Critical Race Theories, Colorism, and the Decade's Research on Families of Color

By Burton, Linda M.; Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo et al. | Journal of Marriage and Family, June 2010 | Go to article overview
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Critical Race Theories, Colorism, and the Decade's Research on Families of Color


Burton, Linda M., Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo, Ray, Victor, Buckelew, Rose, Freeman, Elizabeth Hordge, Journal of Marriage and Family


In the millennium 's inaugural decade, 2 interrelated trends influenced research on America's families of color: the need for new knowledge about America's growing ethnic/racial minority and immigrant populations and conceptual advances in critical race theories and perspectives on colorism. Three substantive areas reflecting researchers' interests in these trends emerged as the most frequently studied topics about families of color: inequality and socioeconomic mobility within and across families, interracial romantic pairings, and the racial socialization of children. In this review, we synthesize and critique the decade's scholarly literature on these topics. We devote special attention to advances in knowledge made by family-relevant research that incorporated ways of thinking from critical race theories and the conceptual discourse on colorism.

Key Words: colorism, critical race theory, interracial marriage, racial socialization, socioeconomic mobility.

In this review, we summarize and critique the decade's scholarly literature on families of color in three substantive areas: inequality and socioeconomic mobility within and across families, interracial romantic pairings, and the racial socialization of children. We devote special attention to advances in knowledge made by family-relevant research that incorporated ways of thinking from critical race theories (Crenshaw, Gotanda, Pellar, & Thomas, 1995; Delgado & Stefanicic, 2000) and from the conceptual discourse on colorism (Collins, 2005; Glenn, 2009; Hunter, 2005). Research that integrated critical race theories paid greater attention, than in previous decades, to the roles of racialized systems (e.g., institutional promotion of inequality via racial discrimination) in shaping family structures, processes, and life chances. Studies grounded in perspectives on colorism also considered racialized systems but focused more intently on social inequities circumscribed by skin color grathents within racial and ethnic groups.

Race, ethnicity, and colorism are principal concepts in this review, and we define them accordingly. Race involves the assumption that individuals can be divided into groups based on phenotype or genotype and that those groups have meaningful differences (BonillaSilva, 2009). According to Nagel (1994, p. 12) race is "more than an individual characteristic: It is an ongoing phenomenon that is accomplished in interaction with others and that is situated in social contexts." Ethnicity refers to a subset of people whose members share common national, ancestral, cultural, immigration, or religious characteristics that distinguish them from other groups (Daniel, 2002). Ethnic variation exists within and across racial groups. "Colorism is the allocation of privilege and disadvantage according to the lightness or darkness of one's skin" (Burke, 2008, p. 17). The practices of colorism tend to favor lighter skin over darker skin as indicated by a person's appearance as proximal to a White phenotype (Hall, 2005). Hair texture, eye color, and facial features as well as education and income also affect perceptions of who is considered dark or light skinned (Hunter, 2005). Colorism beliefs and practices operate both within and across racial and ethnic groups (Bonilla-Silva, 2009).

We begin this review with a description of the rationale and strategies we employed to determine which topics about families of color to address. We highlight the roles of two interrelated trends in guiding our focus: the need for new knowledge about America's growing ethnic/racial minority and immigrant populations and conceptual advances made in critical race theories, perspectives on colorism, and the use of these approaches in familyrelevant research. Next, we discuss the decade's literature on socioeconomic mobility, interracial pairing, and the racial socialization of children among families of color. We describe the ways in which elements of critical race theories and perspectives on colorism were incorporated in these literatures.

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