Skin tone, achievement, and self-esteem

by Hanh Le

The chapter explores the linkages between skin tone, socioeconomic achievement and self-esteem among African American women.

Self-esteem is defined as a confidence and satisfaction in oneself, a person’s overall evaluation or appraisal of his or her own worth. We are living in a color struck world where distinctions based on skin tone have historically intersected with racism, sexism and class to influence how African American and other women of color evaluate themselves. As a dark-skinned woman, the message is often that everything seems to be wrong with her because she is so different. She looks different. Her hair is different. Her facial features are different.

Complexion, along with other Eurocentric physical features – blue, gray or green eyes, straight hair texture, thin lips, and a narrow nose – has been accorded higher status both within and outside the African American community. Conversely, dark complexion and Afrocentric features – broad nose, kinky hair, full lips and brown eyes – has been devalued.

Then are Black women truly proud and comfortable with who they are and what they look like?

For nearly three quarters of a century, researchers have documented many ways that colorism affects the African American community. Since whiteness of skin is a highly esteemed dimension of idealized beauty, women with darker skin and Afrocentric features are at a disadvantage. As a marker of beauty, skin tone is also a form of social capital that grants access to resources of many different types, including marriage to higher status men, higher self-esteem and access to visible occupations.

Regarding the relationship between complexion and achievement, Keith introduced some analyses by NSBA indicating that lighter skin tone is associated with higher socioeconomic status. The author used those data by NSBA to assess whether the effects of skin tone on women’s achievement and self-esteem were conditioned by age or not, and it shows that complexion continued to matter for African American women’s educational attainment, occupational standing, and family income net of family background and other characteristics. However no interaction effects by age were found.

Skin tone and Self – Concept

African American, despite their status as being a racialized minority, has higher or equivalent levels of global self-esteem when compared with whites, except during preschool years and extreme old age.

Because appearance matters more for women, self-esteem is generally lower for females than males. But interestingly, the gender difference is less pronounced or nonexistent among blacks. One explanation by the author is that African American females are more satisfied with their  body image than white females. Anyway, by using data from the original 1979 – 1980 NSBA, it is concluded that skin tone was a more important predictor for women than for men.

According to the Thompson and Keith studies, skin tone interacted with both personal income and attractiveness to influence self-esteem (fig.2.4). But a recent study by Harvey and his associates points to a reversal in the relationship between skin tone, self-concept and racial consonance, from which Keith concluded that black adolescent females rated as light brown and white had slightly lower self-esteem than medium and darker girls (fig.2.5).

A plausible explanation for this reversal is that the racial activism in the 1960s and 1970s instilled pride in African American culture and history, but that the full force of these changes as they pertain to complexion are only just now being reflected in young cohorts.

In conclusion, there is still controversy among scholars whether complexion is still relevant for status achievement and self-esteem or not. It takes long time to research but we still know very little how complexion differences actually come to matter. Are little dark-skinned girls still told to “try to get a light-skinned husband” to compensate for their “devalued, stigmatized features”? Or should they be told that how important, smart and beautiful they are, in order to build up their self-esteem and to stop those burdens which this color struck society is putting on them until their adulthood? To understand fully the impact of colorism on the lives of African American women, we need both survey and ethnographic studies that integrate questions concerning achievement and personal psychology.

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