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The Problem of the Color Line: Addressing the Evolution of Colorism

At the beginning of his brilliant work, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), African-American sociologist, Pan-African activist, and influential Black leader W.E.B. Du Bois wrote that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line” (p. 3). With these insightful words, the author was already able to foresee the lingering effects of centuries of racism and anti-Black practices exacerbating the relationships between lighter and darker-skinned communities in the aftermath of slavery’s abolition. Accordingly, during the post-Civil War era, new sets of laws were enacted with the purpose of re-enforcing racial segregation and as such, they were aimed at systemically preventing Black and Brown groups from exercising the same rights and accessing the same opportunities as their white counterparts. Known to history as Jim Crow laws due to their close association with the caricature of "Jump Jim Crow" invented by Thomas Dartmouth in 1830 and used to perpetuate derogatory stereotypes of African Americans as unintelligent and foolish (Urofsky, 2023), these laws were active from the late 19th century until the mid-20th century and played a significant role in shaping racial hierarchies based on skin color in America.

Much like a pyramid structure, where White individuals occupy the top, while those who do not are pushed to the margins of the social ladder, skin color stratification (alias colorism) continues to significantly influence global scenarios. Unfortunately, however, this matter has not yet received the significant attention it deserves. When talking about racism, in fact, little discussion is made around the double discrimination darker persons are subjected to due to their skin tones. Precisely because of this, the following article seeks to bring a new focus to the issue of colorism and present it both as a byproduct of anti-black racism and a distinct phenomenon, all while simultaneously exploring its origins and highlighting its most evident manifestations in society.

Figure 1: “Homme Tenant un Miroir Brisé” (Huggins, 2019).

What is the Color Line?

Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the color of your skin... to such an extent you bleach, to get like the white man? Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose and the shape of your lips? Who taught you to hate yourself from the top of your head to the soles of your feet? Who taught you to hate your own kind? Who taught you to hate the race that you belong to, so much so that you don’t want to be around each other? - Malcolm X, 1962

Before delving into a proper definition of colorism, it is crucial to understand the differences between this phenomenon and that of racism, as these terms, although quite similar, do not always mean the same. While colorism is closely linked to the stratification of skin color, it has, at least in the United States, evolved into a distinct concept separated from racism. This distinction depends mainly on specific historical contexts and linguistic variations across the world. In English-speaking regions, for example, the difference between race and color is generally more straightforward, whereas in non-English-speaking societies this demarcation becomes less clear (Mathews & Johnson, 2015). In the case of Latin America, both race and color are often perceived as existing on a continuum, therefore, the terms are usually used interchangeably. This attitude stems from the fact that in some Latin areas the word "race" is seldom used to categorize people today, with color being the primary descriptor for ethno-racial categorizations (Mathews & Johnson, 2015). In light of this brief overview, it becomes evident that, while skin color and race are intricately connected, the nature of this relationship can also vary across different societies.

Throughout history, humans turned race and skin color into social constructs intended to categorize other fellow humans by attributing arbitrary connotations to these concepts. Despite the fact that the majority of scientists have unanimously reached the consensus that biological races are not a valid concept, in that there are hardly any genetic characteristics exclusively common to all individuals of any racial group, whether it's Black or White, prominent morphological differences in non-White subjects, such as the width of the nose, the fullness of the lips, or the curliness of hair have historically been employed to justify the inherent inferiority of Black and Brown groups (Jones, 2000). Among these characteristics, skin color remains the most significant and straightforward factor in identifying an individual's racial background. According to this trait, Individuals with lighter skin tones are more commonly classified as Caucasian or White, whereas those with darker or browner pigmentation are more frequently categorized as African or Black. Since these categories are charged with societal implications, being classified as White usually means having access to the material and economic privileges associated with Whiteness. In contrast, being labeled as Black often directly translates to a lower position within the socioeconomic hierarchy as well as other negative forms of discrimination (Jones, 2000). It is important to recognize, however, that racial designations are not solely determined by skin pigmentation but also encompass a wide range of closely related physical traits. These additional traits, such as hair texture, eye color, and facial features, play a huge role in determining how closely an individual is perceived to resemble or align with a particular racial group (Mathews & Johnson, 2015). In other words, the more characteristics align with those typically associated with African ancestry, the more likely they are to experience to colorist behaviors.

Figure 2: “Melanin Beauty” (Lane, n.d.).

As suggested by Trina Jones, author of the essay Shades of Brown: The Law of Skin Color (2000), another way to simplify this discussion is by explaining racial discrimination as a system that operates on two distinct, yet interconnected levels: race and color. The first level encompasses racial categories such as American, Asian, Latino, and so on. Therefore, irrespective of their physical appearance, individuals who identify as African American encounter specific forms of discrimination, derogation, and unequal treatment solely due to their African, or Black, identity. The second level of discrimination, which we refer to as colorism, focuses on variations in skin tone, ranging from darker to lighter. In this sense, while all Black individuals face discrimination based on their racial identity, the intensity, frequency, and consequences of this discrimination can vary significantly depending on their skin tone. For instance, darker-skinned African Americans may earn less than their lighter-skinned counterparts, although both still earn less than white individuals (Jones, 2000). These two systems of discrimination, based on race and color, although distinct, operate in conjunction, reason why people frequently tend to confuse them (Hunter, 2007).

Another feature of colorism is that it can manifest both among people of the same racial group (intraracial colorism) as well as between two or multiple racial groups (interracial colorism). The former occurs when a member of a specific racial group distinguishes between individuals of the same race based on their skin color (Hunter, 2007). For instance, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, elite Black social clubs discriminated against applicants with darker skin, demonstrating intraracial colorism (Hunter, 2007). The latter, interracial colorism, happens when a member of one racial group makes distinctions based on skin color when interacting with members of another.

Figure 3: “Shades of Black” (Featherstone, 2019).

The History of the Color Line

Before the Civil War

Although the term colorism was first coined only in the late 1980s by Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker, the underlying phenomenon has been a persistent concern within the African American community for centuries. As a matter of fact, scholars delving into the history of the Americas usually trace the origins of colorism back to the era of European colonization. During this period, racial prejudices based on pseudoscientific beliefs were used to justify the subjugation and subsequent marginalization of Black people from history in the name of white supremacy—an ideology asserting the inherent superiority of White people over other racialized groups. This belief system progressively led to the stigmatization of dark skin as a symbol of lower human worth and inferiority (Mathews & Johnson, 2015). Meanwhile, individuals who aligned more closely with Whiteness in terms of ideology, culture, ancestry, and physical appearance were granted greater access to social and economic privileges and opportunities (Mathews & Johnson, 2015). Within this context, colorism started to take place and evolve into the phenomenon we know today.

In spite of the derogatory behavior towards Black individuals and their skin color, white slave owners frequently engaged in non-consensual sexual relationships with enslaved women. This disturbing aspect of history has been documented by several scholars such as Russel, Wilson, and Hall (1992), who noted that

[r]ape was an unfortunate reality on the plantations. Female slaves were frequently subjected to the unwanted and often abusive sexual advances of their masters, regardless of time or place... few Black women reached the age of 16 without experiencing such victimization at the hands of white males (p. 18).

Through such an immoral way, generations of mixed-race people took place on this earth. Concurrently, society began to attach various societal meanings to these differences in skin color and used them to make assumptions about an individual's race, socioeconomic status, intelligence, as well as physical attractiveness (Mathews & Johnson, 2015). Historically referred to as "Mulattos"—although in this article it will be preferred the term "mixed-race" so as to limit the perpetuation of stereotypical language— these individuals of both African and European heritage held a unique position in society. Often considered more valuable than other darker-skinned slaves, they were employed as house servants instead of engaging in the typical field labor undertaken by other fellow enslaved (Brown et al., 2003). Other relevant “privileges” they benefited from included the opportunity sometimes to access education and acquire material possessions. With time, mixed-race slaves became acutely aware of the distinctions between themselves and other darker-skinned, leading to the prevailing belief that their white ancestry indeed conferred them a sense of superiority. As a result of the negative stereotypes associated with "blackness" and the positive value placed on "lightness" by the dominant society, it became widely accepted both among the enslaved population and Whites that "light" meant "superiority", and thus, "dark" was its opposite (Mathews & Johnson, 2015).

Figure 4: “Virginian Luxuries” (The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1825).

Around the 1660s, anti-miscegenation laws began to emerge to prohibit interracial intercourses as well as relationships between people of White and Black backgrounds. These legal restrictions neither erased voluntary sexual relationships between individuals of different racial groups nor limited the sexual exploitation of Black female slaves by white owners. On the contrary, as the children of these relationships multiplied, white planters were confronted with the problem of the color line, meaning: are these children to be classified as Black (and thus, be enslaved) or White (and thus, free)? The genesis of colorism lies exactly with how colonial legislatures grappled with this question, as one of the most distinguishing characteristics of mixed-race individuals was their skin tone (Jones, 2000).

Whether mixed races were considered Black or White depended a lot on the specific interests of ruling-class Whites and on the local legislation. Since the legal status of children normally followed that of their mothers, white plantation owners often saw an economic advantage in engaging in miscegenation with Black women, as it increased their opportunities in slave holdings (Jones, 2000). By the mid-nineteenth century, two distinct trends began to appear. In the North and the Upper South, a region extending south from Pennsylvania into parts of North Carolina, light-skinned people were subjected to the same legal status as dark-skinned Black people under the one-drop rule, according to which any person with even a drop of Black blood would be classified legally as a Black. Colonial legislators in this region adopted the strictest stance against miscegenation by ensuring that the offspring of Black slave women would be slaves regardless of the race of their fathers or their lighter skin tones. In the Lower South, on the other hand, distinctions within the Black population were made arbitrarily. For instance, sometimes the need for large-scale slave labor on extensive sugar and rice plantations resulted in a significant imbalance between the Black and White demographic, and for this reason, fair-skinned were regarded as a potential intermediary class to help control other non-white slaves (Jones, 2000). This particular mindset of southern Whites is reflected in a legislative commission's report appointed to investigate a planned slave insurrection in 1822. In this document, instead of categorizing mixed-race slaves as simply Black, the states of the Lower South allowed a distinct third category: a full-on intermediate class positioned between Black and White individuals, as it served their need for social control in areas where the Black population greatly outnumbered the White (Jones, 2000). Unsurprisingly, then, South Carolina authorities chose not to adopt the one-drop rule, which would have not only destroyed their three-tier social hierarchy but with it, also their possibility to exert better control. Instead of relying solely on bloodlines, light-skinned enslaved who behaved in a manner considered "proper" and demonstrated wealth and education could even apply for legal recognition as "White", and therefore, access a certain set of privileges precluded to dark-skinned Americans (Jones, 2000).

Figure 5: “Which is N*gro? Which is White” (Ebony Magazine, 1952).

The preferential treatment extended to the majority of mixed-race slaves, their higher social and educational achievements, and the fact that some of them even owned slaves in the Lower South naturally strained the relations with fellow darker-skinned, causing huge discord within the Black community (Jones, 2000). Not only that but fearing association with poorer, "blacker" slaves, countless light-skinned free men even began to actively discriminate against their darker brothers and sisters, and went on to pursue social relations exclusively with other light-skinned. However, as the nation approached the Civil War, southern Whites found it increasingly challenging to categorize slaves when a significant half-White half-Black population was progressively blurring the neat demarcation of the color line, and so, they began to distance themselves from fair-skinned too (Jones, 2000). Thus, notwithstanding the preferential way light-skinned were treated, tolerance for miscegenation and preferential treatment of lighter slaves eventually waned, along with support for the three-tier system of racial classification, leading to the gradual emergence of a racially divided, two-class society in the Lower South defined by the one-drop rule (Jones, 2000).

After the Civil War

While the institution of slavery had come to an end, colorism continued to grow among Black and White communities in the U.S. During the Reconstruction Era, individuals with lighter skin, especially those who could “pass" as White due to their predominantly White features, were systematically given better employment opportunities (Mathews & Johnson, 2015). This implication between skin color and social class can be easily traced back to the historical division between house slaves and field slaves previously discussed. Once again, those with lighter skin were more likely to gain entry even if they were economically disadvantaged because they were assumed to be “superior” to other Black individuals only for sharing part of that Whiteness (Jones, 2000). Under precisely these circumstances, skin color eventually turned into a parameter for social class.

Figure 6: “Redemption of Ham” (Modesto, 1895).

Concerns about racial mixing, driven by the belief that it would compromise the biological purity of the white race, prompted efforts from the White dominant class to pursue racial segregation. By 1883, the era of Jim Crow laws had begun, introducing legislation that not only banned interracial marriage but also mandated the separation of Black and White people in various public spaces such as trains, buses, theaters, libraries, and stores, therefore requiring separate schools, restrooms, drinking fountains, parks, swimming pools, and other facilities for Black or White folks only (Jones, 2000). Despite these legal restrictions, miscegenation continued, leading several states to employ racial classifications to reinforce the division between White and non-White populations, which frequently followed the system of the one-drop rule. Virginia's legislative actions exemplify the efforts made by state governments to legally classify mixed-race individuals as Black. The state established four racial categories: White, Indian, N*gro, and mulatto. From 1785 until at least 1910, a “mulatto” was defined as a person with at least "one-fourth part or more of n*gro blood" (Jones, 2000, p. 1512). Some Virginians believed that one-fourth was too generous a threshold, leading to a change in the state’s legislature in 1910 to include anyone with at least one-sixteenth Black ancestry (Jones, 2000). By 1924, the Virginia legislature concluded that a White person had no discernible Black blood whatsoever (Jones, 2000). Shockingly, more than half of states maintained anti-miscegenation laws on their books as late as 1955 (Jones, 2000), which demonstrates how deeply ingrained racist and colorist policies are in the U.S. system.

Among mixed-race individuals striving to preserve the privileges they had gained during slavery, and set themselves apart from darker-skinned people, an elite established separate communities where skin tone only could determine access, such as the exclusive social club Nashville's Blue Vein Society. There, membership was given depending on whether an individual's skin was light enough to reveal their wrist veins or pass the "paper bag test", a wicked way to decide whether one could attend services based on arm skin color (Jones, 2000). In some other cases, fair-skinned groups even lived in separate neighborhoods and organized exclusive professional and business associations. At last, the main domain where lighter-skinned received preferential treatment over darker-skinned Black folks was education. There existed, indeed, preparatory schools and colleges offering a liberal arts education that excluded those deemed too dark who, in contrast, primarily received vocational training, thus reinforcing their placement in lower-paying, less-skilled roles (Jones, 2000).

Figure 7: Drinking fountain on the Halifax County Courthouse (Vachon, 1938).

After what has been explained, it is unsurprising that, by the turn of the century, the successful Black class was predominantly composed of visibly mixed individuals. These distinctions were also evident in the leadership of the Black community, with fair-skinned elites holding sway in intellectual and political spheres. A notable example is that of W.E.B. Du Bois's "Talented Tenth", a group he believed would guide the Black race to greatness, all of them, including Du bois himself, were fair-skinned but one, anticipating a trend that has its most evident manifestation in today’s society (Jones, 2000).

Final Thoughts

The problem of the color line, as described by W.E.B. Du Bois over a century ago, continues to affect our society. From the days of colonialism to the era of Jim Crow laws and today, skin color has been used as a divisive tool, perpetuating inequalities and injustices towards dark-skinned people. Although complex, an analysis of colorism in the U.S. has shown how the exploitation of Black people, and the pursuit of white supremacy has led to the creation of a deeply ingrained system of discrimination based on skin color, which drastically affects opportunities and disadvantages for Black lives to this day. By shedding light on its origins and manifestations, it becomes evident that colorism is not a byproduct of racism alone but a distinct issue that requires its own attention and solutions. For this reason, this article wanted to at least spark a conversation around this enduring phenomenon and inspire action, with the hope that one day our society will succeed at breaking down the barriers of the color line.

Bibliographical References

Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903). The Souls of Black Folk. Public Domain, 1-4.,-Souls-of-Black-Folk.Chapters-1-to-4.pdf

Hunter, M. (2007). The persistent problem of colorism: Skin tone, status, and inequality. Sociology Compass, 1(1), 237–254. DOI:

Jones, T. (2000). Shades of Brown: The Law of Skin Color. Duke Law Journal, 49(6), 1487–1557. DOI:

Malcolm, X. (1962). Who Taught You to Hate Yourself. Speech excerpt. [Video/DVD]. Greenwood, IN: Educational Video Group.,the%20shape%20of%20your%20lips%3F

Mathews, T. J., & Johnson, G. S. (2015). Skin Complexion in the Twenty-First Century: The Impact of Colorism on African American Women. Race, Gender & Class, 22(1–2), 248–274.

Russell, K. Y., Wilson, M., & Hall, R. E. (1992). The color complex: The politics of skin color among African Americans, 18. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Urofsky, M. I. (2023, August 4). Jim Crow law. Encyclopedia Britannica.

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Roberta Di Nunzio

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