Understanding Colorism and How It Relates to Sport and Physical Education: Color Stratification within Racial or Ethnic Groups Can Have Far-Reaching Implications

By Forster-scott, Latisha | JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, February 2011 | Go to article overview

Understanding Colorism and How It Relates to Sport and Physical Education: Color Stratification within Racial or Ethnic Groups Can Have Far-Reaching Implications


Forster-scott, Latisha, JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance


Discussions about skin color within sport and physical education often revolve around issues of racism and comparisons between racial and ethnic groups. It is rare to hear or read academic discourse that has a focus on issues pertaining to gradations of skin color within ethnic groups of color, which leads to significant information being ignored or overlooked. That is the case when it comes to colorism. Many people are unaware of the issues concerning colorism within black, Latino, and Asian cultures. Yet, this issue pervades the psyche of particular racial and ethnic groups, much like issues of racism, sexism, and classism (Glenn, 2008). Unfortunately, it is rarely addressed in academic literature, as many people of color are reluctant to discuss the issue publicly, and concerns related to racial discrimination between groups receive much more attention. However, it is important for professionals to examine issues related to colorism and the role it plays in physical education and sport in order to help prevent its negative effects.

Hunter (2005) defined colorism as interracial and intraracial discrimination based on skin color stratification. Typically, lighter skin is preferred, along with facial and physical features that are more closely associated with Caucasian standards of beauty. Features such as dark skin, broad noses, and kinky hair are often viewed negatively in comparison to light skin, thin noses, and straight hair. Skin color stratification can lead to discrimination within a racial or ethnic group by its own members, or between different racial and ethnic groups wherein a particular skin tone, hair texture, and body type is preferred over the other. It is important to understand colorism as a manifestation of racism. Colorism is related to internalized racism that results from members of racial and ethnic groups of color adopting the beliefs of "White superiority" to the extent that they place a greater value on the lightness of skin and the straightness of hair. Their own darker skin and related physical features are seen as less desirable.

The preferred physical characteristics go beyond beauty preferences such as blonde versus brunette, blue versus brown eyes, or lean versus muscular build. The color stratification has far-reaching and long-standing implications. The complexities of colorism and its effects vary between and within ethnic groups. Research has revealed the role that colorism plays in social status, upward mobility, employment status, marital status, criminal sentencing, politics, acculturation, relationship desirability, psychological health, and self-esteem in black, Latino, and Asian communities (Brown, Ward, Lightbourn, & Jackson, 1999; Gomez, 2000; McDonald, 2006; Philips, 2004; Sahay, 1997).

Historically in the United States, light-skinned African Americans, who were often descendants of slave owners, were more likely to gain their freedom and be the ones to access higher education to become the teachers, doctors, and other professionals within the black community (Russell, Wilson, & Hall, 1992). Light-skinned slaves were more likely to work in the homes of slave owners and dark-skinned slaves were more likely to work in the fields. Folklore within the African American community describes the way in which some subjected one another to the "paper bag test," in which a person's skin complexion was compared to a typical brown paper bag to determine whether or not the person's complexion was light enough to be admitted into certain churches or social networks (Kerr, 2005). Issues surrounding colorism within the African American community have had lasting effects that still influence the behaviors of many African Americans.

Burgos (2007) discussed the role of the color line in the history of American baseball, in which Latinos played for Major League Baseball or for the Negro Leagues, based on the lightness or darkness of their skin. While it was clear earlier in the history of baseball that blacks were not allowed to play some major teams were willing to blur the color line with players of Latino descent who appeared light skinned.

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