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Colourism: the sweet juice of racism

One of my favourite authors of all time is a Canadian named Lawrence Hill. He, like me, is of mixed racial heritage. He, like me, struggled with crafting an identity in an era where ‘biracial’ or ‘mixed’ wasn’t really an option. I found his writing a major source of both inspiration and comfort in my teenage years where the race question loomed largest in my life (at least, compared to now). If you haven’t read any of his stuff, I highly recommend you put The Book of Negroes or Any Known Blood on your reading list.

In one of his books Black Berry, Sweet Juice, he riffs on an old racist adage: “the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice.” The implication is that dark-skinned women are more sexually attractive. Hill wryly completes the rhyme: “the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice. But if you get too black, it ain’t no use”, aptly noting that life is much kinder to light-skinned black folks than dark-skinned ones. This is a fact that is well-known within the black community, as both an internal conflict and an external one:

For the first time, a study indicates that dark-skinned African Americans face a distinct disadvantage when applying for jobs, even if they have resumes superior to lighter-skinned black applicants. Matthew Harrison, a doctoral student at the University of Georgia, presented his research last month at the 66th annual meeting of the Academy of Management in Atlanta. Along with his faculty supervisor, Kecia Thomas, a professor of applied psychology and acting director of UGA’s Institute for African American Studies, Harrison undertook the first significant study of “colorism” in the American workplace.

“The findings in this study are, tragically, not too surprising,” said Harrison. “We found that a light-skinned black male can have only a bachelor’s degree and typical work experience and still be preferred over a dark-skinned black male with an MBA and past managerial positions, simply because expectations of the light-skinned black male are much higher, and he doesn’t appear as ‘menacing’ as the darker-skinned male applicant.”

Hiring is one of those weird things where a whole host of non-overlapping bits of information are used to accomplish something quite difficult – evaluate the worth of another human being. Aside from the things that are on paper – education, experience, list of skills – we are also called upon to see how well someone would ‘fit’ within our environment. Personal details – sense of humour, eye contact, level of comfort – things that may have no bearing whatsoever on job performance, become part of the package of details used when deciding to whom a position will be offered.

Like all decisions that are made when instinct and ‘gut feeling’ are brought to bear, a whole host of cognitive biases are allowed to run wild. In this case, a person’s level of “comfort” with an applicant appears to be closely related to skin colour. As we demonize black people along racial lines, we begin to demonize blackness itself. This is really no surprise, and is spoken to explicitly in this morning’s post – we have an association between positive characteristics and white skin. While the reasons for this are multitude and would require a PhD-level dissertation to fully explore, I hope that you will simply accept my assertion that ‘whiteness’ is considered, in general, to be superior to ‘blackness’. Not by all individuals, not through active considered bigotry, but through our society’s subtle indoctrination that has a history stretching back centuries.

The consequence of such demonization shows up in the results of this study. Applicants to jobs can find themselves discriminated against, not just for being black, but for being too black. Despite our repeated assertions that we live in a “post-racial” society, we have just found new ways to express our racism. As a result, the overlapping cognitive processes of “I am afraid of black people” and “I want to hire someone who makes me feel comfortable” strike a bias against dark-skinned candidates – even more so in some cases than our desire to hire the most qualified person for the position.

The perverse upshot of this study is that it can help us tease out anti-black racism without interference from racial compensation. I’d imagine that most people presented with white and black faces will recognize that racism might play a role in the decision-making process. They are therefore likely to actively make the attempt to avoid being racist. This might mean looking more explicitly at qualifications to mitigate the effect of race, or overcompensating by picking a black candidate “just to be fair”. Since colourism is not quite as well understood, and all of the faces in front of the study participants were ostensibly ‘black’, compensation for racism will be less likely to occur.

Because of my mixed racial heritage, I benefit from the effects of colourism. I can’t deny this, nor do I wish to. What knowledge of this bias allows me to do, however, is act as a “foot in the door” – being a ‘non-scary’ black guy who can help break the cognitive link between blackness and its associated negative baggage. This doesn’t excuse me from still having a responsibility to ensure fairness in hiring whenever I can, or make it “okay” that colourism exists. It simply means that I am in a position to exploit this bias to achieve the breakdown of even these subconscious kinds of racism.

Once again, the way to diminish the power of these kinds of bias is to first learn that they exist, and then to train our brains to notice them. Finding methods of in-depth research to pinpoint and measure these biases makes this all the more possible. But if we don’t even try, then it ain’t no use.

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