In many societies around the globe today we see that the darker skinned peoples are generally of a lower social status than the fair skinned peoples of the same area, or that fair skin is considered preferable to dark skin. Even in India today women are marketed skin-lightening creams.

However, has there ever been society in which the fairer skinned peoples were either of a lower social standing than the dark-skinned people, or where darker skin was preferable to fair skin? I am aware of the phenomenon of sun-bathing to darken the skin, but so far as I know this is not used to convey the image of increased social status as the skin-lightening creams are, but rather used to convey the image of one who has an outdoor lifestyle or has "lazy time" to spend in the sun.


15 Answers 15


The Roman Empire routinely enslaved fair skinned Germans and Celts, and referred to those people derogatively as barbarians.

Pretty much all the ancient Mediterranean and Near East empires including Egypt, Mesopotamia, etc. practiced slavery, and like the Romans might also have drawn from more northerly, fairer skinned peoples.

However, we should be careful drawing too broad of comparisons. Slavery worked differently in different cultures. As bloodthirsty as the Roman Empire was, they actually had certain laws protecting slaves, that simply did not exist for slaves in the United States. In the Roman Empire, slavery was much more of a class-based institution; anyone could become a slave potentially - your excess children, prisoners of war, and debtors could all be sold into slavery. So, while the Romans did enslave Germans and Celts, it wasn't race-based / skin-color-based as happened in the Americas; the Romans were pretty much an equal opportunity enslavement empire.

Anyway, slavery has been rife throughout history. It's hard to find any culture that didn't enslave others in some form or other, and that hadn't existed as slaves for someone else. It's just one of those nasty things humans do to each other until they learn better; there's nothing fundamentally inherent about skin color in any of this. It's just the random quirks of history and geography why things turned out one way rather than another.

As to today's current correlation of skin color and social status, this is most likely an outcome of the several hundred years of European colonialism applied to every corner of the world between 1492 and 1945. It was pretty intense, and unfortunately left quite an impression, involving not just slavery but also a deliberate attempt to erect a racist social hierarchy based on skin tone. These days colonialism as a governance principal may largely be gone, but in some sense the global media carries on many of those same biases in mass-marketed entertainment and advertisement.

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    Thank you! When I mentally picture the barbarians, I do imagine dark skin and hide clothing but now I see how ridiculous that would be. I'm obviously influencing that picture with the very element that prompted this question in the first place!
    – dotancohen
    Commented Jul 12, 2012 at 7:57
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    +1ing this. There's a popular story that the word "Slav" originally meant "Slave". It is probably untrue, but the fact that the story is so prevalent tells you how well treated the (typically fair-skinned) slavs have been.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jul 12, 2012 at 14:18
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    @T.E.D., perhaps ironically, the word "Robot" originated from "rabota" which is Slavic for slave. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robot#Etymology
    – Bryce
    Commented Jul 12, 2012 at 22:23
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    Yes, but the Romans themselves were not very much darker than the Goths, Vandals, et al. And since barbarian was probably not as much a derogatory term back then as it is now, IMHO, this doesn't really qualify. Commented Jul 16, 2012 at 12:49
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    In one time, Romans and Greeks were the "civilized" people, and blond hair, light skin North people were the Barbarians.
    – Quidam
    Commented Apr 25, 2019 at 16:54

When the Moors conquered and ruled Spain, most Spanish were lighter-skinned than the ruling Moors. Moors denied education, at least to Christian Spaniards, in the part of the country they controlled, and Granada was considered "too beautiful for Christian eyes."

Also, the Mongols conquered and oppressed large parts of the former Soviet Union (especially the Ukraine), whose people were lighter-skinned than them.

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    and don't forget those Moors (technically the Ottoman empire) controlling most of the Balkans, parts of Italy and Austria, and having settlements in France and according to some accounts Ireland as well.
    – jwenting
    Commented Sep 30, 2016 at 6:21

The Ainu people come to mind, an ethnic minority in Japan.

Wikipedia says "Full-blooded Ainu are lighter skinned than their Japanese neighbors", and talks about "the long history of the oppression of the Ainu people by Japan's majority".

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    Since Hokkaido was de facto not occupied, but isolated by the Japanese till the late Edo, early Meiji era, I would say "long history of oppression" is a little misleading. The Japanese looked down on Ainu and Emishi, it is true, but they either fought them or melt them in, they have never represented a distinct group or class inside the Japanese society.
    – Greg
    Commented Nov 8, 2014 at 2:44
  • I don't think the adjective fair skinned accurately describe Ainu people.
    – Antzi
    Commented Oct 4, 2016 at 5:27
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    @Antzi: "the Ainu have consistently higher reflectance values than a Japanese sample" ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/727704 . Also, please note how the question uses comparatives like darker/fairer, rather than absolutes.
    – nic
    Commented Oct 4, 2016 at 7:24
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    @Greg There were Ainu people living in Honshu long before the Japanese arrived to Hokkaido. Therefore the contact/conquest/oppression started long before the Edo period.
    – Pere
    Commented Aug 26, 2018 at 9:42

Oppression is all about political power, so really its just a matter of one group conquering another. Which of the two groups happens to do the conquering is just a matter of historical luck.

One good example of a darker-skinned group happening to do the conquering is the ancient civilization of Kush. The Kushites were a Nubian people, speaking a Nilo-Saharan language. Melanin doesn't preserve well in archeology, but modern speakers of these languages are about as dark-skinned as human beings come.

The Kushites certianly did their time as Egptian vassals themselves. However, sometime around 727 BCE they invaded Egypt, starting an 80 year period where they ruled the country as the 25th Dynasty.

Maximum extent of Kush in 700 BC

Maximum extent of Kush in 700 BC

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    Even today, in modern Hebrew the word Kush is used as a derogatory word for dark-skinned people, much like "the N word" is used in English.
    – dotancohen
    Commented Feb 3, 2015 at 6:55

The Barbary Pirates raided as far north as Iceland and Scotland to capture slaves. While still Caucasian, North Africans typically have darker skin than northern Europeans.

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    +1 Thank you. Around one million Europeans were enslaved by the Barbary Pirates over the course of their plundering. Commented Jul 13, 2012 at 6:27
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    @JubalHarshaw I don't see how being slaves could be anything but... Commented Jul 16, 2012 at 14:19
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    @DanNeely - that's because some people only see what their ideology conforms to.
    – DVK
    Commented Jul 21, 2012 at 9:40
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    @Sardathrion AT LEAST about one million, I've seen figures claiming numbers of well over 2 million.
    – jwenting
    Commented Sep 30, 2016 at 6:23
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    "While still Caucasian" is a funny, US-specific denomination for designing people from North Africa - thousands of kilometers from the Causasus.
    – Evargalo
    Commented Aug 23, 2018 at 15:31

In 1627 a Turkish pirate ship attacked Icelandic coastal villages. Hundreds of people were killed and 300 more were taken hostage and sold as slaves in Africa. A priest from the Westman islands(a group of small islands in Iceland's south) was amongst them, he managed to escape from Algiers, through Italy, France, Holland and then to Denmark from where he got back to Iceland. He wrote down his memoirs in a book called Reisubok, which quite accurately describes his journey.

Reisubok: http://reisubok.net/Home/default.aspx,
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turkish_Abductions


Well here is an African example of the darker the better. Southern Africa was invaded from the north by black tribes (intentionally no names as there were a number) who then oppressed the lighter skinned San, Koisan etc. The conquering tribes were agriculturalists while the indigenous people were mainly hunter gatherers. The black tribes also worked metal and went on to establish gold mining in conjunction with Arab traders. This dominance continued until the Dutch invaded from the south by ship. The indigenous people were used as slaves, particularly of the Xhosa, who seem to have picked up the click used in their language from the slaves. There was also interbreeding as the Xhosa often have features similar to the indigenous peoples. The Xhosa were part of the Nguni people and led the invasion down the east coast, with the Zulus behind them. They were very warlike and caused the invading Europeans many problems for all that they had no firearms. I have been vague about the dates as there was no written history of when the blacks moved south and it was a very slow migration. The Europeans encountered the Xhosa at the Fish River in South Africa around the 1700’s. Also note I have used common Western spelling for the black tribes.

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    Thank you. Unless one goes out specifically to look for it, African history is largely ignored. I am very glad to see this contribution.
    – dotancohen
    Commented Nov 8, 2014 at 11:17
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    > Xhosa, who seem to have picked up the click used in their language from the slaves. I wouldn't particularly say slaves. Just generally from the San/Khoikhoi :)
    – Restioson
    Commented Dec 14, 2017 at 16:50

Wikipedia documents the present day persecution of people with albinism in parts of East Africa.

"Persecution of people with albinism (sometimes abbreviated PWA[1]) is based on the belief that certain body parts of albinistic people can transmit magical powers. Such superstition is present especially in some parts of the African Great Lakes region, it has been promulgated and exploited by witch doctors and others who use such body parts as ingredients in rituals, concoctions and potions with the claim that their magic will bring prosperity to the user (muti or medicine murder).[2]

As a result, people with albinism have been persecuted, killed and dismembered, and graves of albinos dug up and desecrated. At the same time, people with albinism have also been ostracised and even killed for exactly the opposite reason, because they are presumed to be cursed and bring bad luck. The persecutions of people with albinism take place mostly in Sub-Saharan African communities, especially among East Africans.[3]:"


I'm quite sure white people have been the target for lynch mobs and even ethnic cleansing in certain African nations. Zimbabwe and Uganda comes to mind, but I am quite certain white people are looked down on in many places in Africa, mostly due to a history of imperialism.

(Sadly, I don't have time to find sources right now).

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    Even after repetitive lynch mobs and (in case of Zimbabwe at least) a long-lasting, dark-skinned-favouring government, I believe fair-skinned people are still over-represented in the upper class of Zimbabwe and Uganda, so I'm not sure this examples matches well with the question.
    – Evargalo
    Commented Aug 23, 2018 at 15:36
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    @Evargalo I agree. Can't remember making this answer six years ago, but regardless it is entirely unsourced, and should be taken with a grain of salt, to be honest. I wouldn't trust my past self, other people should treat it with some scrutiny as well. :)
    – Nix
    Commented Aug 24, 2018 at 7:41

It's important to remember that the concept of "white people" (or fair-skinned people) as a single, all-encompassing term for Caucasians is a fairly recent development. As recently as a hundred years ago (or even today, in super-conservative areas), "white people" meant Anglo-Saxons, exclusively. People as closely-related as Irish or Germans may not have been considered "white," depending on the speaker and the context.

Plenty of empires in the south of Europe, such as Greece and Rome or Spain, held biases against their paler, northern "barbarian" neighbors like the Celts and the Germans. Even today, there are biases against redheads in many parts of the world. Terms like "pasty" and "pale" are almost always derogatory, so from a purely aesthetic standpoint there is a point at which darker skin is preferred over lighter skin in pretty much any culture.

If you're looking for a culture that generally believed "the darker the better," you'll need to check the other answers, but there are plenty of periods in which the powerful majority had consistently darker skin than the oppressed minority. Just think back to the Julius Caesar's (Italian) conquest of Britain, for a famous example.

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    As recently as a hundred years ago (or even today, in super-conservative areas), "white people" meant Anglo-Saxons, exclusively. - This has to be some Anglo thing. I very much doubt the French, for instance, used blanc to refer exclusively to Anglo-Saxons. The world is a lot bigger than your Anglosphere, I mean. Commented Oct 1, 2016 at 20:32
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    @LuísHenrique It's not "my" Anglosphere, but I was talking about the United States, in which the British sensibilities of race have been generally predominant. But it's a distinction without a difference: at plenty of times in their history, the French have looked down on Slavs or Germans or Irish people and more, all of whom would often be considered just "white" now. The point is, broadly-defined "whiteness" is a relatively new concept in the world. Historically, the "good" race has been defined much more narrowly.
    – Nerrolken
    Commented Oct 2, 2016 at 5:44

Ethnically differentiated rulers regularly reduce the status of the majority population, and often these peoples are constructed as racially identical in terms of late 19th century racial theories. See the Norman dominance over a predominantly Anglo-Saxon population in England for an example. (Here comes the new lord, slightly more Frenchified than the old lord).

For an example that uses the racial constructs from the 19th century exactly, wouldn't http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mongol_invasion_of_Rus%27#The_age_of_Tatar_rule match your interests? Obviously neither the population of Rus nor the Mongols perceived of themselves in terms of 19th century racial categories.

Finally, societies that are perceived to be largely ethnically homogeneous regularly reduce the status of their own members, see the tribal crises of antiquity, or the regular internal subjugation of peasants into serfs, or the vast emiseration of the English working class during the period 1750 to 1850. This is class war as usual.


Another example is of the Hutu and Tutsi peoples of Rwanda we remember the recent genocide attempted by the Hutus who while both are African tribes and the Hutus are generally darker skinned they took turns over many generations oppressing each other killing thousands from both tribes over the years


Fair skinned people are oppressed and lower classes in most fair skinned societies and nations.

I'm born Australian and was born in the late 60s. Before multiculuralism took off in the 80s and 90s nearly all of the manual, dirty, dangerous and unpleasant jobs in our society were performed by white people. Most of the wealth went to a relative few white people. The upper classes looked down on the lower classes despite being the same ethnicities.

Now the wealth goes to lots of different ethnicities, but there are still a lot of white members of the "under class".

And yes tanning creams are (or were before the 90s or so) used by light skinned people as an attempt to convey higher social class.

Having a tan in winter in the UK indicated you had the wealth to travel to somewhere that had sun light.

Tanning cream may now be relatively common fashion accessory, but way back when a real tan meant exactly what you said - you had money to travel be able to afford to travel and to take the time to do so, which is why fake tans were originally so popular.

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    Good points, but this doesn't really answer the question.
    – Robert Columbia
    Commented Oct 1, 2016 at 14:43
  • I think my reply says "yes" to both questions. In most modern "western" countries where wealth and its trappings (education, clothes, land, money) are the normal indicators of social status more so than colour or "fairness"/"lightness", people with less fair skin look down on those with more fair skin who have less wealth than them. So yes there are examples of countries where that happens. And yes at times there have been times where having a sun tan (less fair skin) WAS an indicator of social status, though it is less so now.
    – Jason Tan
    Commented Oct 1, 2016 at 16:12
  • Other examples would be found in east Asia, where Chinese (in at least some regions in the recent past -i.e. my lifetime) look down on europeans and I suspect the Japanese do the same somewhat.
    – Jason Tan
    Commented Oct 1, 2016 at 16:14

The Catholic/Nationalist community in Northern Ireland was socially opressed by the dominate Protestand/Loyalist community for a lot of the 20th century. Both were white.


Russian Serfs were white.

Serfdom in Russia (Wikipedia)

It is officially ended in 1861. In some sense it was continued until 1907 when redemption payments were abolished.

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    And their lords were not White? Commented Oct 1, 2016 at 20:33
  • @Luis - I do not understand the question. Does using capital 'w' in white have some special meaning?
    – zzz777
    Commented Oct 2, 2016 at 1:10
  • 1. You say that the Russian serfs were White. That would answer the question if their lords were not White. Otherwise, it would just mean that the whole of Russian society was White, and so it would not be relevant to the question. 2. No, "White" with a capital letter has no especial meaning. It is just the standard way to write it in English, as far as I know. Commented Oct 2, 2016 at 12:48
  • I do not understand how whiteness of the serfs is affected by whiteness of the lords. There were non-white lords: say one notorious lord was from Cameroon en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abram_Petrovich_Gannibal. There are multitude of lords with Asian/Mongol descent whether they could be considered white I do no know.
    – zzz777
    Commented Oct 3, 2016 at 0:13
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    If the question is, have white people ever been lower class, regardless of the racial makeup of th upper class, then it is a trivial question with a trivial answer: yes, of course, all class societies composed exclusively of White people are the case. Meaning all of Europe before the 16th century. So, charitably, I assume that the question is intended as non-trivial, and so is whether White people have been lower class in societies where non-White people were upper class. Commented Oct 3, 2016 at 12:30

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