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Why Are You So Dark? Colorism and the Impact on Mental Health

Colorism, also known as "shadeism," is defined as the practice of favoring a lighter skin color over a darker skin color within any racial or ethnic background that is rooted in racism. The notion that a person’s value and superiority are based on the color of a person’s skin is directly correlated to the definition of racism and can be traced back in time to slavery and an African American person’s value in society. Colleen Campbell, a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology and African Studies at Princeton University, stated, "When we think of racism in the U.S. especially, we think of anti-Black attitudes or institutional processes that entrench whiteness at the top of the social hierarchy."

Colorism In Society

Colorism has prevailed in many societies for centuries. It is a global cultural and social construct of racism that exists within many ethnic groups, including Black, Asian, South Asian, and Latino American communities. Online dating websites, such as the popular South Asian and Desi site, included (and have since removed) a section with skin color as part of the dating profiles where singles are asked to limit themselves by defining their skin tone among fair, wheatish, dark, and more.

Amidst the pandemic, a petition by former Miss America Nina Davuluri received over 4,000 signatures to "put an end to the whitening creams and toxic messaging around skin colorism and its unhealthy relationship to beauty and status." As a result, Unilever announced renaming the famous skin-lightening brand “Fair & Lovely” as “Glow and Lovely,” following widespread criticism that it promotes colorism and devalues darker-skinned people. Renaming the products doesn’t diminish the deep-rooted discrimination based on color that exists in society. Regardless of the name, skin-lightening products reinforce colorism. Good Indian Girl commented that skin-lightening brands portray people with darker skin as not good enough, unattractive or unwanted, whereas those with lighter skin may gain attention, value, and praise from society.

In the United States, the preference for lighter-skinned colors is seen as an implicit bias towards and between Blacks, where lighter-skinned people, both Whites and other Blacks, can cause darker-skinned Blacks to have poorer outcomes in many areas, such as education and income, than their fairer counterparts. It can even affect health and marital status (Laidley T, Domingue B, Sinsub P, Harris KM, Conley D).

With the examples above, it is important to note that colorism isn't limited to minorities but also exists among White Americans. As a matter of fact, a research study used MRI scanning to determine activity in the amygdala when shown photographs of unfamiliar Black and White faces with varied skin tones. The amygdala is a part of the brain that is known to process potential threats and emotions from sensory, social, and emotional stimuli. The findings determined that there was noticeable activity in the amygdala among White perceivers when viewing Black or dark-skinned faces in comparison to viewing White or light-skinned faces. Conclusively, society is inherently impacted by colorism, as this study shows that skin tone affects amygdala activation.

Impact of Colorism on Mental Health

Colorism is most commonly expressed through microaggressions and indirect messages around skin color and tones that can lead to mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and feelings of inadequacy. According to the licensed psychologist, Josephine Almanzar, PsyD, the expressions are types of comparisons that are often meant to get closer to a “white [European] reference point.” This can have a psychological impact and damage a person’s core beliefs around self-worth and self-esteem, which are built in early childhood. Research on colorism has found that skin tone is a predictor of self-esteem; those who reported the lowest self-esteem also had darker skin tones. Darker skin-toned people have a higher likelihood of experiencing mental health symptoms and feeling worthless, unlovable, hopeless, isolated, sad, and outcasted; increasing their risks of depression, trauma, and social anxiety.

A recently published research, Perceived colorism and lifetime psychiatric disorders among Black American adults: findings from the National Survey of American Life, showed that colorism predicts higher rates of psychiatric disorders such as alcohol use disorder, substance use disorder, anxiety disorder, and eating disorder.

Healing Colorism

You may have heard the common saying, “You can’t change people,” meaning you may not be able to change people’s behaviors of colorism towards you. However, you can still take care of yourself and offset the consequential emotional distress of these encounters. Here are some ways to heal and manage the mental health trauma and impact of colorism:

  • Shift the Mindset: Change your mindset from viewing colorism as racist myths to absolute truths that reduce negative self-talk, limiting beliefs, feelings of isolation and depression, and thus boost self-esteem, connection, happiness, and confidence.

  • Release: Colorism causes shame as the ideology was created to promote white supremacy. This is not your shame to carry - release it through intentional exhaling and coping mechanisms that take you out of your mind and into your heart.

  • Practice Affirmations: Positive affirmations have a powerful impact on the brain. Positive self-affirmations activate networks in the brain associated with reward and positive valuation, lowering stress and rumination.

  • Embrace Community: Surround yourself with like-minded community members where you are celebrated for who you are, and encourage the inner self-work necessary to help our community heal from colorism. Shakti Therapy & Healing Services based in Los Angeles, CA provides free/donation-based healing workshops.

  • Externalize It: Externalization is a cognitive reduction intervention originated from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Externalization helps you separate yourself from the impact and identification of colorist ideology. Rabia Khare is an ACT-specialized therapist.

  • Seek Professional Help: If the impact of colorism is causing you to experience signs of depression, anxiety, substance use disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder, reach out to a therapist to build a sense of safety and transform your struggles into inner strengths. It doesn't matter if if you are South Asian, Black, Hispanic, or White, colorism impacts everyone who is shaded.


Colorism has become a norm and will continue to impact generations unless we witness some major revolution in the way we think. Since this phenomenon has no geographical boundaries, i.e., whether you are living in a highly modernized city like San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, California or in a far-flung African country with no provision of basic human necessity; this moral illness exists everywhere. It is difficult or nearly impossible to completely eradicate it; however, there are ways to combat it. According to Shakti Therapy & Healing Services, a holistic group practice in Los Angeles, CA, if you are a victim of such discrimination, you may consult a specialist for counseling sessions. South Asian therapists have a strong reputation for helping victims of racism. Seek help and learn to embrace who you are.

Ektha Aggarwal is a licensed Ketamine Assisted Psychotherapist (KAP) and CEO of Shakti Therapy and Healing Services in Los Angeles, CA. Ektha specializes in psychedelic therapy to decolonize the stigma around South Asian mental health and instill the concept of deep fulfillment. To learn more about Shakti Therapy and Healing services, please visit or email Ektha at info@shaktitherapyhealing.


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