Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes



Oxford English Dictionary: A system of social or class distinction based on skin color; a society based on such a system; the dominant group in such a society.

from pigment: A coloring matter occurring naturally in the tissues of an animal or plant


-ocracy: Forming nouns denoting forms of government or groups who exercise social or political power

also known as colorism


compare "brown paper bag test" in African American fraternities & sororities; Spike Lee's School Daze



from LITR 5731 Multicultural Literature: American Minority

1d. The Color Code





Trudier Harris, University of North Carolina

In the past couple of decades, the word pigmentocracy has come into common usage to refer to the distinctions that people of African descent in America make in their various skin tones, which range from the darkest shades of black to paleness that approximates whiteness. More specifically, the “ocracy” in pigmentocracy carries with it notions of hierarchical value that viewers place on such skin tones. Lighter skin tones are therefore valued more than darker skin tones. Such preferences have social, economic, and political implications, as persons of lighter skin tones historically were frequently—and stereotypically—viewed as being more intelligent, talented, and socially graceful than their darker skinned black counterparts. Blacker blacks were viewed as unattractive, indeed ugly, and generally considered of lesser value. Europeans standards of beauty thus dominated an African people for most of their history in America.

Although the word pigmentocracy may have come into widespread usage fairly recently, the concept extends throughout the history of Africans on American soil. During slavery, black people who were fathered by their white masters often gained privileges based on their lighter coloring. Indeed, one reported pattern is that blacks of lighter skin were reputedly selected to work in the Big Houses of plantation masters while blacks of darker hues were routinely sent to the fields. . . . Some masters who recognized their paternity publicly sometimes sent their partially colored offspring to the North to be educated. This practice explains in part the belief that blacks of lighter skin were more intelligent (they simply had more educational opportunities). . . .

The politics of skin color . . . . On the one hand, it enabled some persons legally classified as black to enhance their educations because of their lighter skins. On the other hand, it encouraged darker skinned blacks to devalue their black skins in imitation of lighter hues and whiteness. Racial pride thus became tied up in ambiguous ways with racial self-hatred. . . .

Charles W. Chesnutt, 1858-1932

[Booker T.] Washington, [W.E.B.] Du Bois, and Charles W. Chesnutt could serve for the prominent figures. Have students contemplate what it meant for Chesnutt to consider himself “a voluntary Negro.” Clearly, he prided himself on his blackness enough not to pass for white. However, in terms of contemplating pigmentocracy, he obviously had advantages. He studied law, became a court stenographer, and garnered success as a writer. . . .

Why should a “black” person such as Chesnutt have been legally classified as Negro when there is no visible sign that he is of African origin? Why could he not just as easily have been classified as white? What cultural, political, and social factors made such a classification impossible, even if Chesnutt had been desirous of it?



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