Shadism: Skin Color Bias in Adoption

by Malaika Parker


Shadism (a preference or privilege based on lighter over darker skin tones) is a conversation that gets directly to the heart of racism and its roots. In an effort to fight against these preferences and privileges, Pact does not engage in placements where skin-tone matching or light-skin privilege is supported.

At Pact, we are troubled when families tell us they want to use skin color as a criteria for placement with a child. Unfortunately, we hear this from both pre-adopters of color and interracial couples who often explain it in terms of thinking that it will be easier for the child if they look like they were born into their adoptive family. Although we understand the desire of pre-adoptive parents to build families where children see themselves reflected and vice versa, and while Pact strives to prioritize same-race placements (defined as having one or two adoptive parents who share the racial experience of the child), we do not support choices that potentially reinforce hierarchies of color—even if they are not intended as such.

Skin-based privilege impacts all of our lives. Showing preference based on color is referred to as shadism. Also referred to as colorism or pigmentocracy,[1] shadism is based on a hierarchy of skin color giving privilege to lighter skin tones while disempowering darker skin tones. Often thought of as an issue primarily impacting the Black community, shadism is actually a global issue, a direct descendant of white supremacy. White supremacy is often what we are referring to when speaking of racism: it is a system of policies and practices that creates and perpetuates the notion that those of European decent (or those who appear as such) are superior to people of color. White heterosexual men with money and property are set as the pinnacle of privilege to which all others are compared.  White supremacy was created as a way to justify the economics of exploiting human bodies for profit and property through slavery, genocide, and repressive laws.

In the early days of this country, indentured servants and enslaved Africans had a good deal in common. But creating division based on skin color became a marker of a hierarchy that allowed for even the poorest of whites a station in life that was better than that of a Black person in slavery. Shadism was also deliberately used as a tool to create division among people by privileging those with lighter skin tones (generally the result of more mixing with whites) over those with darker skin colors.

Dr. Sarah Webb, founder of Colorism Healing, writes:

“During slavery in the Americas, blacks and whites bore children of mixed ancestry, but according to the law, any trace of black ancestry meant you were black (one drop rule), and children took the status of their mother, which was slave in many cases. As a result, the spectrum of skin tones among slaves and others who were legally Black grew wider. Slave owners often granted more privileges to the lighter skinned slaves, saw them as smarter and more capable because of their white ancestry, allowed them some form of education or training, and occasionally granted them their freedom. Even after slavery ended, similar advantages were given to blacks whose appearance was closer to white, such as first consideration for certain schools and jobs.”[2]

Camille Hernandez Randawar, Associate Professor of Sociology at Ryerson University, describes a sort of caste system of skin color created during the enslavement of Africans in the Caribbean, noting that, “to change your position was to have lighter skin children, which almost always meant have a child of mixed race.” [3] One of the devastating impacts of shadism is that across the globe, having fair skin has become a desire of many people of color. Women, and an increasing number of men, are targeted by ads that reinforce that idea that to be beautiful, one must be as light-skinned (or white-like) as possible.

The roots of the beauty ideal are deeply seeded in this notion of lighter or whiter as better.  Media rarely displays dark brown skin as beautiful. In the documentary A Girl Like Me, filmmaker Kiri Davis recreates the famous Clark doll studies of the late 1930s and early 1940s. [4] In her film, brown-skinned girls—one after another after another—are seen replicating the data obtained by Mamie and Kenneth Clark in their original studies so many decades ago. Like the previous study participants, Davis’s girls overwhelmingly show preference for a white doll versus one with dark skin; and assign positive attributes (good and nice) to the white doll, and negative attributes (bad and ugly) to the darker one.

These contemporary results serve as a reminder that this preference and its implications are not something we have overcome. In a society that is constantly pushing the message of whiter/lighter is better, those with lighter skin are subtly and directly encouraged to celebrate their difference from darker skin. The legacy of white supremacy reinforces the idea that people with lighter skin are special because they allow the white community to see themselves reflected.

A study of the prison system in North Carolina showed that “women deemed to have light skin are sentenced to approximately 12% less time behind bars than their darker skinned counterparts.”[5] The results also show that having light skin reduces the actual time served by approximately 11%. This, too, underscores the insidious impact color-based hierarchies have on not only self-image, but on our very civil liberties.

Shadism is a conversation that gets directly to the heart of racism and its roots. Our first step toward fighting against this is to challenge preferences and privileges based on skin color. For these reasons, while Pact strives for same-race placements, we never engage in placements where skin-tone matching or light-skin privilege is supported. Our goal is not that skin tones should “match,” but that the child is able to have one or more parent who shares the same racial experience. Such parents can serve as direct mentors in supporting their child’s racial pride, and in teaching how to overcome and stand up to the racism they will experience.

One of the many complexities of being an adoptive family, whether we share racial heritage with our children or not, is that we don’t match, making us an inherently different kind of family that does not fit into the pervasive societal expectation. And when families don’t match, children and parents often experience a kind of public outing that can feel invasive and frustrating. Same-race adoptions often (but not always) alleviate some of this experience. However, it is important to distinguish between protecting a child’s privacy, and keeping secrets about the way he or she entered our family. Too frequently, the latter can be interpreted by children to mean that there is some kind of shame or less than status associated with families created by adoption as compared with those created by birth. No adopted child ever deserves to feel ashamed, as if they do not deserve to be kept or loved unconditionally.

Pact advocates teaching our children how to name and resist shadism for themselves and for others.  Some ideas on how to talk to kids about shadism in the world can include conversation starters like these:

  • I was reading this article and it said that sometimes people get treated differently because of the color of their skin. I think that is wrong. Have you ever felt like you were treated differently?
  • I notice that in this movie, there are no people with darker skin. What do you think about what might have happened?
  • Often white people treat Black people like they aren’t as important or beautiful or valuable. We have talked a lot about that because it is called racism and we fight against it because it is not right. But did you know that sometimes lighter skinned Black people treat darker skinned Black people differently? Why do you think that is? What should we do about that?

Like so many injustices, if we don’t name it with our children, they will assume we agree with the status quo. We are still a long way from a status quo that is anti-racist and values dark skin as much as light skin. Until then, we must all do our part to speak out against such trends by intentionally standing in solidarity with those who experience oppression the most.

Malaika Parker, a Black adoptive parent, was formerly Director of Pact’s Adoptive Parents of Color Collaborative and now serves on Pact’s Board of Directors.

[1] Rider, D. (Producer), Thiyagarajah, N. (Writer), & Thiyagarajah, N. (Director). (2013 ). Shadeism [Motion Picture]. Canada.

[2] Webb, S. L. (n.d.). Colorism Roots and Routes. (S. Webb, Producer) Retrieved January 12, 2014, from

[3] Rider, D. (Producer), Thiyagarajah, N. (Writer), & Thiyagarajah, N. (Director). (2013 ). Shadeism [Motion Picture]. Canada.

[4] Filmmaking, R. W. (Producer), Davis, K. (Writer), & Davis, K. (Director). (2005 ). A Girl Like Me [Motion Picture]. USA .

[5] Offenders. T. I. (2011 , June 3). June 2, 2011 Race and Justice News . Retrieved January 12, 2014 , from The Sentecing Project: Research and Advocacy for Reform :


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