Shining Light: My Quest to Research Colorism

During my third year of residency, an attending said to me, “You only care about beauty because you’re beautiful.” She had at once complimented me and insulted me. I was seeking a mentor on the faculty to assist me in conducting research on the perceptions of beauty and skin color, in post-undergraduate Black women. However, she seemed to believe that my research topic “lacked relevance” — a phrase that I would frequently hear as I endeavored to explore this topic.

For months, I searched the psychiatric literature for previous works on skin color discrimination, perceptions of beauty and long standing psychiatric distress in women. Surprisingly, there were no substantive articles written on this topic. My interest was piqued and I decided there and then, to make this my life’s work.

Despite my keen interest in the subject, my medical training was not sufficient to make me an adept researcher; so I sought the guidance of a campus advisor. Unfortunately, the majority of the professors I contacted had never heard of ‘colorism’ and subsequently, had no interest in supporting my work. Eventually, I found a professor who was willing to learn about colorism, and to help me formulate my research ideas. I got to work creating a pilot study and collecting online surveys from 90+ post undergraduate women.

From the start of the study, I received numerous critiques in the comment sections from women completing the questionnaire. Some were inflammatory: “This doesn’t even %^&$#$ matter!’ to ‘Why would you even research this?” As well as: “This topic doesn’t even matter anymore…no one cares”.

Some women who were close to me, perused the survey making it clear that they had never experienced colorism, and stating emphatically that the topic was not pertinent.

Was I being gaslighted?

Was colorism a figment of my imagination, and something “I” alone noticed in the Black community at large?

Between my friends’ testimonies of not having experienced colorism and the vitriolic comments of the survey’s participants, I became discouraged. Furthermore, due to flaws in the study’s design, the results were a hodgepodge of data points that struggled to coalesce into a clear thesis.

Several months later, still committed to my research goal, I reformulated the study. I submitted an abstract to a Black psychiatrists’ conference and was invited to present my fledgling research findings to the participants. During my poster presentation, the conversation quickly shifted from scholarly inquiries to individuals’ personal anecdotes about their past experiences.

A mature, female psychiatrist began to cry — the mere discussion of colorism — had unearthed memories of discriminatory treatment during her childhood. Another psychiatrist, meaning well, stated that my approach to the subject was too direct and needed to be broached more gently. After this experience, I concluded that the majority of Caucasian psychiatrists didn’t know of colorism or rather feigned lack of knowledge; while the majority of African American psychiatrists I met felt that in the overall struggle for racial equality the research topic lacked significance.

So, I stopped. I stopped researching the topic. I stopped broaching the subject in casual conversation with my peers. Surprisingly, one of my mentors, Dr. Dave Henderson, shared a different opinion regarding the response to the study. He felt that the passionate comments made at the conference and on the questionnaire, reflected the striking impact that the subject of colorism was having on people. Dr. Henderson, surmised that I was hitting a nerve and that I should explore new ways to pursue the topic. Despite his supportive point of view, I felt it was impossible to research colorism within the psychiatric discipline, and I should leave it on the vine to wither and die.

But now, four years later, in light of the momentum generated by the Black Lives Matter movement, I have been inspired to start again. This time, listening to my elders: perhaps with a more gentle approach…

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A psychiatrist writing about mental health issues, through a black female lens. www.amtaarwellness.com