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Matthew Harrison Speaks on Colorism Research
Matthew Harrison: I think that this study illustrates at that level of discrimination which Blacks receive varies depending on their skin tone
August 24, 2006
Leslie from AfricaSpeaks.com interviewed Mr. Matthew Harrison on Tuesday 22nd August, 2006 about his research on colorism in the workplace.
Mr. Matthew Harrison, a PhD student at the University of Georgia in the field of Industrial Organizational Psychology, along with his faculty supervisor, Kecia Thomas, a professor of Applied Psychology and acting director of UGA's Institute for African American Studies, has zeroed in on the issue of colourism in the workplace. Mr. Harrison has determined in his research that colour discrimination caused people with lighter skin tones to get preferential treatment over those with darker skin tones in the areas of hiring and promotion in the work system. Such research, in this regard, is very useful in understanding the prospects of job applicants in the United States and indeed all over the world in getting employment and promotion based on the colour of their skins.
More detail of the information provided in the interview was presented at the 66th annual meeting of the Academy of Management in Atlanta and can also be seen in the release from the University of Georgia, "Skin tone more important than educational background for African Americans seeking jobs".
In the interview, Mr. Harrison provides critical views showing that the issue of colourism is a serious one and should be considered before the selection of workers in a work environment. He notes the fact that employers tend to select those of lighter tones before those of darker tones, even with equivalent or higher qualifications, which affects the darkest skin people the most and questions the principle of meritocracy in the workplace.
Mr. Harrison describes this and more in detail below.
LESLIE: What prompted you to do this research?
MR. HARRISON: Actually I had another research idea in mind but I came across a study when I was doing that Literature review that showed that gap in educational payment in such an economical status between light and dark-skinned Blacks is equivalent to the gap between Whites and Blacks in America and so, from the research that I have done in regards to diversity, power and privilege and so forth, I figured that there must be some type of system in America in place where lighter skinned Blacks must be privileged or preferred in order for that to be the case. I wanted to look at whether or not that was present in the workplace and if we live in a society where lighter skinned Blacks were afforded privileges even if they had the same qualifications as a darker skinned Black. That's how I got the idea.
LESLIE: What was the racial composition of the participants of the survey?
MR. HARRISON: 87.5% were White, 6.3% were Asians or Pacific Islanders, 5% were Black and 1.2% were other minorities.
LESLIE: What was the main objective of the survey?
MR. HARRISON: The main objective of the survey was to find out whether or not a lighter skinned Black applicant was better off in the job selection process. It ended up just being a surprising finding to see that, for the male conditions, that a dark-skinned male with an MBA would still receive significantly lower results than a light-skinned male with a bachelor's degree. I was a little bit surprised by that but I had definitely thought that if you had equivalent resumes that the lighter skinned Black would still receive more preferential ratings. That was the prime area. The purpose was just to look at if everything else was held constant. You have two Black individuals going into a job where all of their qualifications and everything were equivalent to one another and the lighter skinned Black would get the job over their darker skinned counterparts.
LESLIE: Are you aware of any other survey being done like this before?
MR. HARRISON: There have been studies on colorism before, but I, in my Literature review was not able to come across any surveys that had looked at the colorism implications in the workplace or looking at whether or not the whole light-skinned/dark-skinned issue allowed someone to be more likely to be selected or for him to be hirable, given a promotion or be paid more. Looking at it in the context of the working environment, I had not seen prior studies.
LESLIE: I noticed in the article about your research that the term colorism was used. I want to find out from you what is your definition of colorism?
MR. HARRISON: I feel that a lot of people define colorism as discriminating against one skin tone but they look at it as if having to be a within-group thing so that colorism can only exist when a Black person discriminates against another Black person because he or she is light or dark-skinned. I personally feel that colorism extends beyond that and I think that when we look at it as just a within group phenomenon, we limit its actual prevalence. A lot of people are saying that the study really isn't anything but a study on racism and I think that is completely not the truth. I think it is definitely colorism. We know that Whites discriminate against Blacks to a certain degree. But I think that this study illustrates at that level of discrimination which Blacks receive varies depending on their skin tone, and I think that if people extend the definition of colorism to be a between-group phenomenon and realize that it's not just Blacks who adhere to this preferential system of light-skinned being favoured and that even Whites do it towards Blacks as well, that we can begin to have a better understanding of it. I also think that given that Whites are the ones who seem to be privileged and the ones in power in American society, it's important to know that they had this preferential system in place because they are the ones who are making these selections, decisions and things to that nature, in different HR (Human Resource) departments in companies and so forth.
LESLIE: Given that, how would you describe or what is your definition of racism?
MR. HARRISON: Racism to me is discrimination against a race: anyone discriminating against someone because of their racial grouping; and I think colorism is someone discriminating or giving preferential treatment to one's skin tone.
LESLIE: What is the relationship if any, between racism and colorism in your view, given this?
MR. HARRISON: I guess the relationship would be that colorism, if you are looking at it as a between-group phenomenon, is a more detailed or specified version of racism. So racism exists, but I think to look at something as being solely racist and therefore assuming that if someone is racist that they hold the exact same views about an entire group of people, particularly about an ethnic minority group that has members whose skin tone vary, I think is incorrect. And so I think colorism gets at how even if someone is racist, they may very well treat members of that one racial group differently based on how their skin tone varies.
LESLIE: The reason I asked that is because I am very aware that many people, when they hear "colorism" they leave out the aspect of racism. They think that colorism is devoid somehow of racism. Do you have any more comments or anything else you would like to add?
MR. HARRISON: No, I do not think so.
LESLIE: What was the response like so far after the survey that you conducted?
MR. HARRISON: Do you mean the responses that I have gotten from other individuals?
MR. HARRISON: Most people are not terribly surprised by it. Most of the respondents I got emails from are a lot of individuals who are dark-skinned and have been like, "This is what I have been living the last ten to fifteen years of my professional career." They are appreciating that the study is getting publicity and hope that dialogue begins to come of it. For the most part people have been very supportive of it. I have had a few people who have questioned the whole lack of discussion of racism. I guess they are assuming that I am thinking that racism is non-existent, so I have had that questioned. But beyond that, most people have pretty much not really been terribly surprised by the results.
LESLIE: Why did you choose the workplace to conduct your study? Why did you select that area to try to find out more about colorism in the workplace and so on?
MR. HARRISON: Two reasons. I am a PhD student in the field of Industrial Organizational Psychology. What pretty much my field does is different things related to HR policies and procedures as well as a number of other things. We do executive coaching, relationship development, team building; things of that nature. But usually the research that I am primarily focused on and the research that I work with my Major professor on is in the area of workplace diversities. Anything dealing with the workplace and creating a more inclusive, diverse working environment are things that I am interested in, so that is the primary reason. The secondary reason would be, again from that study that I read about, "Economic and Educational disparity between light and dark-skinned Blacks." I figured that if that is the case, there must be disparities within the working environment and how one is preferred for these lighter skinned Blacks to be at a higher socio-economic status than their darker skinned co-workers.
LESLIE: After you conducted your survey and you got results and so on, did you make any recommendations, and if so, what were they?
MR. HARRISON: I did not make any recommendations simply because it was a student-being participant, so it's not really anything I could recommend in this instance; they are not really HR practitioners. I did see to it in my thesis report, in just talking about how because this does seem to be the case, organizations need to be a lot more cognizant of it, especially given the number of biracial and multiracial Americans and how more and more corporations in America have affirmative action policies and therefore hiring more minority workers and I think that they may unknowingly be hiring more light-skinned minority workers. HR departments in companies need to be more aware of this issue and a bit more cognizant of when they are hiring minorities that they think about it as this is something that they have been doing. I think in a lot of ways it is not extremely a conscious decision. I think a lot of times, with people's preferences, it's not something that we really think about - why is it that we prefer something over another - we just do. I think a lot of times these decisions are not made with a lot of thinking, especially in cases where two people are equivalent. It's like, "Oh, it's just something about him I like better," and they may not be able to put their finger on it. But I think maybe this study will raise their awareness as to what it is that they like and I think that it is that they have a different level of comfort around someone who is lighter because that person is ultimately or seems to be more similar to them than someone darker.
LESLIE: Thank you Mr. Harrison for taking the time to share your research with us.