What is a Pigmentocracy?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A pigmentocracy is a type of social hierarchy which is based on human skin color. Pigmentocracies tend to override distinctions of class, gender, religion, and ethnic origin, with members of the society using skin color as the most important parameter for judging other members of society. Some nations have pigmentocracies to this day, although all members of their societies may not be entirely aware of it.

The Latino community has experienced some of the negative effects of a pigmentocracy, including prejudice based on skin color.
The Latino community has experienced some of the negative effects of a pigmentocracy, including prejudice based on skin color.

One of the classic examples of a pigmentocracy is a colonized nation. When nations are colonized, the colonists are often of a different color, making it easy for members of society to distinguish between colonists and natives. Since natives were typically looked down upon as lesser human beings, a pigmentocracy emerged in many colonies, with colonists having more rights and respect, while natives were forbidden to enter certain areas, not allowed to vote, and subjected to other abridgments of their rights.

The idea of pigmentocracy goes back for centuries; in Egyptian art, for example, people of distinctly different skin color can be identified, and skin color is often linked with social rank. In some cases, pigmentocracies became quite complex: in South Africa, for example, black Africans were at the bottom rung of the social ladder, while workers from the Indian subcontinent enjoyed a better social status, and whites remained on top.

Most modern pigmentocracies are not as explicit as historical examples, because many societies are concerned about racism, and many people actively work to break down barriers between races. In many nations, people of all colors can be seen working at all levels of government, and socially prominent individuals come in a range of hues. However, even in these areas, the lower classes are often disproportionately representative of a particular skin color; in the United States, for example, many members of the lower classes are black or Latino.

The signs of an explicit pigmentocracy are generally very easy to recognize. Nations with active pigmentocracies, for example, often have legislation which is based on skin color, and discriminatory practices based on skin color prevail, ranging from signs forbidding entrance to particular locations to denial of basic goods and services. People of undesirable skin color may also find themselves discriminated against at the borders, and in dealings with law enforcement and the legal system.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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