Pigmentocracy: Color-Coded Racial Hierarchies


Update: Nina Simone’s documentary movie features Zoe Saldana in heavy, dark makeup to represent this icon.  A lot of people have voiced their outrage and I can understand why.  The pictures of Zoe as Nina does not do Nina Simone justice and she should be represented by an actress that doesn’t need to color-change, widen her nose and cheeks to embellish the look of Nina Simone.  It’s a great injustice and follows this article I wrote on Pigmentocracy.  Hollywood needs to do better….your racial codes are showing more and more every day!!!

I came across this word recently and it peaked my interest.  I started researching it for more information and found that it relates to the Americas.  So Based on my research I thought to put together some takeaways from the various journals that speak on this subject.  Eye-opening and intriguing and hopefully you get more information from it or plan to research it more like I did.  Disclaimer: I will not copy everything from the various sources, but just enough to give you a taste.  The sources will be at the end where you can purchase, download, or view on the web. – AcademicHustler1975


What is Pigmentocracy?  It describes societies in which wealth and social status are determined by skin color. Light-skinned peoples have the highest social status, then these are followed by the brown-skinned, who occupy intermediate positions, and finally by the black-skinned who are at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

  • The United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South East Asia, Caribbean, and Latin American has or practices pigmentocracy.  But the highest cases of racial hierarchy or more evident is in the Caribbean and Latin America.
  • Whites and light-skinned East Asians do best in education, earnings, and socio-economic status; brown-skinned Hispanics do less well; while blacks do the least well.
  • North East Asians (ethnic Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese) do better than the darker-skinned (the Filipinos, Hmong, and other Southeast Asians).
  • The Hispanics: The light-skinned, mainly from Cuba, are the most successful, while the darker-skinned from Latin America do not do so well.
  • Australia and New Zealand: Europeans and growing Chinese populations have higher socio-economic status, while the Aborigines in Australia and the Maoris in New Zealand form an impoverished underclass.
  • South East Asia: Lighter-skinned Chinese do better than darker-skinned Malays, Indonesians, Filipinos, and Thais.

The ideal of whitening was simultaneously, but differently, fed by white racism and black colorism, the latter valorizing being a mulatto as “social capital” (Glenn, 2009). Used by Afro-Americans to construct their internal class relations, this fair-skinned social capital which saw this as the best, most beautiful, and modern was present in most periodicals until the 1920s at least, when Garvey’s conceptions began to question the colorism and pigmentocracry of the black press. Also contributing to the re-signification of dark complexion was the acceptance of tanning for white women. The obtaining of an “exotic” color (ibid., p.183) came to be associated with the better economic condition expressed, for example, by the possibility of spending holidays in tropical countries. – Giovana Xavier da Nascimento 2015


Figure 4: The position of the images in question induces a ‘natural’ comparison between the lightness and darkness of the contrasted characters. Based on this comparison, the public would automatically conclude that the stage of primitivism of blacks had been surpassed by racial intermixing and the refinement of mulattos. Although the text exalts the “courage,” “strength,” and “heroism of a nature rarely encountered” of the totally dark-skinned Tubman, its iconographic representation in comparison with the two previous images highlights the abyss between modernity and primitivism, an abyss symbolized by color. – Giovana Xavier da Nascimento 2015


  • By the 1800s a racial socio-economic hierarchy had emerged typically consisting of Europeans and small numbers of Chinese at the top; followed by half-breed mulattos, together, in some islands, with Indians, in the middle; and blacks at the bottom.
  • The brown (mixed race) slaves were positioned in privileged occupations in the hierarchy of the slave plantation economy, usually as slave artisans.
  • Mulattos and Indians still occupy intermediate positions, while blacks are largely at the bottom. West Indians have a finely graded sense of racial distinctions. The term mulattos is generally used for those who have one white and one black parent. Those who are one quarter black and three quarters white are designated quadroons, while those who are one-eighth black and seven-eighths white are termed octoroons.
  • In Barbados “the economic elite is comprised of local whites”; “lighter-skinned elites and darker-colored lower income groups in general typify Caribbean societies.”
  • The Chinese in the British and Dutch Caribbean are largely recognized as a successful upper-middle class, their members based not only in the traditional retail grocery trades but in the import, service, manufacturing, and professional sectors.

Haiti and the Dominican Republic

  • In 1804, the blacks rebelled against French Rule and the blacks established a republic and massacred most of the whites. In 1844 the island was divided into two, the eastern half becoming the Dominican Republic and the western half Haiti.
  • By the end of the nineteenth century “the racial factor acted as one of the main determinants of social status . . . white somatic norm image was dominant in regard to social prestige, as in all multi-racial societies of the Caribbean.
  • At the end of the twentieth century 16 percent of the population of the Dominican Republic was white, 73 percent of mixed race, and 11 percent black.
  • Dominican society has been characterized by a light-skinned elite and a mulatto majority since the seventeenth century” while among mulattos “lighter skin color allows a greater chance of social mobility than for dark-skinned Dominicans.”
  • In Haiti far fewer whites survived the 1804 massacres, and today the population consists of 95 percent blacks and 5 percent mulattos.  Mulattos enjoy higher economic and social status.

Jamaica and Grenada

  • Racial hierarchy as consisting of “a white elite, a larger brown upper middle class, next in rank, who dominated Grenadian commerce, official councils and committees, certain clubs, and other organizations,” and a “lower or peasant class” of blacks and
    some Indians.
  • In Jamaica also it was observed in the 1930s that “it is the browns, especially the lighter ones, who have the most chance to enter higher professions, and the blacks as a class do the most menial work.
  • A small population of Chinese in Jamaica controlled the retail grocery trade and were prominent in the civil service and the professions and were “among the best educated and wealthiest of Jamaicans.”
  • Trinidad and Tobago: the traditional colonial social pyramid consisted of
    the English and French white elites at the top, generally socially and
    occupationally aloof from a developing brown-skinned middle class,
    who were in turn at a social and cultural distance from the masses of
    black Afro-Trinidadians.
  • Martinique remained a French colony until 1946, incorporated as part of France and the people were given French citizenship and access to move to France.
  • Martinique’s population is divided into blanc (white), mulatre (colored, mulatto), noir (black), and coolies (Indians), and “Among the blancs, the bekes, descended from the original French colonists, control the great majority of the economy; the
    coolies are the descendants of Indians (south Asians) who came as laborers following the abolition of slavery.

Cuba and Puerto Rico

  • In Puerto Rico the prosperous classes tend to be lighter-skinned.” It has been also been found the light-skinned have a higher IQ than the dark-skinned. The study shows that the general population of Puerto Rico is aware that there is an intelligence gradient corresponding to a light–dark skin color gradient.
  • Castro introduced socialism and expropriated the assets of many middle-class whites in 1959 Cuba.
  • Cuba: European racial prejudice and discrimination against blacks and mulattos was strong in the first half of the twentieth century. Whites had exclusive use of their own clubs and beaches and the smarter restaurants and hotels.
  • Castro started improving the status of blacks by outlawing discrimination and by nationalizing private schools previously attended almost entirely by whites.
  • Cuba has been governed by a Council of Ministers consisting of 39 members. In
    the year 2000, only one of these was black.

Latin America

  • At the top of the socio-economic hierarchies are light-skinned Europeans; In the middle of the socioeconomic hierarchies are the brown-skinned mestizos of mixed-race European and Native American Indian descent, and the mulattos, of mixed-race European and African descent. At the bottom are the darker-skinned Native American Indians and blacks.
  • Latin American society is characterized by a social spectrum with taller, lighter-skinned, European-blooded elites at one end; shorter, darker, Indian-blooded masses at the other end.
  • Hispanic culture is dominated, socio-economically and politically, by Blancos.
  • In Bolivia “broadly speaking, the whites are landowners and government officials, the mestizos are tradesmen, skilled workers, and minor civil servants, and the Indians are laborers.”
  • In Chile Europeans have higher socio-economic status and score higher in math than Native American Indians.
  • In Colombia “the men of wealth and position in all sections of society are generally white”while “blacks and Indians are at the bottom of the ladder” which represents a hierarchy of wealth, education, civilization, and race.”
  • Mexico “ethnicity is strongly related to processes of social stratification . . . light skin color, bright eyes, and Caucasian features enjoy higher prestige than Amerindian; even members of the Maya-speaking lower classes prefer persons of lighter skin.”  “The higher class people are whiter, lower class people more Indian-looking.” And “almost without exception the Mexican officials, lawyers, and business executives we dealt with were light skinned and foreign educated, with elegant European names. Meanwhile, the people doing the photocopying and cleaning the floors were all shorter, darker, and plainly more ‘Indian-blooded’ . . . lightness of skin correlates directly and glaringly with increasing wealth and social status.”
  • Nicaragua: few ruling class whites; Things Spanish or white are super-ordinate; things Indian or black are subordinate.
  • Brazil: Afro-Brazilians remained overwhelmingly concentrated in the lowest economic strata and that negative attitudes to dark skin were widespread.
  • Racial social inequalities in Brazil are much greater than in the United States and Europe. Europeans in Brazil typically have an affluent lifestyle while many
    blacks and mulattos live in abject poverty in urban slums on the edge
    of cities known as favelas.



The Dangers of White Blacks: mulatto culture, class, and eugenic beauty in the post-emancipation (USA, 1900-1920) by Nascimento, GXD REVISTA BRASILEIRA DE HISTORIA, 01/2015, Volume 35, Issue 69

RICHARD LYNN, University of Ulster, The Occidental Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 2, Summer 2008




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