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Post-racial? Not just yet

January 20, 2010

I remember my parents telling me when I was a kid that skin colour was an indication of class in Asia. Those who spent time in the fields were darker-skinned– thus making them less attractive. I thought this was pretty strange because in Canada, everyone was always trying to show off any hint of a tan. Darker skin in our context was actually a sign of wealth: that you could afford to take vacations, go to the beach, go skiing. In fact, a favourite Canadian thing to do was to head south in the winter and return home with a nice bronze glow. I remember coming back from Mexico after one of our vacations and having some people think that my mom (who is normally quite pale) was Hawaiian.

Putting irony aside, the evidence suggests that the shade of one’s skin still matters. A lot.

Perhaps one of the many reasons why East Asians receive better treatment as a group is because we are generally lighter skinned….?

The Senate leader’s choice of words was flawed, but positing that black candidates who look “less black” have a leg up is hardly more controversial than saying wealthy people have an advantage in elections. Dozens of research studies have shown that skin tone and other racial features play powerful roles in who gets ahead and who does not. These factors regularly determine who gets hired, who gets convicted and who gets elected…

Political operatives are certainly aware of this dynamic. During the campaign, a conservative group created attack ads linking Mr. Obama with Kwame Kilpatrick, the disgraced former mayor of Detroit, which darkened Mr. Kilpatrick’s skin to have a more persuasive effect. Though there can be little doubt that as a candidate Mr. Obama faced voters’ conscious and unconscious prejudices, it is simultaneously true that unconscious colorism subtly advantaged him over darker-skinned politicians. Full story.

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