By: Vinay Harpalani, Savannah Law School

On April 2 and 3, 2015, I had the privilege of presenting at the Global Perspectives on Colorism conference, sponsored by Whitney R. Harris World Law Institute at Washington University in St. Louis School of Law.  While there have been many academic conferences that have explored various facets of racism, discrimination based on skin color is a related but distinct phenomenon that has not received the same amount of attention. To date, this has been the only conference to focus on the issue of colorism as an international phenomenon, manifested in various ways across the full range of human cultures and societies.

Colorism Conference

Many of the presenters pose for a photo at the finish of the two-day conference

My own presentation, which derived from one of my recent law review articles, focused on the role of color in determining the varying and ambiguous racial classifications of South Asian Americans—peoples in the U.S. whose ancestry derives from the Indian subcontinent.  But this was just one of many presentations on an a truly outstanding set of panels, organized and facilitated by Professors Kimberly Jade Norwood, Leila Nadya Sadat, Adrienne Davis, and others affiliated with the Institute.


Professor Kim Norwood delivers opening remarks at the Colorism Conference

Several features of the conference really stood out to me:

1.  The substantive quality of the presentations and panels.  It was clear that every single panelist drew upon unique knowledge and experiences and brought those to the conference.  Each presentation was truly engaging, and the panelists and the panels themselves all complimented each other very well.

2.  The representation of all groups of people of color.  This conference was really as fully inclusive of different perspectives on colorism as one could reasonably expect.  There were panels and panelists that dealt with colorism issues specifically for Africans and African Americans, Latinas/os, Asians and Asian Americans (and South Asians and South Asian Americans), and Native Americans.  That is something we often strive for, but that is difficult to actualize.

Professor Harpalani  spoke on the panel  'Understanding Color Distinctions in Asia'

Professor Harpalani spoke on the panel ‘Understanding Color Distinctions in Asia’

3.  The interdisciplinary nature of the panels.  The panelists represented a range of academic disciplines and there was a true synergy between their different perspectives.  Kim invited not only law professors, but professors of social work, sociology, developmental psychology, history, economics, political theory, media and communications, and also non-academics such as filmmakers.  It is often a challenge to make an interdisciplinary conference gel, but this one truly did around the theme of colorism.

4.  The candor of the discourse.  While the presentations were truly informative, enlightening, and inspiring, there was also an appropriate level of tension, frustration, and dissent—which particularly came out during the international human rights panel, as we became immediately cognizant of the fact that the legal frameworks to address these important issues are sorely lacking.  It was a healthy critical discourse, with intense but civil exchange, all in a manner that reminded us how much work there is to do.

In short, congratulations are due to the Institute for sponsoring this excellent event.  I am grateful to have attended and taken part in this groundbreaking event, and I hope there can be more like it in the future.  It was the beginning of a very important dialogue which should continue, and which will eventually lead to tangible social change.


color matters

You can learn more about Professor Kim Norwood’s book Color Matters: Skin Tone Bias and the Myth of a Postracial America (Routledge, 2013) here. In Color Matters, Prof. Norwood has collected the most up-to-date research on this insidious form of discrimination, including perspectives from the disciplines of history, law, sociology, and psychology.

Videos of the panels and keynote speaker from the Colorism Conference are available to watch at the links below.

Windows Media Player View Video – Global Perspectives on Colorism Conference – April 2, 2015

Windows Media Player View Video – Global Perspectives on Colorism Conference – April 3, 2015, Part I

Windows Media Player View Video – Global Perspectives on Colorism Conference – April 3, 2015, Part II