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Study: Darker-skinned Black Job Applicants Hit More Obstacles


A University of Georgia study shows that dark-skinned African-Americans face a distinct disadvantage when applying for jobs, as compared to lighter-skinned applicants.

The study, “Colorism in the Job Selection Process: Are There Preferential Differences Within the Black Race?” was presented by Matthew Harrison, a doctoral student at UGA, at the 66th annual meeting of the Academy of Management in Atlanta last month.

Harrison, who is Black, told Diverse the findings are not very surprising.

“We found that a light-skinned Black male can have only a bachelor’s degree and typical work experience and still be preferred over a dark-skinned Black male with an MBA and past managerial positions, simply because expectations of the light-skinned Black male are much higher, and he doesn’t appear as ‘menacing’ as the darker-skinned male applicant,” he says.

However, he was still surprised that skin color played a more salient role than education. In America especially, Harrison says, when people think of race or race relations they commonly think in terms of Black and White. In fact, he says, skin tone differences are responsible for increasingly different perceptions within standard racially defined groups, like Blacks.

“Other world cultures are, perhaps, more aware of this [bias],” Harrison says, referring to hierarchical skin tone preferences among Hindus in India as well as some cultures of Hispanics and Asians.

Participants in the study, which Harrison directed for his master’s thesis, included 240 undergraduate UGA students. Each student was asked to rate a résumé that came with a photograph of a theoretical job applicant. The photos included men and women of either dark, medium or light skin color.

The students were asked to rate, on a scale of 1-7, the likelihood they would hire the person whose résumé and picture they reviewed. A rating of 1 meant that they were “not at all” likely to hire the person, and 7 meant they “definitely” would hire the person.

For the light-skinned male with just the bachelor’s degree, the average rating was 5.35. For the dark-skinned Black male with an MBA, the average rating was 4.5.

Overall, women received higher ratings than men, Harrison says, perhaps because 72 percent of the participants were female and majoring in psychology. 

Faculty supervisor, Dr. Kecia M. Thomas, a professor of applied psychology and acting director of UGA’s Institute for African American Studies, says responses would probably be similar no matter where such a study was done in the country.

“When you consider that probably no more than 1 percent of industrial and organizational psychologists are Black, you can see why a study like this just hasn’t been done before regarding colorism in the work place. There are real-world consequences to these issues,” says Thomas.

Adds Harrison: “Given the increasing number of biracial and multiracial Americans, more research similar to this study should be performed so that Americans can become more aware of the prevalence of color bias in our society.”

— By Shilpa Banerji


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