Updated: Jul 13
Author’s Note: Colorism is a global phenomenon that impacts wellbeing and life chances all around the world, but traces back to chattel slavery in the United States. While the current discussion is on the impact of colorism on Black women's mental health in America; people of darker-skin tone from all gender orientations and ethnic backgrounds may be subject to skin-tone discrimination due to white supremacy and the lasting impact of colonialism.
Black women have long been socialized to embody the Strong Black Woman archetype: being mentally strong, emotionally composed, and to cope with stress without the support of others, which compounds the isolating effects of colorism.
Almost 70% of Black people in the United States report experiencing racial discrimination from time to time or regularly. 1 In addition to racial discrimination, Black people are also subject to discrimination by skin tone, or colorism. Colorism is a form of discrimination based on skin tone, where lighter-skinned individuals have advantages over those with darker skin tones. It operates through white supremacy and colonialism, embedded in both inter-racial and intra-racial power dynamics. Colorism has been linked to negative physical health outcomes in Black people, affecting conditions such as high blood pressure and cardiovascular issues 2. However, little research has focused specifically on the experiences of Black women and the impact of colorism on their mental health. This post will explore colorism, intersectionality, and the implications of colorism on the overall well-being of Black women.
Colorism, or discrimination by skin-tone, is a highly pervasive social phenomenon that operates between members of the Black community (in-group) and is perpetrated by outside members of society in other racial groups, usually the dominant race or White people (out-group). The dual mechanism of colorism makes it especially harmful to those subject to its ideology, which tends to favor lighter skin over darker skin. Colorism follows the overarching dominance of white supremacy, which places value on a person’s appearance and character as proximal to a White phenotype3. It has deep historical roots, dating back to slavery, and is perpetuated through several social conditions such as socioeconomic status, education, and social status. This is related to health in the context of the social-ecological model, which includes several levels of society that influence physical, mental, and social wellbeing. These levels include: the individual, interpersonal, community, institutional, policy, macrosystem, and chronosystem levels4.The microaggressions, racialized stereotypes, and prejudicial mechanisms at each of the levels maintain and contribute to colorism. These social interactions are embedded in the ecological environment, and therefore have an impact on human development and wellbeing.
Intersectionality and Black Women
Intersectionality, a term coined by scholar Kimberle Crenshaw, refers to the multidimensionality of Black women's experiences, where they face discrimination based on multiple identities such as gender, sexual orientation, culture, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and more. Crenshaw states that “the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism.”5, meaning that the unique burden of discrimination placed on Black women is due to their multiple identities; and is different from the racism faced by Black men (who benefit from patriarchy), and the sexism faced by White women (who benefit from white supremacy). Intersectionality theory has provided a tangible framework for understanding how gendered racism occurs simultaneously and through colorism. The reality of Black womanhood and how Black women face discrimination by skin-tone is very multi-dimensional and necessitates elevation of Black women’s voices.
The Health Impact of Colorism
Colorism's effects on mental and physical health are profound. Research highlights the social stratification that is produced through systemic marginalization, points to colorism as a form of psychological or emotional abuse through the chorus of day-to-day microaggressions6. Landor and Smith (2019) refer to traumatic stress over time from colorism as “skin tone wounds,” and left untreated – these wounds can contribute to mental health symptoms , physical health symptoms, and social consequences, such as poor interpersonal relationships, social isolation, withdrawal 7. Colorism's influence goes beyond individual microaggressions and affects employment opportunities, marriage prospects, and educational attainment, thus having serious health implications. Additionally, a study on the psychological impact of colorism on Black Americans found that in-group colorism is linked to multiple psychiatricdisorders, including substance use disorder, anxiety disorder, eating disorders, and suicidal ideation 8.
Resilience and Combatting Colorism
Black women have long been socialized to embody the Strong Black Woman archetype: being mentally strong, emotionally composed, and to cope with stress without the support of others, which compounds the isolating effects of colorism. While self-care and self-love are important coping mechanisms, greater social support from the Black community is needed. Therapy, community support, and fostering both in-group and out-group relationships are essential for combating colorism and promoting resilience among Black women.
In summary, addressing colorism from an intersectional lens requires a collective effort from the Black community and society as a whole. Acknowledging colorism as a mechanism of white supremacy and challenging its harmful rhetoric and actions is crucial. Qualitative research and community engagement play a vital role in giving voice to the experiences of Black women and fostering a sense of community support. By dismantling the mechanisms of white supremacy, we can better protect and support the physical health and mental well-being of Black women and the entire Black community.
Erving, C. L., Thomas, C. S., & Frazier, C. (2019). Is the Black-White Mental Health Paradox Consistent Across Gender and Psychiatric Disorders? American Journal of Epidemiology, 188(2), 314–322. https://doi.org/10.1093/aje/kwy224
Hall, J. M., & Fields, B. (2015). “It’s Killing Us!” Narratives of Black Adults About Microaggression Experiences and Related Health Stress. Global Qualitative Nursing Research, 2, 2333393615591569. https://doi.org/10.1177/2333393615591569
Hall, R. E. (2005). From the psychology of race to the issue of skin color for people of African descent. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 35, 1958-1967.
Bronfenbrenner, U. (1992). Ecological systems theory. In R. Vasta (Ed.), Six theories of child development: Revised formulations and current issues (pp. 187–249). Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989, 139.
Burnett, N. (2015). Colorism in Mental Health: Looking the Other Way. Journal of Colorism Studies, 1(1), Article 1.
Landor, A. M., Simons, L. G., Simons, R. L., Brody, G. H., Bryant, C. M., Gibbons, F. X., Granberg, E. M., & Melby, J. N. (2013). Exploring the Impact of Skin Tone on Family Dynamics and Race-Related Outcomes. Journal of Family Psychology : JFP : Journal of the Division of Family Psychology of the American Psychological Association (Division 43), 27(5), 817–826. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0033883
Oh, H., Lincoln, K., & Waldman, K. (2021). Perceived colorism and lifetime psychiatric disorders among Black American adults: Findings from the National Survey of American Life. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 56(8), 1509–1512. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00127-021-02102-z
Mental Health Resources
Finding a therapist:
Seeking crisis support or community:
Georgia Crisis and Access Line 1-800-715-4225
Apps and Web Resources:
Insight Timer App: Meditations, Daily Check-Ins, Live Yoga, Classes and Workshops
Therapy for Black Girls on Instagram
Author Bio: Brianna Halliburton is a recent Master of Public Health graduate in Behavioral, Social, and Health Education Sciences, from the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University. She also holds a Bachelor's degree in Sociology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Brianna is a certified community mental health worker, and an experienced public health researcher in Maternal & Child Health, Race and Skin-tone discrimination (Colorism), and ACEs. In her work, Brianna aims to merge public health and social justice to address health inequalities. Brianna also has an Instagram blog @bhpublichealth, where she discusses current topics in public health, academia, and gives post-graduate career advice for aspiring public health professionals from diverse backgrounds.