Colorism and Social Dominance Theory



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

Fredrickson, G. M. (2003). The historical origins and development of racism. Retrieved from

Pennsylvania State University. (2015). Lesson 6: Intergroup relations. Retrieved from

Thompson, A. (1999, November 1). Pratto says social dominance theory explains discrimination. Retrieved from

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

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  1. Morgan Leslie DeBusk-lane

    I found this post intriguing.

    My first though, however binding it may be, was about connections and attendance. I believe the existence of groups by race predicates the humanistic drive to attend such groups. People scream for equality yet strive for some unique identification to a group. Those stuck in the middle, as the progression of our genetic make up continues to mesh, will inevitably experience this problem—of not “fitting” a particular color/mold while seemingly (and perhaps genetically) appearing as a conglomerate of each. This notion is found in many polarized areas of society: male/female equality, race, sexual preference, etc. Reaching for equality must, at least philosophically, identify and honor the existence of individuality.

    In relation to social dominance theory, one of our previous discussion boards spoke about social dominance theory in relation to hierarchical relations between two minority groups as opposed to rifts between the majority and minority. As Bikmen’s (2011) study sought to explain this phenomenon, we were asked to explain if social dominance theory was a better fit than intergroup contact hypothesis. In that, I found that regardless whether one group is considered a majority or a minority, a dominant group would prevail. As I found, there exists a natural tendency for members of a group to support their own group, develop an intrinsic arbitrary set that identifies a differing of social status, and produce a socially assigned positive value towards the production of differing power and status (Sidanius & Pratto, 1999). This, as you mention, is how hierarchical sets are produced. In that, it appears that the development of groups is not limited and can also include skin color—much as it includes economic status, gender, sexual orientation, heredity, geographical location, and opinions.

    This thought extends much further. This concept and notion stretches well within social identity theory’s context—whereby a sense of self is predicated by membership in a social group and is also supported by the stratification of in and out groups (Tajfel & Turner, 1989). Interestingly, and in my opinion, it appears that the concept of colorism is a derivative of one’s will to define their self’s positive distinctiveness—a positive self-concept (Tajfel & Turner, 1989). As such, or at least in your daughter’s experience, this exploration has been met with a unique conflict. When groups are defined by color as opposed to some other form of identification, any deviation aside from that defining feature would produce conflict and difficulty in attaining membership. Additionally, social identity theory sets membership as a positive situation for both the group and the individual and any deviation of that could be viewed as a threat to the status of the group (Tajfel & Turner, 1989).

    Additionally, the presence of threat (whereby one’s identity is in question as it relates to membership of any particular group—often referred to as personal threat (Ellemers, Spears, & Doosje, 2002)) and has been seen as a driving force behind behavior. Running congruent to social identity theory and within the social identity theory approach, this can also be explained by self-categorization theory. In such, self-categorization theory suggests that along with the idea of our self we modulate our extrinsic behavior to fit a target category or ingroup (Turner & Oakes, 1986). Further, in determining group fit, the comparative fit utilizes a meta-contrast ratio that essentially depends upon the average similarity between the individual and that of outgroup members—the more similar the less likely they are to view that individual as an opposing member and thus not accept them (Ellemers, Spears, & Doosje, 1999).

    So, in terms of race or colorism, the process of group acceptance is multifaceted and dynamic. The explanation of self-categorization theory, social identity theory, and their respective intricasies is well beyond the scope of this response, however, it is interesting to know that there does exist a lot of information about how people join groups, accept others, perceive threat, and overcome such hurdles throughout life and the environment.


    Bikmen, N. (2011). Asymmetrical effects of contact between minority groups: Asian and black students in a small college. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 17(2), 186-194. doi:10.1037/a0023230
    Ellemers, N., Spears, R., & Doosje, B. (1999). Social identity: Context, commitment, content. Malden, Mass; Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
    Ellemers, N., Spears, R., & Doosje, B. (2002). Self and social identity. Annual Review of Psychology, 53, 161 – 186.
    Sidanius, J., & Pratto, F. (1999). Social dominance: An intergroup theory of social hierarchy and oppression. New York: Cambridge University Press.
    Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1986). The social identity theory of inter-group behavior. In S. Worchel & L. W. Austin (Eds.), Psychology of intergroup relations. Chicago, IL: Nelson-Hall.
    Turner, J. C., & Oakes, P. J. (1986). The significance of the social identity concept for social psychology with reference to individualism, interactionism and social influence. The British Journal of Social Psychology, 25(3), 237-252.

  2. Stephanie Marie Graehling

    This post notes upon many factors that still influence people’s race perspectives today. This directly reminds me of a very close friend. I have known this woman for many years and we used to dance together and that is where we became very close. She is an African American woman who has a white grandmother. While her parents are dark and her sister is dark, she is whiter than myself, with very light blond hair, and green eyes. The only characteristic that give any indication that she has African American in her is her hair texture. She went to a school that had a high population of African Americans, but I do believe the majority of her friends were white, with some being other races. I believe her heritage to have made making friends with different races easier, as well as her skin tone to make becoming friends with more whites easier as well. As the social dominance theory states that people belong in hierarchies and will behave to maintain those hierarchies (PSU WC, 2015), I feel that my friend, not knowingly did so. She is one of the nicest people I know and even the way she speaks is extremely proper. She is always extremely lady like and friendly, and just overall a very proper lady in a time when propriety is not always very common. I feel that her behavior supported her position in her hierarchy and maintained her circle of friendship.

    Pennsylvania State University World Campus (PSU WC). (2015). PSYCH 424: Applied Social Psychology. Lesson 6: Intergroup Relations. Social Dominance Theory. Retrieved from

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