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The Legacy of Colorism Reflects Wounds of Racism That Are More Than Skin-Deep

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"It may seem like nothing now," Poussaint says. "But I can remember how difficult it was for people to use the word 'black' to describe themselves. It felt derogatory. Even some leadership would not use the word 'black' because they thought it was a derogatory term. We have come a long way to get rid of colorism."

Yet recent studies show colorism still has a negative effect on quality of life. Darrick Hamilton, professor of economics and public policy at the New School in New York, says recent research shows colorism affects income and marriage rates.

"People thought the civil rights legislation took care of colorism," Hamilton says. "We find evidence that colorism is still prevalent in our society."

The most provocative research, he says, is related to marriage. Among black women younger than 30, there is "a premium associated with light-skinned complexion," Hamilton says.

"There is a well-established literature of colorism, a preference for lighter-skinned individuals," according to a report called "Shedding 'Light' on Marriage," which was co-written by Hamilton; Arthur H. Goldsmith, a professor at Washington and Lee University; and William A. Darity Jr., a professor at Duke University. "We find that the light-skin shade as measured by survey interviewers is associated with about a 15 percent greater probability of marriage for young black women, and light-skin shade as measured by self-reported biracial status is associated with the presence of better educated and higher-earning spouses for married black females."

That phenomenon is captured in the documentary "A Girl Like Me," produced by Kiri Davis, now a student at Howard University. In the film, an 18-year-old girl named Glenda explains: "There are standards imposed upon us. You are prettier if you are light-skinned."

Another girl in the film, Wahida, 16, explains, "I know people who went out and got bleaching cream and got capfuls of bleach and poured it in a tub and laid in the tub."

Jennifer, 18, says, "I considered lighter as more beautiful. . . . I felt there was not any attention toward me because of my skin color or my hair was kinky. I had dolls with long straight hair. I would comb their hair and wish my hair was like this."

In the film, Davis revisits the famous doll study done by Kenneth Clark, which was used in the Brown v. Board of Education case. In Davis's 2005 film, she put a brown baby doll and a pink baby doll before preschool children.

"Show me the doll you like to play with," Davis asks.

A little brown girl with braids picks up the white doll.

"Show me the doll that is nice," Davis asks another child.

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