We Need More People Talking About Colorism in the Workplace

Published in
8 min readDec 18, 2023


How skin-tone bias affects opportunity and perception

Photo courtesy of Albin Biju

In recent years you’ve no doubt heard, and have even been a part of discussions about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in your organization. But there’s a lesser-discussed form of discrimination that many sweep under the rug-or may not even be aware of. A prejudice that often starts right at our own dinner tables and follows us straight into the boardroom.

Colorism, coined as a term by legendary Black novelist and womanist Alice Walker, exposes the deeply entrenched bias toward favoring lighter skin tones. It’s a discrimination driven by white supremacist ideologies, often perpetuated within our own ethnic communities and echoed across broader societal views.

As a teenager, I remember hearing from several people that my skin tone was the “darkest that they would consider dating.” I received cautionary advice to stay out of the sun as if worth were determined by the hue of my complexion. The underlying message it sent was that if I were just a couple of shades darker, I would have been deemed undesirable.

What’s more unsettling is that these notions don’t just stay in our youth-they’re not just ideas we outgrow. They follow us into our later lives, affecting career progression and self-worth.

Alana Grant, nationally recognized DEI consultant at Grant & Grant Consulting, resonates with this experience having observed the colorism complex from a young age in a familial environment, and recognizing how it has cascaded through society at large. When she was a child, lighter skin tones seemed to be the measuring stick for beauty, worth, and class. An unwritten-but painfully conspicuous rule-that the closer one was to whiteness, the more “appealing” and valuable they were considered.

Grant recalls that even her perception of leadership was once shaped by not seeing women of color in positions of power when she was younger. “That lack of representation I saw as a child definitely has more of an influence on what I used to think of as the professional standard.”

And those “professional standards” -they’re synonymous with “beauty standards.” A construct that has been subtly ingrained in all of us. A psychological warfare that shapes not only how we view ourselves and others, but also how we’re perceived in spaces that influence our economic, social, and emotional wellbeing. Most notably, the workplace.

We do see color: how colorism affects our opportunities and biases

In workplace DEI discussions, when addressing racism, the focus often narrows to discrimination against distinct racial or ethnic groups. However, beneath the surface of that dialogue lies a seldom-discussed but deeply damaging facet that affects many people of color’s opportunity for advancement and social standing.

In part, this topic gets sidelined because the idea of colorism is most often associated as an intraracial problem confined within ethnic communities. But, in fact, this is a far-reaching issue rooted in history and perpetuated across various cultures, extending to white perspectives. In professional settings, people of darker complexions frequently face undue criticism, are treated more harshly, are met with greater suspicion, or perceived as less competent than their lighter-skinned colleagues. So, if you’ve ever heard (or said) the ridiculous phrase, “I don’t see color,” it’s time to confront the fallacy of that statement.

When we rewind the tape of American history, the roots of colorist ideologies are glaringly apparent. During slavery, for example, darker-skinned African Americans were those predominantly forced to work grueling field labor, while those with lighter skin tones were tasked with domestic chores. The strategy was deliberate-to sow division among Black individuals and reinforce a hierarchical mindset among white slave owners that determined the “worth” of Black slaves.

But, let’s be clear, colorism isn’t just a phenomenon unique to the Black community in the United States. This is a global issue manifested in multiple cultures. Consider India, where colorism is a disturbingly prevalent issue. According to a report by NPR, dark-skinned Indians, especially women, face more discrimination at school, work, and in relationships. As a result, nearly half of all skincare products in India are designed to “lift” skin color. Pew Research also spotlighted how skin tone impacts Latine communities, surfacing that a majority of adult respondents in their study were of the belief that “having a darker skin color hurts Hispanics’ ability to get ahead.”

Now, let’s get back to the modern workplace. Because dark skin has been historically associated with “lower class,” that mentality continues to rear its head in professional settings where people of darker complexion are branded as less dependable, less intelligent, unworthy, and socially unacceptable.

“The complex that society develops at a young age doesn’t just go away when we get older. In the workplace, these issues are still going to be there,” says Grant. “Our brain is like an algorithm. It reminds us and shows us again and again what we’re already used to seeing.”

To illustrate this point, Grant poses a thought-provoking challenge: What are the immediate assumptions that you make about a person’s profession if they’re tall, appearing lean and athletic? If your answer was basketball, well, you’ve just tapped into a generalized stereotype that has been ingrained in your mindset over time.

It’s this mental framework that comes into play every single day to shape our interactions in casual and professional settings.

“Your mind is going to remind you of what you’ve seen and heard. It’s our way of doing a risk assessment of the people that are in front of us. It’s very much instinctual. So a shift in mindset has to be an intentional process of learning and unlearning. Of taking the time to recognize an initial reaction and reprogram the response.” she says.

The impact of colorism in the workplace

In a recent training for women’s banking group, Grant surfaced a startling revelation: lighter skinned employees were getting preferential treatment that resulted in more business simply because they resembled what clients have been conditioned to expect in leadership roles.

“Employees with a darker complexion received a lesser amount of support. And clients were apprehensive, maybe even scared, to work with those women because it was different from what they were expecting to see.”

That notion aligns with studies that show skin tone can be a bigger determinant of whether someone gets a job than their educational background. In fact, researchers have found that skin tone and shade were just as impactful as race in determining socioeconomic status in America.

A recent Catalyst expose of women’s workplace experience underscores how senior leaders are often failing to recognize these issues and address these disparities. Nearly half of the women surveyed from marginalized racial and ethnic groups say that leaders don’t demonstrate allyship or curiosity when it comes to creating a more inclusive workplace.

“It’s something that leaders, and white leaders in particular, may not be very aware of. They may have the misconception that everyone gets the same treatment because colorism is not something they’ve had to deal with personally,” Grant observed. The playing field isn’t level for everyone-especially employees with darker skin tones who have an uphill battle of being seen as worthy and belonging.

People who are not of color, she emphasizes, are less likely to recognize or understand the spectrum of skin tone bias-overlooking the varied experiences, privileges, and challenges that come with each shade.

Grant notes that she’s had conversations with lighter-skinned professional women who also feel pigeonholed, albeit in a different way. “They feel penalized by a privilege they didn’t ask for. Having been boxed into a stereotype of ‘thinking they’re better’ because of their skin tone, they’re also met with spite and resistance.”

“It’s important to recognize that there’s different challenges for all people of color,” Grant adds.

Yes, it’s a complex and multifaceted issue. Which is precisely why these discussions are necessary-and why organizations must do the work to peel back the layers of internalized bias to then dismantle it head on.

Read more: The Difference Between Overt & Covert: Recognizing Hidden Systemic Racism & Sexism

How companies and leaders can address colorism in the workplace

For organizations genuinely interested in improving their organizational standards around DEI, Grant urges leadership to seek external intervention. This allows a business to truly examine company culture from an unbiased lens and explore the nuanced experiences of employees-including those with varying skin tones.

“It’s going to be hard to understand those details if you have not had consistent and very open conversations with people about their lived experiences and the impact that it has had in work spaces.” According to Grant, these complex and often unseen issues are where DEI consultants have the biggest avenue for transformative impact. Having these discussions and putting a magnifying glass to these issues is going to be hard and uncomfortable work. Work that Grant warns cannot effectively be done in house because of already established biases.

“You can’t do your own audit!” Grant says. If you’re thinking you can just have these discussions during a company town hall, it isn’t going to cut it. Because those same people who have been afraid to speak up about their experiences, who have felt silenced, and who have felt unseen, will still be apprehensive about sharing their truth.

Read more: Marginalized Employees Want You to Talk About Gender Identity & Expression at Work. Here’s How.

Furthermore, Grant cautions companies against relying solely on developing internal committees that often solicit more work from groups who are already stretched thin-providing those with privilege even more of an advantage because they actually have time to do their work. And the truth is, these well-intentioned yet hollow endeavors serve merely as a “stamp” of commitment without actually working together across the organization to address underlying issues.

In order for leaders to actually effect change, Grant encourages them to work toward a true understanding of the holistic human experience of their employees-going beyond superficial gestures to learn the day-to-day experiences, struggles, and aspirations of the people who make up the organization.

“You’re going to have to do a deep dive into your company culture.” Grant says, “And culture isn’t developed overnight. It’s going to take intentionality. It’s going to take consistency. It’s going to take hard conversations. It’s going to take transparency. And it’s absolutely going to take a fresh pair of eyes.”

About the author

Jasmine Matthews is a marketing manager, content strategist, and freelance writer. She shares personal essays, listicles, and how-to guides exploring the intersection between motherhood, mental health, career navigation, and self-discovery on her personal blog PursuitofJas.com. Jasmine is an alumna of HBCU, Elizabeth City State University where she received her Bachelor of Arts in Communication Studies, and a graduate of Full Sail University where she received her Master of Arts in New Media & Journalism.

About our source

First a believer, wife, mother, friend and advocate, Alana Grant serves as president of Grant & Grant Consulting and executive director of Richland County Public Education Partners.

In 2015, Alana started the #HateWontWin Movement on social media to counter the hate-field violence she experienced when her grandfather was murdered at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. After spending years encouraging people to show acts of love to people who are different from them in an effort to prevent hate crimes and promote unity, Alana and her now husband, Hamilton Grant, started Grant & Grant Consulting where Alana serves as a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant. Through this role, Alana consults groups on how to make a long-lasting impact by taking preventative measures to address things like bias, prejudice, and discrimination.

Alana has partnered with schools, churches, businesses, and community organizations across the country spreading the message of unity while strategizing for tangible change in our nation. For her work, Alana has received recognition from many organizations most notably the Anti-Defamation League, the King Center, Public Allies, Glamour Magazine, Essence Magazine, the Steve Harvey Show, the Jefferson Awards and many others.

Originally published at https://www.inhersight.com.




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