-Caribbean. I am also a final year undergraduate student at Lighthouse.
The target population for this study is Black, low-income, undergraduates at Lighthouse University. Participants self-identify with various ethnic groups such as African-American, Afro-Caribbean, African international, and second generation African. Participants are also Black, Black biracial, and Black multiracial. The sample includes both men and women and a range of light skinned, medium-skinned, and dark-skinned participants to widen the perspectives present and to draw adequate comparisons among the experiences of these skin tone groups and gender categories.
Skin tone was decided based on a scale created by Douglas Massey and Jennifer Martin for the New Immigrant Survey (NIS). Martin wrote,
Indeed, in my study, the respondent never saw the chart. When they entered into the interview room and were reading the informed consent form, I looked at the scale on my computer and rated the respondent’s skin tone, without making them aware that I was assessing their skin tone. I consider those whose skin tone resemble #1-3 as light skinned, those whose skin tone resembles #4-6 as medium-skinned and those whose skin tone resemble #7-11 as dark-skinned. The scale was used to provide a degree of consistency to the process of evaluating skin tone. Each person has varying conceptions of how light-skinned, medium-skinned, and dark-skinned appear due to background characteristics such as skin tones of family members; thus, it would be inaccurate to base a participant’s skin tone solely off of their own construction. Having one person (the researcher) determine skin tone based on a scale is an admittedly imperfect, but more accurate measure for the purpose of this study.
The other aspect of my population is that they are all low-income students, a restriction I imposed in order to remove the confounding influence of social class on how skin tone is experienced on campus. Low-income is defined as an annual household income of $65,000 or below. This cutoff is one aspect of how Lighthouse University defines a low-income student. Students were asked whether their household income met this criterion before they could be considered in the sample.
I employed several recruitment methods. The First Generation Low Income Student Newsletter posted the recruitment flyer. I placed flyers in college houses, and I recruited students in an Elementary Twi language class about the study. However, the bulk of the sample came from snowball recruiting and purposive sampling to fill quotas. It was necessary to set quotas based on skin tone and gender in order to represent the experiences of men and women of each skin tone. With purposive sampling, I identified students who I felt would be interested in speaking about the role of skin tone on campus based on their reputation as being someone who spoke on this subject in the community. All participants were given a 20% off coupon to the Lighthouse University Bookstore. I conducted a prize draw and rewarded one participant with a gift card.
Interviews were conducted in person and averaged roughly an hour long. Interviews took place in a public, but enclosed space such as a study room or a lounge in a college house. All interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed using automated transcription services from Rev.com and Otter.ai. I verified all transcripts for accuracy by listening to the audio and editing the transcript as needed. After the interviews, I wrote a memo to highlight themes and emergent findings from the interview. The interview transcripts were coded for themes that served as the basis for the study’s findings. Finally, there were few distinct ways in which medium-skinned participants differed from dark-skinned respondents, so I analytically group medium-skinned and dark-skinned respondents together for many findings.
The two charts below describe the pseudonym, skin tone, gender, and ethnic identity of the 23 participants in the study.
Table 1. Participant Profile (Women)
Table 2. Participant Profile (Men)
The study found two main patterns at Lighthouse University. First, there is a perception that the bodily capital of light-skinned students grants them with more resources than their medium-skinned and dark-skinned counterparts. Light-skinned students’ bodily capital results in higher visibility in student groups, perceived ease in making Black and White friends, greater access to social events, and success in the dating scene on campus. In academic settings, both groups face the threat of confirming color-based stereotypes, but dark and medium-skinned students have bodily capital in predominantly Black classrooms. Secondly, while some light-skinned students agree that they have bodily capital in many areas of campus life, they also believe that the bodily capital of medium-skinned and dark-skinned people gives them popularity and comfort in the Black community. So, dark and medium-skinned people perceived that light-skinned students have more bodily capital, but light-skinned students also highlight ways in which they think that medium-skinned and dark-skinned students have more bodily capital than them. In the analysis that follows, I describe how these two over-arching themes play out across different social and academic spheres of campus life.
Friendships are a key part of one’s social network while on campus. Respondents across skin tones discuss how perspectives based in colorist ideology have caused distance and discomfort in friendships. For students who are medium and dark-skinned, an understanding of lived experiences based on skin tone is necessary in friend groups. However, students differ on whether dark and medium-skinned students or light-skinned students have to work harder to make friends.
Dark-skinned and medium-skinned students report that they have felt a degree of inferiority in their friendships with light-skinned people due to colorist statements made by their light-skinned friends. Crystal, a medium-skinned woman, explains that having light-skinned friends affects her self-confidence, so she avoids them,
Aaliyah, a dark-skinned woman, gives an example of a time when a light-skinned friend expressed colorist attitudes that made her feel uncomfortable among a group of dark-skinned and medium-skinned women,
Colorism not only includes skin tone bias but also a preference for Eurocentric features such as light-colored eyes and soft hair. The colorist attitudes of Aaliyah’s former friend made Aaliyah feel bad about herself and caused distance in their relationship.
Friend Group Formation
Crystal is an outlier in the sense that she strategically decides her friend group based on skin tone. Most other participants in the study did not admit to avoiding people of certain skin tones when making friends. However, an understanding of how skin tone shapes the experience of life on campus has determined members of friend groups.
Taylor, a dark-skinned woman, says,
Sonia, a light skinned woman says,
Sonia and Taylor both expressed that an understanding of colorism has been key in their friendships. Sonia has gravitated towards people who understand what it is like to experience Lighthouse University as a light-skinned student, and Taylor has been drawn to people who understand the plight of dark-skinned students on campus.
Measures of Difficulty with Making Black Friends
Respondents diverged on whether they perceive it to be harder for light-skinned people to make friends or for dark-skinned and medium-skinned people to do the same. Sonia and Gerald, both light-skinned, explained that light-skinned people are easily ostracized from the Black community, thus making it harder to maintain Black friendships.
Sonia explains that being light-skinned and not proactively trying to be a member of the Black community excludes her. Sonia feels that being extremely socially conscious is a prerequisite to being included in the Black community. When Sonia discusses “feeling African-American,” she is trying to say that she does not have the personality of a social activist who discusses and actively fights for Black rights. Light-skinned Black people often express that their Blackness is perceived as inauthentic because of their skin tone (Abiola 2007). Sonia may feel that her light skin causes her to have to prove her Blackness to the community by being an fervent advocate for Black rights, but this activist spirit is not a part of her personality.
Similar to Sonia, Gerald, a light-skinned man says,
Again, light-skinned people must show unconditional devotion to the Black community or risk alienation. Gerald also reports that being light-skinned makes it hard for others to believe that he is low-income: “I’m on a full ride here but Black people assume that I’m rich just because I’m light-skinned and have White friends. So that’s another reason for them to ignore me.” Low-income light-skinned students are perceived to be of higher social class, which brings some challenges for them in making other Black low-income friends.
Crystal, a medium-skinned woman disagreed with Sonia and Gerald’s perspective that it is difficult for light-skinned students to make friends. Crystal says,
Some light-skinned respondents feel that they lack the bodily capital that would help them to make friends with Black students, but their bodily capital allows them to have an easier time making friends with White students. By contrast, many medium and dark-skinned people express not trying to make White friends to avoid micro aggressions, and they state that it is more difficult for people of their skin tone to make Black friends on campus. Medium and dark-skinned people must also ensure that their friends believe in the system of colorism, a consideration that light-skinned students did not have to make.
Lighthouse University has a wide array of events around campus that are recreational in nature. Examples include fraternity parties or Bring Your Own (BYO) events that entail bringing drinks to a restaurant with friends and socializing. Respondents categorize social events in two ways: predominantly White or predominantly Black. In predominantly White parties, respondents report the importance of skin tone in deciding who gains access to the party. However, light-skinned women express that they feel overlooked by suitors in predominantly White parties. On the other hand, respondents, across skin tones, also discuss that there tends to be positive reception in predominantly Black parties for light-skinned women.
Differences in Access to White parties
In predominantly White fraternity parties, either one fraternity brother or a group of brothers stand at the entrance to the party to decide who can enter. Typically, students who know a fraternity brother’s name will be able to enter. When a student does not know a brother’s name, their entry is determined based on whether the brother at the door wants to admit them. Respondents have noticed that dark-skinned women are often denied entry into predominantly White fraternity parties, while light-skinned women are able to enter.
Elizabeth, a light-skinned woman, notes an example during the New Student Orientation for freshman where she felt like skin tone discrimination was at play,
Elizabeth explains that having dark-skinned company erased her chance of getting into a predominantly White party. When a brother says “take a lap” it directly means that you should leave the party and come back at a later time, when there would supposedly be less people. However, indirectly, many interpret “take a lap” as a polite way to tell someone that they would not be admitted at all.
Oscar, a dark-skinned man, who is a member of a predominantly White fraternity, says that he has noticed skin tone discrimination at the entry door of his fraternity’s parties,
Oscar speaks about entry to a fraternity party in terms of the number of people that approach. Typically, brothers say that the more girls in the group, the higher the group’s chances of being admitted. Twelve women in a group is a high number, so likely, any group of 12 women should be admitted. However, as Oscar describes, a large group of dark-skinned women would still struggle to enter the party despite their high number.
In general, men are unlikely to get into a fraternity party unless they know a brother there personally, but women are given more opportunities to earn their entry. Most men in this study do not frequent predominantly White social events, so they did not have any experiences with skin tone discrimination upon entry.
Differences in Reception
Though light-skinned women have an easier time getting access to predominantly White parties, they report that they feel ignored once inside. Sonia, a light-skinned woman, explains her experience in predominantly White fraternity parties,
Sonia typically attends predominantly White parties with two other friends who are Asian and White. Sonia explains that her White friend is used to appeal to the fraternity brother in order for the people of color in their group to enter the party.
Elizabeth, a light-skinned woman, expresses a similar sentiment: “I feel overlooked in White frat parties. All they care about is White girls.” Sonia and Elizabeth’s experiences show that even though light-skinned women are able to enter predominantly White fraternity parties, they feel that they are seen as unattractive, compared to other races of women.
Reception in Predominantly Black Social Settings
In contrast, Black fraternity parties tend not to discriminate at the door because entrance to these parties is based on a cover charge, so everyone who has the means to pay will be let in. However, many respondents, across skin tones, comment on the increased romantic attention that light-skinned women seem to receive in predominantly Black social settings. Earlier, Sonia, a light-skinned woman, said that she felt unattractive in a predominantly White party. Here, she says the opposite about a predominantly Black party,
Additionally, medium and dark-skinned women also express that light-skinned women tend to be highly sought after in Black social events. Crystal, a medium-skinned woman, said
Brittany, a medium-skinned woman gave an example of a Black party where she saw preferential treatment of light-skinned women,
So, Sonia, Crystal, and Brittany discuss that light-skinned women tend to receive more male attention in predominantly Black parties.
Dark-skinned women express that they also receive some attention, but it tends to be of a physical nature or steered towards objectification. Yasmine, a dark-skinned woman says,
Yasmine explains that men are equally likely to dance with her in a party, but men only flirt with her lighter friends. Layla, a dark-skinned woman also says,
Many dark-skinned women in the study have described chocolate as a term of objectification and fetishization because the term likens a dark woman to a food item, even though men use ‘chocolate’ as a compliment. Overall, dark-skinned women in the study report that they do receive some advances in social settings, but not as much as light-skinned women. Moreover, advances towards dark-skinned women are seen to be poorly executed.
Many of the light-skinned women in the study believe that all skin tones of women are pursued in parties at an equal rate. Most male respondents indicated that they did not notice differences in romantic attention towards men of different skin tones likely because men are typically the ones pursuing others in the party. Men also reported not noticing that there were differences in how light-skinned, medium-skinned, and dark-skinned women were pursued in a party because they are busy operating the party and the dim lighting in the party makes it difficult to observe. Nevertheless, respondents explain that in social events, the bodily capital of light-skinned women results in greater access to White social events on campus and more romantic pursuits in Black social events than their medium and dark-skinned counterparts.
Dating and relationships
Previous research shows that dark-skinned women struggle to find romantic partners (Hunter 1999). Most students report that skin tone matters in the dating market on campus. However, there are a few students who argue that skin tone does not matter.
Skin tone matters in romantic pursuits
Sonia explains how being light-skinned matters in the dating market on campus,
Sonia admits to having bodily capital in dating because of her light skin, but does not enjoy this capital. Taylor says that she contends with stereotypes of dark-skinned women in the dating market, “I heard from my friends that other men have said something about [me] looking good but [I] look mean.” Taylor’s skin tone poses a challenge for her in dating on campus because dark skin tends to be associated with aggression and masculinity (Hunter 2007), which may turn potential partners away from her.
Hunter, a dark-skinned man, also addresses contending with the stereotype of aggression and untrustworthiness in dark-skinned people,
Jamal, a light-skinned man, explains that dark-skinned women have a difficult time getting into relationships, and those who do, fit certain conditions,
Respondents explain that skin tone matters in the dating scene on campus because dark-skinned people have less bodily capital in this area since they have to contend specifically with the stereotype of aggression or meanness. Some dark-skinned people who fit other beauty standards in society are able to overcome the challenges in the dating market. Though respondents explain that lighter-skinned people have more bodily capital in dating, Sonia, a light-skinned woman, discusses that she dislikes the bodily capital of her skin tone in the context of the dating market because of the attention that is drawn to her.
Skin tone does not matter in romantic pursuits
Many other and men and women indicated that their skin tone does not matter in romantic relationships. Yasmine, a dark-skinned woman said,
Sonia, a light-skinned woman said,
Jack and Jill is an organization dedicated to bringing together African American children for civic, cultural, and educational programing. There is a stereotype that Jack and Jill students tend to be wealthier, more light-skinned, and well-adjusted in predominantly White spaces. On the other hand, the “Black Power Black” that Sonia refers to are Black students who might lack cultural capital in White spaces or are less economically privileged. Sonia explains that the effects of skin tone in the dating market are overlooked when a person has a higher socioeconomic standing or social ties to White people, such as those Black students in Jack and Jill.
Most female respondents who believe that skin tone matters in relationships, mention that men on campus prefer light-skinned women. Men indicated that they do not have a preference for skin tone in the women that they date, but many of their partners have been light-skinned Black women. Ashton, a light-skinned man, who has had three light-skinned partners, says, “The pattern does not indicate a preference for light-skinned women only; that’s just who I find myself with.” However, other respondents who believe that skin tone does matter in romantic pursuits explain that the pattern of being with light-skinned women does indeed indicate a preference.
Several other respondents explain that they are not in a relationship right now because either they are not actively looking or they have not found someone with the personality traits that they seek in a partner, not because of skin tone.
There are varying perspectives on whether bodily capital matters in relationships. Some say that the bodily capital of light-skinned women leads to success in relationships. However, others believe that bodily capital does not matter in relationships and all skin tones have a chance in Lighthouse’s dating market.
Light skin grants students with bodily capital in the form of greater visibility in student groups; yet, dark-skinned students lack bodily capital as shown by their avoidance of leadership positions or performance of greater labor in student groups. Aaliyah, a dark-skinned woman, explains that she is in a board game club, and leadership is decided based on elections. When asked whether she would seek out leadership in the club, she says,
The intersection of Aaliyah’s skin tone and race deter her from seeking positions of visibility. Dark-skinned and brown-skinned women, such as Taylor and Aaliyah, explained that they feel like they have to work harder in their clubs to be heard. Taylor said, “As a dark-skinned woman, I feel like I have to make a conscious effort to be heard and seen for sure.” Light-skinned students did not express that they faced such challenges in their student groups.
Melanie, a light-skinned woman, in a Black Theater Group on campus, recounts an experience where her skin tone allowed her to be cast into a lead role,
Melanie identifies as African-American and has a loose curl pattern of hair. Her light skin allowed her the flexibility to play the lead character who was Mexican.
In contrast to Melanie, Kevin, a dark-skinned man, in a singing group on campus, details an experience where he feels like his skin tone shut him out of a lead role. He heard that he was not allowed the lead part in the singing show because he was not seen as a good fit. The person who was given the lead part was a White man. Kevin explained that if he were lighter (not necessarily White), he might be seen as a good enough face for the show. He seemed disheartened that his skill was not as important as his skin color in the casting process.
Skin tone matters in student groups because light-skinned students havegreater access to positions and visibility due to their bodily capital. On the other hand, brown and dark-skinned students hold themselves back from running for leadership because they lack bodily capital which imposes a form of self-restriction to avoid rejection; brown and dark students also believe that they have to work harder to be heard in their student groups.
Most respondents, across skin tones, share similar challenges in academic settings. They report experiences such as having a difficult time talking to professors, White peers, and teaching assistants for help. In addition, they had experiences that made them feel as if professors and peers see them as less intelligent. This study also reveals that respondents battle with additional color-based stereotypes. Dark-skinned women primarily face the fear of being perceived as aggressive whereas light-skinned students face the fear of being perceived as inauthentic in Blackness, which matters in predominantly Black classroom. Medium-skinned students did not mention facing specific color-based stereotypes. Students’ experience of stereotype threat could have consequences on their academic relationships with their peers and professors.
Fear of Being Perceived as Aggressive
Dark-skinned women report the fear of being seen as aggressive by professors and classmates in predominantly White classrooms. Layla, a dark-skinned woman commented that in an Environmental Ethics class, her skin tone made her hesitant to talk about race,
Layla explains that being dark-skinned might give her the reputation of someone who connects the issue of race to all of the course concepts. Being the one who always talks about race has a negative connotation in Layla’s class, so she wants to avoid this label. In her opinion, light-skinned Blacks do not have to worry about talking about race because they are able to “pass” as non-Black, which makes them seem less sensitive, less emotional, and perhaps more objective on the subject of race. On the other hand, Layla would be seen as aggressively pushing the topic of race in class because her dark skin indicates that she is a Black person. The fear of confirming the stereotype of aggression imposes restrictions on Layla’s ability to freely share her thoughts in class. She has to censor her comments to avoid being seen as the girl who aggressively discusses race.
Taylor, a dark-skinned woman, expresses similar sentiments about avoiding the perception of aggression:
Taylor, who has dyslexia, explains that in order to do her academic work, she needs academic accommodations. However, as a dark-skinned person, she might be perceived as aggressive or an anomaly for seeking the help that she needs, so she has to put in more effort than White or light-skinned Black peers to receive support from her professors.
Taylor also ponders how being perceived as aggressive affects her social mobility in the future:
Higher education is supposed to level the playing field of opportunity. Taylor’s experiences of being denied opportunities at school due to being a dark-skinned woman makes her wonder whether this pattern will continue in her life after college, thus limiting her socioeconomic advancement.
Yasmine, a dark-skinned woman, talks about being perceived as aggressive by her classmates,
Yasmine’s experience being seen as aggressive by her classmates could have implications for her ability to be a part of study groups or make friends in class. Classmates are likely not to desire forming relationships with someone who they think is unapproachable.
The intersection of skin tone and gender matters in academic settings. Dark-skinned women lack bodily capital in academic settings because they contend with stereotypes of aggression from their professors and their peers. In contrast, dark-skinned men did not mention that they battled with this stereotype, or any other color-based stereotype, in academic settings.
Fear of Being Perceived as Inauthentic
Light- skinned students discussed moments of feeling like their medium-skinned and dark-skinned peers do not see them as authentically Black in academic contexts that are predominantly Black.
Sonia attended a pre-freshman program in Africana Studies, which is open to all students, but is especially geared towards incoming Black freshmen. During the program, students take a crash-course in topics in Africana Studies and must produce an extensive research paper at the end. Sonia describes her experience in the classes at the Africana Program,
Sonia first discusses that skin tone determined friendships during the program, where light-skinned people became friends with each other, and dark-skinned people did the same among themselves. Sonia also explains that being light-skinned excluded her from conversations in class because her perspectives, as a Black person, on topics related to the Black experience were not seen as authentically Black because she is light-skinned.
Jamal, a light-skinned man, believes that light-skinned people try to present themselves as authentically Black in class
Jamal explains that light-skinned people feel that they may not be seen as Black by other Black people (medium-skinned and dark-skinned); this results in light-skinned people putting in more effort to be perceived as Black, which causes them to be more dominant in class than they should.
Light-skinned and dark-skinned students feel threatened by different stereotypes in academic settings. Dark-skinned women in particular contend with the stereotype of being perceived as aggressive by others, which may have consequences on their willingness to share their thoughts in class, ability to join study groups, and receive academic accommodations from their professors. On the other hand, light-skinned students battle with the fear of being perceived as unauthentically Black in predominantly Black academic contexts, which may cause them to feel that they have to overcome the devaluation of their perspective by proving their Blackness.
Through in-depth interviews, this paper explored how skin tone impacts the social and academic experiences of Black, low-income undergraduates at a highly-selective university. There is a scant amount of research on skin tone bias in higher education. The research that does exist on this topic do not examine colorism and education from a sociological perspective of bodily capital. Secondly, existent research fails to control for effects of class. The present study makes an important contribution to sociological research in higher education. The findings show that all shades of students perceive that the bodily capital of light-skinned students allows them access to resources in student groups, friendships, dating, and social events. Light-skinned students believe that because of their perceived greater access to bodily capital in predominantly White and Black spaces, they struggle to connect to the Black community on campus, and they have to work harder to gain acceptance within this community. Therefore, light-skinned students express that medium-skinned and dark-skinned students have greater bodily capital in making Black friends and in predominantly Black academic settings.
Since this study controlled for socioeconomic class, there are a few distinct ways in which class matters in conversations about skin tone that previous studies on skin tone and higher education did not bring to light. Having light skin allows low-income students to be seen as wealthy and increases their probability of having wealthy, White friends. While these perceptions negatively impact light-skinned students’ ability to make Black friends, perceptions of wealth give light-skinned students greater access to social ties who have more resources that light-skinned students could tap into. Class also matters for medium and dark-skinned people because they describe being denied opportunities or avoiding opportunities that could advance their career at school. If educational institutions are a microcosm of society, then dark-skinned low-income students may continue to experience blocked opportunity in their post-graduate career that may affect their earning potential. Thirdly, in the dating market, light-skinned women have more bodily capital; however, the lack of bodily capital in medium and dark-skinned women could be overcome with a higher socioeconomic standing or social ties to wealthy people.
Intersectionality theory is one of the frameworks I use, which allows the study to showcase diverse perspectives about skin tone with low-income Black students of different genders and ethnicities. The relationship between gender and skin tone is important to delineate because skin tone matters for women in all arenas discussed in the study, but skin tone does not seem to have an impact on men in friendships and men’s access to social events. So, knowledge of what aspects of life on campus are relevant to the intersection between gender and skin tone allows universities to envision interventions that target the appropriate gender population in ways that are pertinent to their experience.
This study shows that regardless of ethnicity and gender, experience and see skin tone bias on campus. However, the multiple parts of the participants’ identity caused them to have to differentiate between which part of their identity led to their bodily capital or revoked their bodily capital in a given situation; participants admitted this posed as a challenge for them throughout their interviews. This is a limitation of the present study. The study’s participants included those of Caribbean, African, and African-American origin as well as biracial students. Students of African origin particularly noted that there are tensions within the Black community at Lighthouse, particularly between African-Americans, African internationals, and second generation Africans. African students in the study were mostly dark-skinned, and they noted that it was challenging to distinguish whether they did not have bodily capital within the Black community because of their skin tone or their ethnicity.
Additionally, two participants were African-born international students at Lighthouse. Both are medium-skinned women. Being international students has affected their social and academic life on campus, especially their ability to make friends and pursue romantic relationships. In some of their social experiences, these students had to isolate whether they lacked bodily capital because of their skin tone or because they are not American, or a combination of both identities.
The study’s sample also includes a handful of biracial students, who are all light-skinned and half-White. When biracial students were evaluating their experiences on campus, they had the added challenge of distinguishing between whether their mixed-race identity or their skin tone was responsible for their access to or denial of resources. In other words, when biracial students had bodily capital or lacked bodily capital, the reason could include either their proximity to Whiteness, as a half-White person, or their light skin. In order to try to overcome this limitation presented by considering ethnicity and skin tone, I focused the data on experiences where students explicitly mentioned that skin tone was more significant than other parts of their identity in their access, or lack thereof, to resources.
While interviews and qualitative data allows us to learn about a participant’s experience in their own words, this form of data collection also has its disadvantages. Participants can only recount their version of reality, which may differ from the actual reality. There is also no way for the researcher to know if participants are truthful in their telling of events. However, the focus of the study is on participants’ perception of how skin tone matters on campus, so their perspective on their experiences is central to the study’s goals, making qualitative data crucial for the study.
The sample size was unevenly distributed between men and women. There were about 5 light, medium, and dark women in the sample. However, there were 3 men of each skin tone in the sample. Therefore, there are more perspectives from women included in the study. There are less men in the study because it was difficult to gain interest from men to participate. Despite this, the study still gathered a range of perspectives from different skin tones and genders of students.
This study gathered participants from one university and in doing so, the study’s findings are specific to Lighthouse University. Lighthouse is not representative of all universities, so the results of this study cannot be generalized to other institutions of higher education.
Future research on this topic should look at skin tone bias at different university campuses. Lighthouse is a highly selective, predominantly- White, private, institution. Researchers can select research sites at other types of higher education institutions such as Historically Black College or Universities and state schools. Secondly, researchers can explore skin tone bias through qualitative interviews with other students of color since colorism exists among many other groups such as in the East Asian, South Asian, and Hispanic communities. This study focused on a low-income population, but researchers can also recruit college students from high income families to draw comparisons to findings on low-income students. The point of this future research is to paint a bigger picture of the extent of colorism in higher education by increasing diversity of research sites and target populations.
This study has implications for institutions of higher education. Universities, such as Lighthouse, have made concerted efforts to diversify their student population in recent years with respect to race and socioeconomic class. While administrators have typically focused on race and class, the impact of skin tone and its various intersections with other parts of identity have been largely ignored by administration. At Lighthouse, there have been an increasing number of conversations about skin tone bias on the campus, but many of those conversations occur among Black students. While it is important for Black students to discuss colorism within their own community, as this study shows, White students and faculty may also perpetuate colorism. Therefore, efforts to understand and bring awareness to skin tone bias should include all students and faculty at the university, regardless of race.
Universities can play a more active role in alleviating the effects of colorism by instituting unconscious bias training as part of the New Student Orientation program. Before all students begin at the university, unconscious bias training could help students to discover and challenge assumptions based on skin tone. Additionally, many students in the present study mentioned Sociology or Africana Studies courses exposed them to skin tone bias and caused them to reflect on ways that they have either promoted or been a victim of the color hierarchy. Courses are another tool that can be used to educate students about colorism in society at large, which can give students an opportunity to think about colorism and their own social and academic experiences. Relevant faculty should make an effort to discuss colorism in academic areas such as Social Psychology, Health and Society, History, Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, and courses on pop culture, media, and film. Skin tone is often overlooked as a mechanism of division and bias, however, the findings and stepping stones for change presented in this paper work towards achieving equity in campus social and academic life between groups of Black, low income, college students.
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