I am a Hispanic woman, but unlike the rest of my family of cousins, uncles, aunts and grandparents who have black hair, brown eyes and brown or olive skin, I have ash blonde hair, green eyes and white skin. I have never experienced prejudice from peers or authorities. However, I do remember attending a party once, when I was 17, with some of my neighbors who were also Hispanic. As we walked into the house full of Hispanic kids with darker skin, eyes and hair than me, the music stopped and the room went silent. It was just like a scene from a movie and everyone was looking at me. After what felt like a lifetime, but was really just a few seconds, the silence was broken by one of my friends who said, “Oh, don’t worry, she’s cool, she’s Puerto Rican.” Sure, my family would tease that I was the “milkman’s child” and people were always intrigued when I told them I was Puerto Rican, but this experience was different. I suddenly felt awkward and self-conscious, and not because I was a typical, awkward, self-conscious teenager, but because I looked different.
Today, I have a 17-year-old daughter who is biracial. Although her biological father is half Cuban and half African American, which would make my daughter 75% Hispanic and 25% Black, her tan skin, curly black hair and African American features cause others to automatically categorize her as just Black. With a Caucasian stepfather and a little sister with blonde hair, green eyes and pale skin, my daughter is now the one who looks different from the rest of my family. As she was growing up, we made every effort to introduce her to not only my family’s Puerto Rican culture but the African American culture as well. She made friends with children of all different races, but she struggled to fit in. Her darker friends would tell her she was too light to call herself black, and she was too dark, with hair too curly and features too black to call herself Hispanic or white. That awkward, self-conscious feeling I felt for one moment at a party is a feeling my daughter felt daily for years. How is it, with the progress and continuous efforts being made to end interracial prejudice in our society, that an intraracial prejudice, known as colorism or skin color bias, can so prominently exist within minority races today? A look at US history appears to reveal it as a consequence of human behavior as explained by social dominance theory.
Social dominance theory suggests that everyone in our society belongs to a group that has a place in a hierarchy and they tend to behave in ways that will protect that hierarchy, particularly if their group has positive social value (PSU, 2015). Positive social value is defined as having a combination of high status and plenty of power and resources (PSU, 2015). One group that has been historically viewed as having a large amount of positive social value would be the Caucasian race.
There are three categories of hierarchies identified by social dominance theory, age, gender and arbitrary set (PSU, 2015). Those based on race or ethnicity would fall under the arbitrary set (Thompson, 1999). Throughout US history, the Caucasian race has been observed protecting their hierarchical ranking through prejudice and discrimination of minority groups based on race.
The origination of the practice of identification by race and creation of racial terms, such as black and white, has been attributed to European colonists (Fredrickson, 2003; Wilder, 2010). Cheng (2003) explains that American settlers of the 17th century Chesapeake colonies of Virginia and Maryland, who were able to work and cultivate the land, were rewarded with more land. With more land to work, there became a need for more workers. British indentured servants, contracted for a short term, were imported and worked side by side with a small number of slaves from the Americas. Unlike the later African slaves, these slaves actually had limited rights, “including the ability to work land for themselves, to own property, including other slaves … to marry [and in some cases] earn or save enough money to purchase their own freedom” (Cheng, 2003). However, over time, competition for land increased and tensions grew. An argument with the governor led a wealthy settler, by the name of Bacon, to start a rebellion in 1676 and he promised slaves and servants freedom if they joined his cause. Although the success of the rebellion was short-lived, fear of a future rebellion resulted in an increased interest in African slaves who, because they were not Christians, could be treated more poorly than indentured servants. A slave code was developed through a series of Virgina laws that removed the limited rights of previous slaves and made African slaves the “primary workforce” for Virginia’s plantations (Cheng, 2003). Since the African slaves looked so different from the indentured servants, their looks, including the color of their skin “not only marked their newly created subordinate position within Virginian society, it became the justification and reason for that position” (Cheng, 2003), thereby creating the idea of race distinction.
As a result of the creation of race distinction, a hierarchy developed with white skin as superior and black skin as inferior, a concept quickly adopted by other colonies with slaves (Cheng, 2003). Time passed and soon “frequent mixing of the races (commonly through the sexual exploitation of black female slaves by white male slave owners) resulted in biracial individuals” (Wilder, 2010, p. 186). This led to the development of the “one drop” rule, a law that stated that even a drop of African ancestry was enough to classify an individual as black (Wilder, 2010) and an effort to maintain the racial hierarchy, as described by social dominance theory. However, slave owners began to treat the light skinned slaves more favorably than the dark skinned slaves, creating the development of another hierarchy based on skin tone within the African slave community for generations (Wilder, 2010). Today, research reveals that skin color bias, or colorism, is still prevalent within the African American female community (Wilder, 2010) and is found within the communities of Hispanics, Asians and other people of color as well.
Cheng, J. (2003). Africans, slavery, and race. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/race/000_About/002_04-background-02-03.htm
Fredrickson, G. M. (2003). The historical origins and development of racism. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/race/000_About/002_04-background-02.htm
Pennsylvania State University. (2015). Lesson 6: Intergroup relations. Retrieved from https://courses.worldcampus.psu.edu/sp15/psych424/001/content/07_lesson/05_page.html
Thompson, A. (1999, November 1). Pratto says social dominance theory explains discrimination. Retrieved from http://advance.uconn.edu/1999/991101/11019908.htm
Wilder, J. (2010). Revisiting “color names and color notions”: A contemporary examination of the language and attitudes of skin color among young black women. Journal of Black Studies, 41(1), 184-206. doi:10.1177/0021934709337986