Society management

Dr. Sarah L. Webb explores the pervasiveness of colorism in society

When seeking to create a more equitable workplace, it is imperative to interrogate the various ways in which our systems and structures contribute to marginalization. One important aspect of the conversation that doesn’t get enough attention is internalized oppression and how it manifests in the workplace. Colorism, which is a form of internalized oppression, is the marginalization that darker-skinned individuals experience on an individual and systemic level. Dr. Sarah L. Webb is an international speaker, consultant, and coach who started a global Colorism Healing initiative to bring more attention to the different ways colorism affects society. Dr. Webb sat down to expand on his work and share the ways colorism manifests in our world and offers tips for mitigating colorism in the workplace.

In the same way: I am glad to see that your work has been elevated and amplified in so many different ways. I know you were part of a conversation with vine television and you also did a TEDx talk recently about your work. Could you say a little more about the Forbes readers who don’t know much about colorism and don’t understand how it works? Could you tell us about how colorism manifests itself in society?

Webb: Yes. Thus, colorism is a social system. It permeates all facets of society and culture. And what it is, essentially, is a social hierarchy or stratification, where lighter-skinned people are at the top of the hierarchy, especially if… their lighter skin coincides with things like straighter hair or lighter eye colors. And people with darker skin and frizzier hair textures, broader features, are relegated and marginalized to the bottom of the pecking order… and it depends more or less on your gender, your socio-economic class.

In the same way: You mentioned some of the nuances. Sometimes you hear this alternate narrative that colorism “goes both ways” and that the marginalization darker-skinned people experience is similar to how lighter-skinned people within a race are mocked and treated… and what do you say? to people who claim that bringing up intra-racial differences actually ends up causing more division?

Webb: So there’s a lot to unpack there, so I’ll try to take it piece by piece. So for that last point, I’ll start there. When people say bringing up colorism or intra-racial issues, when they say talking about it causes division, I usually respond with the fact that division once existed. And, so, I’m just bringing to light an existing crack in our foundation. And ignoring the cracks won’t help them go away. To the right? Things will only get worse if we are not willing to look at what is broken and discuss how we can fix it.

It’s important to realize that having a feeling for someone doesn’t relegate them to a certain place in society, does it? You must have control over the systems. You have to have control over the institutions, so that these feelings then become policies or then become practices. And, so, yes, a dark-skinned person can have a negative feeling or animosity towards a lighter-skinned person. And it’s painful, right? It’s not a pleasant experience, for lack of better words, for the lighter-skinned person. To the right? So I like to recognize the pain. But this emotional experience does not alter the social fabric. This emotional experience, however painful, does not redistribute wealth. It is not a question of redistributing resources and access to spaces or access to power. I often use the analogy… of a wealthy person, who grew up in a very wealthy family, whose family has been wealthy for generations. And there is a poor person, who grew up in a cycle of poverty, and his family was born into poverty for generations. And if that person from the poor family steals the rich person’s wallet or steals their car, we can recognize that it’s more or less wrong…we can say, “maybe you shouldn’t do that”. But no one would say that stealing that rich person’s wallet or stealing that rich person’s car is reverse classism. To the right? People wouldn’t say that classism “goes both ways.”

In the same way: Could you talk about how colorism manifests itself in the workplace? I think there may be people who are aware of colorism and its impact on darker skinned people in society. But could you explore how this manifests in the workplace?

Webb: Absolutely… I have a few different categories. The first is what I call the workplace pipeline, which is basically education [and] access to training. When we look at disparities in education…lighter-skinned people are more likely to be in the workforce pipeline, and darker-skinned people are more likely to be in the pipeline from school to prison…if they are able to go through the school system and be employable, they are often discriminated against via implicit biases…sometimes more explicit biases, in the hiring process. There have been research studies over the years that show skin tone bias among potential employers or interviewers of different races. We have to consider… when we are in the hiring process, are we influenced by subconscious biases? And I think there’s a greater chance of being influenced by colorist bias than even racial bias, for the simple fact that as a culture we’ve been told to be aware of our racial biases, but very few people have been told or coached or trained on how to be aware of color bias.

And, so… I think I coined that term. I hadn’t heard anyone else use it before, but I’m talking about the term “monochromatic diversity”. We will have organizations and institutions, they will say on paper, “we have a very diverse pool of employees.” And, so, they have people of different races, different ethnicities. And yet, all of these diverse people have very similar skin tones. So, yes, you have people from different cultural backgrounds, but they’re all on the lighter side of the skin tone spectrum, or they all have straighter hair or certain features. And, so, that’s why I think colorism has to be a conscious thing that people approach intentionally.

Beyond the hiring process, there are also studies that show, in certain sectors in particular, an income bias. If you hire a dark-skinned employee, does he receive the same salary? We know that people with darker skin are perceived as less competent or less intelligent. And, then, do they get the promotion? Do they receive the bonus? And are they framed and seen as the rising star in the corporate arena? Because of all these stresses and strains, we are looking at the general well-being of these people. In terms of employee health and their ability to thrive at work, darker-skinned people of different races, ethnicities, are at higher risk for various illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease and stress.

In the same way: So I know a lot of your work is actually working with darker skinned people, but also, you work a lot with organizations to educate them about colorism and how to tone it down. What can companies do to interrupt colorism?

Webb: One of the things we need to do is… disaggregate the data. If you have racial and ethnic diversity data, start collecting color data. People can self-report, and with other demographics, people can choose not to report. But make it an option, because you’re collecting information about the people who work at your company. I’ve seen the rise of employee resource groups. And, therefore, definitely consider relying on these employee resource groups to share their personal experiences. And that’s really the reason I get asked to speak at so many companies is because these employee resource groups have permission and the freedom and autonomy to ask or decide what they would like to know, what they like to talk about, what they would like to discuss and address as a company.

And another thing I suggest… is to check your representation. What I mean by that is representation in terms of real leadership, real people, that you send to represent the company or that you promote as representatives in terms of management or president, but also in your marketing and branding…obviously I’m not suggesting that you put a token dark skinned person in the brochure just to say you’re not a colorist, but there are other aspects of visual mark that you can look at in addition to knowing who was in the photo… being really aware that there are more nuances than just race is a first step, and making it as important as race is also important because that often people think it’s more trivial.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.