We Protect Workers

The fine line between race and color discrimination at work 

Racism remains an issue in many workplaces. Companies may unintentionally have policies that favor one racial group over others. They might also hire employees that have strong internal biases which in turn influence hiring decisions and other employment practices. 

While many companies and their employees have become more conscious of the problems of workplace racism, fewer people think about “colorism.” Colorism, on its surface, may seem like the same thing as racism, but they are really distinct forms of discrimination.

Colorism focuses on appearance, not race

Racism paints with a broad brush everyone who comes from the same background. Racist stereotypes can be both positive and negative, and either kind of stereotype can do harm. The idea that people of certain racial backgrounds are more prone to violence is damaging to them just like the stereotype that certain racial groups are better at math than others can be harmful to people in that group. 

Colorism is more specific and sets some people within a racial group above others in the same group. It often targets people with darker complexions and facial features or hair that don’t comply with Eurocentric beauty standards — but it can just as equally target a light-skinned, fairer-haired member of an ethnic group that is typically darker-skinned or haired.

In a workplace where colorism is an issue, two workers of the same racial background may experience vastly different treatment because of their different skin tones. Racism generally involves people from different ethnic backgrounds. Colorism, on the other hand, can take place even in a racially homogeneous workplace because it can occur within an ethnic group. 

If you have faced racism, colorism or another kind of inappropriate discrimination at work, you have the right to ask for that behavior to stop and to hold your employer accountable if they don’t protect you. If your attempts to manage the situation have gone nowhere, it may be time to speak to an advocate about your legal options.