Colorism in the classroom: An exploration of adolescents' skin tone, skin tone preferences, perceptions of skin tone stigma and identity

Tyhesha Goss Elmore, University of Pennsylvania


This dissertation explores the relationships between and among adolescents' self-perceived skin tone, their own skin tone preferences, perceptions of skin tone values, and identity formation. I draw inspiration from previous work on the impact of self-perceived skin tone as well as skin tone satisfaction on psychosocial development and functioning. Building upon this, I argue that additional critical components are implicated in this process—colorism, defined as bias based on the lightness or darkness of a person's skin color (Okazawa, Rey, Robinson, & Ward, 1987; Russell, Wilson & Hall, 1992) and skin tone stigma (i.e., having a skin tone that is, or is perceived to be, devalued by others). My work is set apart from previous work in its use of a multiethnic adolescent sample. An additional contribution of my work is its focus on sociohistorical context, normative development, and an identity-focused phenomenological perspective. Using Spencer's (1995, 2006) Phenomenological Variant of Ecological Systems Theory (PVEST), this study examined the intersections between self-perceived skin tone, skin tone dissonance (i.e., having or not having the skin tone they prefer to have), skin tone stigma (having, or perceiving to have, a skin tone that is devalued) and identity formation (as measured by self-regard, perceived teacher regard, and perceived peer regard) among a racially and ethnically heterogeneous sample of low-income urban adolescents ( n = 1038). Analyses were conducted for the entire sample, as well as separately by race and ethnicity to examine the notion that colorism operates both between and within racial and ethnic groups. The descriptive findings revealed differences in identity formation variables by skin tone. The study also found skin tone dissonance and perceived skin tone stigma were related to identity formation. These finding suggest that adolescents are acutely aware that other people perceive them and make assumptions, often based on skin tone. These perceptions of how others view them, in turn, have an influence on how they perceive themselves. Finally, analyses revealed that skin tone dissonance moderated (or changed) the relationship between skin tone and identity formation. The theoretical as well as practical implications and conclusions of the study are discussed.

Subject Area

Educational psychology

Recommended Citation

Elmore, Tyhesha Goss, "Colorism in the classroom: An exploration of adolescents' skin tone, skin tone preferences, perceptions of skin tone stigma and identity" (2009). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3395695.