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Discrimination Because of "Color": What is Colorism?

Posted by Giovanna A. D'Orazio | Mar 12, 2021 | 0 Comments

A recent pop culture phenomenon - which has also sparked important conversations about race and mental health, among other things - is Oprah's interview of Prince Harry and Megan Markle.  One of the issues that was raised in the interview, and which is relevant to our practice, is "colorism."  This came up when it was reported that, when Meghan was pregnant, the palace was worried about how dark her baby's skin would be. 

Colorism refers to the preference within a particular race for a certain skin tone - for example, light skinned vs. darker skinned Black people.  This discrimination can come from people from a different race, but also within one's own race.  We see a preference for lighter skinned people of color in movies and television where lighter skinned (particularly women) actors seem to enjoy more work and celebrity.  We also see this in the Asian community, to whom skin lightening products are marketed. 

As relevant to our practice, "color" is a protected status under both federal Title VII and the New York State Human Rights Law.  So, if an employer makes decisions with a preference as to color, that can be illegal.  Employees are also protected from harassment and, if they complain, from retaliation.  

Options for individuals experiencing colorism in the workplace can be to make an internal complaint, a complaint to a relevant equal employment agency like the EEOC or the NYS Division of Human Rights, and, if appropriate, commence a lawsuit. We note that, because the law makes a distinction between race and color, if you make a complaint to the EEOC you should be sure to include color as part of your complaint (even if race is also included).  In order to preserve your rights under the federal law, employees are required to raise their theories at the EEOC.  

About the Author

Giovanna A. D'Orazio

Giovanna has experience litigating, among other things, commercial, general civil, employment, land use and personal injury matters in New York State and federal courts. Giovanna focuses her practice on plaintiff's employment and personal injury matters, with a particular interest in women's rights and employment discrimination and harassment.

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