Beyond “Race”: Unpacking Colorism

As companies look to improve their multicultural marketing in 2020 and beyond, it’s time to bring new depth to the conversation and address colorism.Cultural anthropologists and biologists have long asserted that there is no such thing as “race.” The classification of people into categories based on skin tone is a societal structure, not a biological one. Skin tones exist on a spectrum. Yet, throughout history, positive traits and characteristics were generally assigned to lighter-skinned (white) “races,” and negative ones assigned to those with darker skin, without biological justification. Placing people into racialized classifications by skin color has been used to justify granting rights and privileges to some, while denying them from others. Moreover, darkness was often “whitewashed” or rendered invisible in the arts and media. Given all the privileges of whiteness, colorism even took root within many racial and ethnic groups themselves, with lighter skin symbolizing higher social status and being deemed more desirable.

In today’s highly polarized environment, it would be remiss to ignore the impact of colorism on multicultural consumers and how they relate to brands, products, and advertising.

At Horowitz, we have developed a new, proprietary analysis technique that allows us to deliver highly nuanced, culturally attuned insights by skin tone. With this approach, Horowitz can now not only tell you how your brand, products, and advertising perform among Black, Hispanic, East Asian, South Asian, and other diverse groups overall, but how consumers at various points of the skin tone spectrum within those groups might differ from others in their opinion.

Our data by skin tone illuminates how colorism continues to play a big role in how consumers see and experience the world. Looking at lighter vs. darker skinned Black consumers, darker skinned consumers are more likely to say that knowing the social, environmental, and political stances of companies they do business with plays a big role in their life (40%, vs. 27% of lighter skinned Blacks). They are also more likely to say that when a company has diversity and inclusion policies in place to make multicultural employees feel more welcome, it has a big positive impact on their likelihood to buy from the company (51%, vs. 38% of lighter skinned Blacks).

When it comes to advertising, our data show that the advertising industry has an opportunity to better resonate with darker skinned consumers by embracing the true diversity and spectrum of skin tones: Darker skinned consumers are more likely to feel ignored by the advertising industry—yet more likely to feel that ads featuring people of their same race/ethnicity resonate more with them than ads that do not.

 

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