Like many other people, I cringe whenever I’m routinely mistaken for another brown person. When I attended graduate school in the midwest, people repeatedly confused me with another desi woman in my class, Sheila, who looked absolutely nothing like me — the obvious difference being that Sheila was much lighter-skinned than I was. At least, to me, it was obvious. To other white people, it was apparently not. Never mind that Sheila was from India and a had a bourgeois Mumbai accent, whereas I was from southern California and talked like a valley girl. As far as other people at school were concerned, we were interchangeable.
And so, because of repeated instances like that, I had figured that brown folks were just more sensitive to skin tone differences than white people were. But apparently, that’s not the case. When I was at work yesterday, I caught this news blurb:
Light-skinned immigrants in the United States make more money on average than those with darker complexions, and the chief reason appears to be discrimination, a researcher says. Joni Hersch, a law and economics professor at Vanderbilt University, looked at a government survey of 2,084 legal immigrants to the United States from around the world and found that those with the lightest skin earned an average of 8 percent to 15 percent more than similar immigrants with much darker skin. “On average, being one shade lighter has about the same effect as having an additional year of education,” Hersch said.
While I don’t think her findings are entirely improbable, I’m curious as to what she defines as “one shade” of skin tone.
What’s also interesting that it seems the researcher compared skin tones within immigrant groups:
Hersch took into consideration other factors that could affect wages, such as English-language proficiency, education, occupation, race or country of origin, and found that skin tone still seemed to make a difference in earnings. That means that if two similar immigrants from Bangladesh, for example, came to the United States at the same time, with the same occupation and ability to speak English, the lighter-skinned immigrant would make more money on average.
So what does this mean? Contrary to my earlier beliefs, it seems that other people are able to distinguish between darker and lighter-skinned browns.
I also wonder why Hersch used immigrants as her subjects, and not second, third, or fourth generation Americans. Would the results be the same? I don’t know. I wasn’t able to find this particular study of Hersch’s online, and I usually prefer to link to original sources rather than the newspaper, but still, this is food for thought.