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How businesses can combat the bias of “colorism”

Posted by Tasnim Ahmed

May 18, 2023

As a small business owner or leader within your company, you’re probably constantly thinking about ways to make your workplace more inclusive, collaborative and welcoming for your team. But one issue many leaders are often unaware of is the bias of “colorism”. 

Leaders who aren’t familiar with colorism — or who don’t actively work to combat the biases that naturally emerge in diverse workspaces — may unknowingly perpetuate this bias through their actions and decisions. And as a result, the workplace they believed to be inclusive and welcoming may actually be divisive and harmful. 

In this article, we’ll share a handful of ways colorism shows up in the modern workplace — from hiring decisions to team influence — plus four ways you can stop colorism from dividing your small business. 

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What is “colorism”?

Colorism is one form of discrimination that’s based on skin color, tone or shade. Colorism typically favors lighter skin over darker skin, and the bias may be overt or unconscious. Unfortunately, if left unchecked, colorism can lead to negative stereotyping, prejudices, and harmful discrimination against people who have a darker skin tone. 

Unlike other forms of bias built on the mentality of us-versus-them, even members of the same community and racial identity can experience a colorism bias towards one another.

While colorism can impact any individual, women from marginalized groups are the most likely to experience the bias in action. 

How does it impact employees, leaders, and companies?

Because colorism isn’t one of the more obvious forms of bias, it can often sneak in under the radar. Leaders and employees may be totally unaware of their bias towards lighter skin tones, forcing those with darker skin to work harder for the same opportunities — if those opportunities are even available to them. 

According to a survey of nearly 3,000 professional women, Catalyst, a global nonprofit that supports women in the workplace, a full 51% of respondents from marginalized groups have experienced racism in their workplace. Even more surprising, multiple studies have revealed that skin tone can be a bigger factor in the career opportunities and long-term earning potential of an individual than their education level. 

Colorism is also a difficult bias to prove and prevent. For example, a diverse team that employs individuals from a variety of backgrounds and cultures may look inclusive and equitable on the surface. At face value, listening to multiple voices from marginalized racial and ethnic groups is a step in the right direction. But if a few members of the team are continually passed over for opportunities, ignored in meetings and given less influence, and those members also have naturally darker skin, the bias of colorism may still be at work. 

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Individuals who experience colorism in their workplace often have no official form of recourse. It’s difficult to document bias in general — and even more complicated when that bias occurs within racial and ethnic groups. Until HR teams recognize colorism as a real issue in the workplace, individuals that experience the negative effects of this bias are likely to face two choices: Continue experiencing the bias or find a new job. 

How can you combat the bias of colorism in your small business?

Minimizing the impact of bias in your small business isn’t just the right thing to do, or good for workplace morale — it’s an investment that pays off for years to come. 

Employees who feel psychologically safe in their workplace are 2.4 times less likely to quit their job, and they’re happier, more productive and more vocal. And at companies where senior leadership is clearly committed to DEI initiatives, a full 84% of employees report feeling valued and respected. That’s compared to just 44% of employees who feel valued and respected at companies that don’t prioritize DEI efforts. 

The case for combating colorism is clear. When your employees feel safe, happy and empowered at work, they want to be present, engage and give their best. 

Take a look at the four ways you can help prevent colorism in your workplace:

Lead with curiosity. When curiosity and allyship are at the center of your leadership style, you can create a welcoming and inclusive workplace where marginalized racial and ethnic groups are free to work with confidence.

Interrupt negative patterns. If you notice colleagues, employees or customers making divisive comments, act swiftly and firmly. Don’t be afraid to defend your employees who are from marginalized groups — they need your support more than ever. 

Be genuine. Ensure your company’s vision, mission and values truly align with the actions of your leaders. If you stand for diversity, equity and inclusion, back it up with policies, and visible activities that make your workplace a safe space for all employees.

Be aware. Take time to understand the challenges and biases others face — and how you may have added to that experience. The more you can learn about those around you, and empathize with their experiences, the stronger your leadership becomes.

Today, combating colorism isn’t just a nice idea — it’s a necessity for companies that want to thrive, grow and keep their best employees engaged. By understanding how colorism impacts your team, the ways it shows up in your workplace, and how to interrupt its negative effects, you can create a workplace where everyone can find success. 

Want more? Escalon has helped over 5,000 companies across a range of industries to optimize routine business functions, like taxes, accounting and HR. Talk to an expert today.

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This material has been prepared for informational purposes only. Escalon and its affiliates are not providing tax, legal or accounting advice in this article. If you would like to engage with Escalon, please contact us here.


Tasnim Ahmed
Tasnim Ahmed

Tasnim Ahmed is a content writer at Escalon Business Services who enjoys writing on a multitude of subjects that include finops, peopleops, risk management, entrepreneurship, VC and startup culture. Based in Delhi NCR, she previously contributed to ANI, Qatar Tribune, Marhaba, Havas Worldwide, and curated content for top-notch brands in the PR sphere. On weekends, she loves to explore the city on a motorcycle and binge watch new OTT releases with a plateful of piping hot dumplings!

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