Panel Features Prof. Norwood's Book, Color Matters

Washington University's Olin Library recently hosted a panel discussion on Professor Kimberly Jade Norwood's new book, Color Matters: Skin Tone Bias and the Myth of a Postracial America. The book is an anthology of works from various scholars, each discussing a different facet of the impact color-based discrimination has on modern-day society across the globe.


In addition to Norwood, the panel included two of the anthology’s contributors, Vetta S. Thompson, associate professor at the Brown School, and Richard Harvey, associate professor of psychology at Saint Louis University. In Color Matters, they, along with nine other contributors, examine the phenomenon of colorism, which they define as the preference, even among people of color, for lighter skin. The book also challenges the belief that skin color no longer matters in a postracial America.

According to Norwood, colorism is a form a discrimination or preference based on one's skin tone. The phenomenon leads to a color caste system where the darker one is, the more marginalized personal and socioeconomic outcomes for that person becomes. For example, people with darker skin often have lower socioeconomic and educational statuses, greater health disparities, and a higher presence in the criminal justice system just to name a few social outcomes, Norwood stresses. Overall, opposite outcomes present for people with lighter skin tones. It is pervasive in many cultures including the United States, Africa, Brazil, China, the Caribbean islands, Guam, the Philippines, parts of Europe, India, and Israel. Specifically, white imagery is omnipresent and advanced as supreme. “This is happening and we don’t even know it,” Norwood says. “We’re not conscious of it.”

Thompson explained how colorism can lead to individuals within a segment of a population trying to distance themselves from the features that define them as belonging to that segment. According to Thompson, this can result in a fragmented sense of self. These features can include physical traits such as skin color, nose, lips, eyes, and even hair texture.

Harvey rounded out the panel by explaining how previously scales to measure colorism, unlike racism, did not exist. His major contribution to the anthology was helping to develop such two such scales. One scale measures skin tone bias within a specific community of color, known as the In-group Colorism Scale (ICS), while the other measures bias outside of a specific community, known as the Out-group Colorism Scale (OCS). Harvey’s hope is that these new scales could be applied not just to white and black communities, but to any group or community around the world. The development of the ICS and OCS was the result of a collaborative project among scholars at Harvard University, the University of Virginia, and the University of Washington.

Norwood is a professor of law as well as of African & African American Studies. She has focused her research on black identity issues, colorism within the black community, and the intersection of race, class, and public education in America. She has also created and developed a unique service learning program for which she has won several local and national awards. The program allows law students to earn class credit while serving as mentors for high school students who receive guidance and insights about a possible career in the law. The experience also provides the high school students with actual court exposure before judges in their respective courtrooms.

Through the law school’s Africa Public Interest Law & Conflict Resolution Initiative, Norwood has supervised public interest externships for law students working in Ghana and Kenya. Additionally, she has taught law courses overseas at Utrecht University in The Netherlands; Fudan University in Shanghai, China; and Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo, Japan.

Brent Mueller, Spring 2014