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Blog: Colourism: Skin deep

Mental health & addiction quality improvement
27 June 2019

In this blog, Rangimaarie Painting, a student from the University of Auckland on placement with the Health Quality & Safety Commission, discusses the concept of colourism. Rangimaarie supported the work the mental health and addiction (MHA) quality improvement programme is doing to address the impact of implicit bias in the MHA workforce.

Colourism is a relatively new and overlooked concept in New Zealand, as discrimination research in health tends to focus more on the three levels of racism; institutionalised, personally mediated, and internalised (Jones, 2000). However, there is clear evidence, which illustrates that colourism poses a significant impact on individual health and increasing the risk of discrimination (Veenstra, 2011).

Colourism is the process of discrimination based on skin colour, where judgements of perceived intelligence and moral worth are attributed to the colour of a person’s skin, and negative ethnic stereotypes are assigned regardless of their self-identified cultural identity (Craddock, Dlova & Diedrichs, 2018). People of colour predominately experience this form of discrimination and the degree of discrimination is more severe for people with a darker skin colour. Although the concept is similar to and commonly thought of as racism, colourism is an extremely superficial and specific form of discrimination, which influences how a person is treated based on their skin colour.

Skin colour is the most superficial trait of a person and yet more often then not it is used to make a snap judgement of individual values, beliefs and behaviour. It influences the way we treat people. The darker the skin, the greater the likelihood of negative stereotypes. It only takes seven seconds for us to form our first impression of someone and within that first contact; cognitive biases misinterpret new information and support previously held assumptions (Rabin & Schrag, 1999). As the colour of one’s skin is one of the most distinguishing characteristics of a person, it is one of the biggest contributors for forming first impressions. People of colour are required to prove their worth and break through negative unconscious ethnic generalisations and stereotypes, regardless of self-identified ethnicity (Cormack, Harris & Stanley, 2013).

In the context of health, colourism affects consumer engagement and responsiveness, as darker skinned individuals are two and a half times more likely to report having antagonistic interactions with health professionals and staff members. Cormack, Harris and Stanley (2013) have provided evidence which suggests that being self-identified and socially assigned as ‘NZ European’ provides these members of society noteworthy health advantages. Including, but not limited to, reduced negative impacts of racism and ethnic inequities, reduced harm and chronic stress from experiences of ethnic discrimination – and more socioeconomic advantage.

The concept of colourism highlights the diverse realities of not only different ethnic groups, like NZ European and Maori, but also discrimination within ethnic groups. Houkamau’s research (2016) explores the effects of colourism and shows that Māori with darker skin experience more discrimination. Callister (2008) additionally states that Māori do not all face the same degree of discrimination, as those who stereotypically look Māori face the most difficulties.

Evidence of the detrimental influence colourism has on the mental health of dark-skinned young people has been explored by Craddock, Dlova and Diedrichs (2018). They conclude that negative representations of people of colour in entertainment, advertising and the media impacts the mental health of people of colour.

Research about colourism is limited, but there is clear evidence that darker-skinned individuals are more likely to experience overt discrimination, and report having poor mental health and health outcomes than other groups. Colourism needs to be explored further in New Zealand because its impact means people of colour are reluctant to engage in health services and as a result inequities in health persist (Houkamau, 2016).


  • Callister, P. (2008). Skin colour: Does it matter in New Zealand. Policy quarterly, 4(1), 18-25. Retrieved from
  • Cormack, D. M., Harris, R. B., & Stanley, J. (2013). Investigating the relationship between socially-assigned ethnicity, racial discrimination and health advantage in New Zealand. PLOS One, 8(12), e84039. Retrieved from
  • Craddock, N., Dlova, N., & Diedrichs, P. C. (2018). Colourism: a global adolescent health concern. Current opinion in pediatrics, 30(4), 472-477. Retrieved from
  • Houkamau, C. A. (2016). What you can't see can hurt you: How do stereotyping, implicit bias and stereotype threat affect Māori health?. MAI Journal, 5(2), 124-136. doi: 10.20507/MAIJournal.2016.5.2.3
  • Jones, C. P. (2000). Levels of racism: a theoretic framework and a gardener's tale. Am J Public Health, 90(8), 1212-1215. Retrieved from
  • Rabin, M., & Schrag, J. L. (1999). First impressions matter: A model of confirmatory bias. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 114(1), 37-82. doi:
  • Veenstra, G. (2011). Mismatched racial identities, colourism, and health in Toronto and Vancouver. Social Science & Medicine, 73(8), 1152-1162. Retrieved from

Author: Rangimaarie Painting, University of Auckland