bell hooks, Rethinking Everything, and Colorism – Hidden Power of Words Series, #13

bell hooks continues to transform my thinking and understanding of all things related to critical theory and History. I have completely fallen in love with her conceptualization of the White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy.

Yesterday I was listening to this talk (which is excellent!) between hooks and Gloria Steinem, and the word “colorism” caught my attention. “Colorism” is not a word I had heard before, but it sounded intriguing. One of the things I love about learning is that you are always learning something new, and in this case, something that “makes so much sense.” 

A search on Google does not reveal any substantial results, but the basic idea that colorism is discrimination based on the hue of a person’s skin (similar to but different than phenotype) was clear and is, potentially, a revolutionary concept for my thinking, writing, and teaching. 

Given how much scholars in the Liberal Arts preach that race is a social construction, not a biological reality; that race does not exist but racism does exist, students frequently say, with full sincerity, how can we have racism if race does not exist. Or, they will say, “clearly we all have different skin colors, how do you “explain” that away.” For a while, I learned to frame this with the following explanation: No one is white or black, but they can be and are racialized as White or Black. 

The ways in which society and its prejudices have defined race include more than skin color. None of these categories “make sense.” And none are supported by biology. There are more “Asian eyes” among so-called Whites than among so-called Asians, as the American Anthropological Association would put it. Nonetheless, skin color “as race” is ultimately what determine’s a person’s “race” or how they are racialized, in the overwhelming majority of cases. 

This has always bothered me some. I just did not have the terminology to fully grapple with it. I have liked the usefulness of “racialization” because it takes the emphasis of a “thing” and places it on the “process.” But still, the term adds some legitimacy to “race” as a both a “category of practice” and “category of analysis.” One thought on this is that someone might be “racialized” as Black based on recent ancestry (and have skin society would racialize as White), voice, a name, clothing, etc. These are very real, all too real, forms of discrimination. People with White-sounding and Male-sounding names get all kinds of Privilege from society, for example. 

But, ultimately, when it comes down to it, the ways in which a person is colorized and the colorism they face seems to be a way to more specifically target the problem.

People are not white or black, but they are colorized as White or Black: placed into artificial binaries that confine and divide. 

Is it fair and more precise to say I (mostly) study “colorism,” not “racism”? Should scholars and professors teach “colorism” more often than “racism.” 

Words are powerful. Precise and thoughtful words are even more powerful. 

Please check out other articles in the Hidden Power of Words Series!

Categories: Thoughts and Perspectives

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4 replies

  1. Reminds me of Zora Neale Hurston’s play Color Struck, in which colorism is a major theme (i.e. the lighter the skin, the more desirable you are.) It’s a theme that also resurfaces in They Eyes Were Watching God I believe.


  2. Thanks for the link to the bell hooks Gloria Steinem video. I enjoyed it.

    Race needs to be understood in different ways and through different lenses. Race (phenotype) is based on our outward appearance, whereas race (haplotype) takes into account our whole physical identity – inside and out. More detail about this at the top of my glossary at Mixed American Life.

    And to learn more about colorism check the site Colorism Project by Dr. Donnamaria Culbreth.


  3. Ta-Nehisi Coates recently made an important point about race as a social vs. biological construct. While most scholars in science and the humanities readily acknowledge that the concept of race has no biological basis and that there is no such thing as “race,” Coates pushes back against this argument by arguing that “Race clearly has a biological element — because we have awarded it one.” Whether we like it or not, race is considered an accepted category of practice and a category of analysis throughout most of United States society. I’m not sure of the definitional effectiveness of “colorism” because the false logic and ideals of race ultimately reign in the imaginations of “racists” who want to put people in certain categories based on skin color. It’s not just skin color itself–“colorism”–because “racism” assumes certain biological truths about people based on their color.



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