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Lighter Skin, More Like Me

Wednesday, February 10, 2010
posted by Rita Handrich

Matthew Harrison has an article on Colorism in the January issue of The Jury Expert. He discusses the role of colorism (or “skin color bias”) in the workplace and then three trial consultants discuss his work in the context of the courtroom. There’s a lot of good information for litigators in the trial consultant responses and we recommend you go take a look if you are interested in learning more about the relationship between skin color and bias (in the workplace or in the courtroom).

It’s a timely piece. As the country becomes increasingly polarized, researchers keep churning out work on our biases and how they result in us modifying how we see others. For example, the Atlantic reports on a study showing that our own partisanship determines how we perceive skin color. The more we believe the person shares our own values and political perspective, the lighter skinned we believe them to be. If we do not believe they share our perspective and values, we see them as darker skinned. (This was measured by asking participants to choose the photo they thought best depicted Barack Obama—a darker skinned photo or a lighter skinned photo.)

Miller-McCune website  also discusses this study and wonders if we are likely to like people less if we see darkened images of them. They cite the infamous photo published by Time Magazine of a skin-darkened O.J. Simpson during his 1994 trial. The racially ambiguous, according to Miller-McCune, are harder to categorize than the clearly white (for example, John McCain) or clearly black (for example, Michael Steele). The very ambiguity may require more cognitive effort on our part to process and we know that ambiguity can be disorienting and confusing.

We’ve said it before. Race and racism is becoming more nuanced. Your dark-skinned client/witness/party/self may be seen more negatively than your light-skinned client/witness/party/self and you need to prepare for that before entering the courtroom.

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