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  • Writer's pictureFletcher Consulting

Shades of Privilege

Within the U.S., being Black isn’t a privilege in the racial hierarchy. But my childhood in Jamaica gave me a different perspective. 

I was in the majority there, and yet we were not all valued equally.

One of my early memories is of Mrs. Morris, who worked for my parents as a housekeeper, helping me with my hair. I was 8 or 9. 

She said, “Maggie, you’re so lucky you have good hair.” 

“What do you mean, good hair?” I asked. “You have good hair. Everyone does.”

“No no,” she said. “Mine is coarse and tight. Yours is smooth and curly.”

Even at that age, I knew something about this was wrong. I didn’t have the words, but I recognized in Mrs. Morris what I now know as internalized oppression. 

She was acknowledging privileges she didn’t have, but which she knew I would, because I was light-skinned. 

In Jamaica and around the world, this colorism is a vestige of colonialism. History has shown that there are many benefits to being paler—sufficient benefits that people will spend their hard-earned money and risk poisoning themselves with skin lightening products, some of which contain mercury or bleach.

It’s not just a matter of standards of beauty. It has material impact on people’s lives. The more adjacent you are to whiteness in any way, the more access you are likely to have. Catalyst’s 2023 study of women around the world showed that darker skin correlated with more experiences of racism at work. Emory researchers also found evidence that the more “Black-stereotypical” someone’s appearance, the less likely they would be to be promoted to leadership roles (7% vs. 12% for Black employees)—and the “whiter-looking” a white-identifying employee is, the more likely they’d be promoted (43% vs. 32%).

Look around your own workplace. Can you see this playing out? Are people who are lighter-skinned being promoted more than darker-skinned colleagues? 

How about your own biases—who do you socialize with, mentor? Have you internalized messages that make you feel more drawn to, comfortable with, or respectful of people with more European features?

I know I’ve gained unearned advantages because of my own color. 

My job is to notice when that happens—and use my privilege to break it down wherever I see it.


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