The Links between Skin Tone and Self-Esteem

Gordon Parks' American Gothic. Portrait of gov...

Gordon Parks’ American Gothic. Portrait of government cleaning woman Ella Watson. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

by Mikaella Hahn

As I was reading Verna Keith’s “A Colorstruck World: Skin Tone, Achievement, and Self-Esteem among African American Women,” I started to wonder if myself as a Korean American being able to distinguish amongst Asians is similar to what was mentioned regarding African Americans being more sensitive to different shades of among African Americans—a distinction that is not significant to the dominant majority.

Well frankly, a Korean person would be insulted if they were asked whether they were Chinese. To the dominant majority in America (which is white), these distinctions probably do not matter, because the main distinction to the majority is whether the person is White or Asian. In general the dominant group doesn’t realize the importance of intra-differentiation is to the minority groups. They don’t have to be able to differentiate, so they don’t learn to, and this contributes to the continued frustration of minority groups in America.

My initial thought after reading the first paragraph was that, self-esteem of African Americans would be low when living in white dominant society due to the discrimination against them, however as opposed to my first thought, the reading revealed that African Americans rather tend to have lower self-esteem when they are living in black dominant society than living in white predominant society. The evidence from this paper provides that the light skin African Americans get better education with better job prospects with higher income.

According to the way I was educated about racism, the inherited, unacknowledged racism in a white dominant society is what I thought would lead to lower self-esteem for African Americans. To live in a society where the color black is associated with something negative, and to be portrayed as harmful to the society by media, it seems to me that people colloquially called “black” would evaluate themselves more poorly. Watching a number of videos about both white and black children favoring white dolls only reinforced my belief.

However the author says this is not the case because after the 1960s’ and 1970s’ racial activism inspired young African Americans to appreciate their natural beauty, which led them to have higher self-esteem.

On the other hand, after the hardships that African Americans have faced, it is hard for me to believe that this movement would do such widespread affect in such a short term. Compounding my disbelief is the number of empirically unproven theories presented by the author. Thus, while this chapter provided stimulating claims, it should be read with other evidence-based papers.

Being privileged

Nathan W. Pyle / Via

by Tommy Pass

I saw an interesting article on a website called It told of an exercise lead by a high school teacher to his students. He instructs his students to crumple up a piece of scrap paper and moves the rubbish bin to the front of the classroom. He then explains the rules of the game; he tells the students that they all represent a population of a country and that in order to move up to the upper class, all they need to do is to throw their crumpled up paper into the rubbish bin at the front of the classroom all while staying in their seat.

The students at the back of the classroom instantly complained, stating that the students sat in front of the classroom have a much greater advantage in the game. The results were as expected, the students sitting at the front of the classroom all had a very easy time getting their papers in the bin, while the students sitting at the back of the classroom had a very difficult time doing so, with only very few managing to get their papers in. The point of the game was to show what privilege looks like, the problems that arise within a society with low social mobility. What happened in the game is that the ones in the back of the classroom complained about their disadvantage while nobody in the front complained as all they saw in front of them was the small space between them and their goal. This can be compared to what occurs within a society with low social mobility; the working class complain about their disadvantages within the society while ignorantly being labelled as simply being uneducated and lazy.

We can compare this example to the veil of ignorance, which is argued by John Rawls. The students in the classroom where very aware of their position, everyone could see each other and everyone was very aware of each other’s advantages, all of whom having the exact same goal. If we were to implement the veil of ignorance in a classroom simulation, would we want to be randomly placed in a typically structured classroom where our chances of sitting right at the back are very high, thus making it very difficult for us to achieve our goal? Or would we want everyone to sit in a line, hence everyone being an equal distance from the rubbish bin? What if the goal was a joint effort, that what would benefit society the most was to get as many crumpled up pieces of scrap paper in the bin as possible? Would we then want to place so many students at the back of the classroom, making it extremely difficult for so many of them to reach the goal? I can’t speak for other people, but I for one would favour all students being placed in a row of equal distance from the rubbish bin, hence making it a fair challenge for everybody, the most attractive choice for me to be placed in from the veil of ignorance and also making it possible to fit the largest amount of crumpled up papers in the rubbish bin.

It is exactly the same in our society; the pros of an equal society far outnumber the cons. Some silver tongued outrider of the corporate world will make the argument sound very attractive for having a very unequal society, but this ignores the fact that we are all reliant on one another in society, none of us are in a world of our own. The truth is even huge corporations depend on the labour of their workforce. This workforce is expensively trained up by the state in the form of public education, state healthcare, etc. The same corporations also depend on the state for other benefits such as research and infrastructure, all (especially the stockholders) while trying to argue for a larger income gap, arguing that doing so will give a society greater competition, higher employment rate, etc. The arguments against a more equal society and higher social mobility is that doing so creates freeloaders and scroungers, but aren’t the ones who rely on the workforce of a state the ones who are the scroungers with their tax avoidance and refusal to pay their workers higher wages? The only ones who benefit from such an unjust society would be the super-rich, which add up to just a fraction of 1% of society, thus the percentage of society which would benefit from equality would be the vast majority.

Colorism and affirmative action in Brazil

by Seimu Yamashita

Reading Edward Telles’ work on the social consequences of skin color in Brazil made me think whether affirmative action is truly justified. The author mentions about difficulties in having affirmative action, especially where to draw the line between potential beneficiaries and dominant group members. Without clear rules for making racial distinction, some people who have not suffered from racial discrimination might benefit from affirmative action. This is more likely to happen in Brazil than the United States since the criteria of race is self-identified in Brazil rather than determined by appearance. In addition, it is very difficult to decide when to end affirmative action. Besides such problems that make affirmative action ineffective, I believe that affirmative action promotes racial discrimination. There are three reasons why I consider it would bring negative effects.

Firstly, affirmative action policy makes racial distinction even more obvious. By officially indicating who are black and who are white, people would tend to take the opportunity to distinguish one race from the other compared to before. People might even consider it right to treat other races differently because the government does so in the name of affirmative action.

Another reason is that affirmative action would make potential beneficiaries looked down upon. For example when someone sees a “negro” (‘black’ in Portuguese) in the university, people will think that they only got into the university through the policy, rather than hard work. This would lead to people looking down on other who are given opportunities. If there is an easier way to get into university for a certain race of people, some people may think those people of a certain race do not try to study hard to normally get into university as everyone else. As another case in Japan against burakumin, some people claim that buraku people should not complain about discrimination against them as long as they benefit from affirmative action. This way of thinking would be totally nonsense and it’s the totally opposite effect to the affirmative action is intended to make. Affirmative action has a possibility to produce new types of prejudice against beneficiaries.

Lastly, it cannot be sure when to finish affirmative action. Ideally, it would be the time when there is no discrimination against a certain race that benefits from affirmative action. However, it is hard to truly admit whether discrimination still exists or not. I personally think there is such time that everyone would agree to finish it.

In conclusion, affirmative action that benefits a certain group of people would not make the effects as it intended. It would promote discrimination by considering that there is official distinction between them. It would even lower the status of the beneficiaries by providing them an advantage, for example, for promotion or enrolling the university because some people may consider all the people of the group effortlessly have achieved it. It would never be fair enough since it is impossible to decide how long affirmative action should last. In addition to the reading that claimed difficulties in making fair affirmative action, I have mentioned three reasons above to claim that it should not exist to make an equal understanding of the race. I believe that a fair understanding against all the races cannot be achieved by affirmative action but by keeping being conscious that all the races are equal.

“Now I know what it’s like to be black!” Invisible Minorities and Privilege in Japan

by Robert Moorehead

Recently, the Japan Times ran a column encouraging readers in Japan to take advantage of their new minority status to re-examine their racial attitudes. In “What Being a Minority Allows Us to See,” columnist Amy Chavez tries to contextualize complaints about ethnic and racial inequality in Japan as reflecting the eye-opening experiences of those who, for the first time, find themselves as racial subordinates.

So far, so good. Chavez makes an important point that living abroad can place us in unfamiliar situations, and that we should apply the lessons of those situations to our lives back home. Those of us who were in the majority in our home countries, and are in the definite minority in Japan, could think about how our experiences parallel those of other minorities, and maybe we can learn some empathy.

However, digging deeper we see how this approach perpetuates problems facing racial minorities. Firstly, Chavez assumes that her readers are members of racial majorities in their home countries. As she writes,

“The Japanese are no more racist than Americans or people of many other countries. The only difference is that when you come to Japan, for the first time in your life, you are a minority and get to see what it’s like to be one.”

In one sentence, Chavez renders invisible the people in Japan who were minorities in their home countries. I doubt the Nikkeijin (overseas people of Japanese ancestry), including Japanese Americans, Brazilians, Peruvians, and Filipinos, are experiencing being in the minority for the first time. Rather, they migrate to what they’ve been told is their ancestral homeland, only to find themselves racialized as gaijin. Adding insult to injury, now they’re left out of the discussion altogether.

“After being subjects of discrimination here, we scream like spoiled children … While we have suddenly gained … an ability to see though the eyes of minorities …, we are blinded by our own self-worth and don’t suddenly empathize with other minorities struggling to achieve equality. No light bulb goes on in the head making us think: Aha! … So this is what … African-Americans in the U.S. struggle with every day!”

Does an African American need to travel to Japan to learn what African Americans in the U.S. face?

And have we learned to see through anyone else’s eyes? Is getting rude treatment from a taxi driver (as I did recently) the same as what African Americans face? Am I being stopped and frisked repeatedly? Do I risk being shot for wearing a hoodie and carrying Skittles and iced tea? Am I attending poor schools? Do I stand a greater chance of being in the correctional system than in a university? Am I more likely to live in a highly segregated neighborhood? Am I more likely to get a subprime mortgage, when I’m able to get a mortgage at all? Do I have a higher risk of heart disease or diabetes? Do I have a shorter life expectancy?

The problems Chavez refers to, like employment discrimination and racial stereotyping, are real, but they do not compare to the African American experience. Not all forms of discrimination are equal.

“Your small brush with discrimination in Japan is something that has been a lifelong battle for others who were born into a life of being a minority in our own countries. And many of them suffer far worse than we do in Japan.”

“Try being an African-American in the U.S. Or an aboriginal in Australia.”

Some readers do not need to try being an African American or an aboriginal. They are African Americans or aboriginals.

Chavez’s approach is similar to John Howard Griffin’s classic book Black Like Me, in which Griffin, a white man living in the Jim Crow South, darkens his skin to learn what it’s like to be black. Griffin recounts his experiences and shares the terrorism of Jim Crow with a white audience. But this is only half of the equation. This idea that blackness is something to be understood leaves whiteness unexamined. We study discrimination but we avoid examining privilege.

“This is the role of compassion. To accept that these problems are your own and be willing to not just admit they’re wrong, but to do something about them. Speak on the behalf of other minorities, help raise their profile. Especially you — you who have had a taste of what it’s like to be in their shoes!”

Minorities can speak for themselves, thank you. They do not need a white guy who had a racial epiphany in Japan and now suddenly understands black experiences to speak for them.

Chavez also avoids the word “privilege,” even though this is what she is trying to describe. Instead, she chastises readers for allegedly lacking compassion, and tells them to talk to minorities about their experiences. Instead of trying to understand minorities and speaking for them, how about understanding the white experience and try to dismantle the systems of privilege that give unearned advantages?

“The best way to fight discrimination is by using your experience for personal growth, and to spread the idea of compassion while working to develop a mind that is non-judgmental.”

No, the best way for those in the majority to fight discrimination is to gain a broader understanding of their role in systems of privilege, and to challenge that privilege. Non-judgmental minds that operate in systems of institutional inequality are not enough. A non-judgmental mind does not challenge the fact that the median wealth for whites in the U.S. is 20 times that of blacks, or that more black men are currently in the U.S. correctional system than were enslaved in 1850.

Don’t get me wrong, non-judgmental minds are wonderful. But we live in a world in which racial inequality is built into the very structure of our societies. Challenging this requires much more than looking in the mirror and freeing our minds. To paraphrase Canadian PM Stephen Harper, now is the time to commit sociology. If it helps, we can crank Michael Jackson and En Vogue while we do it.

I strongly recommend the work of Tim Wise, including the new documentary film, White Like Me. The film is available for online streaming until August 31. Tim’s books are also widely available in paper and electronic forms.

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