TeacherServe Essays

Pigmentocracy

Author: Harris, Trudier (NHC NHC Fellow, 1996–97; NHC NHC Fellow, 2018–19)

In the past couple of decades, the word pigmentocracy has come into common usage to refer to the distinctions that people of African descent in America make in their various skin tones, which range from the darkest shades of black to paleness that approximates whiteness. More specifically, the “ocracy” in pigmentocracy carries with it notions of hierarchical value that viewers place on such skin tones. Lighter skin tones are therefore valued more than darker skin tones. Such preferences have social, economic, and political implications which have prevailed throughout the history of people of African descent on American soil. The period from 1865 to 1915 was especially significant in this history because newly freed blacks were trying so desperately to define themselves and claim a space in the great American democratic experiment. Those efforts often led them to judge themselves and other blacks in superficial ways that have left continuing scars on the black psyche. The pigmentocracy that reigned during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has descendants in the twenty-first century that are at times just as ugly as their predecessors.

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Subjects
History / Education Studies / Race / Skin Color / African American History / Racial Discrimination / Body Politics /