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Puerto Rico's Health Department Secretary, Dr. Carlos Mellado (L) inoculates a woman with the Johnson and Johnson Covid-19 vaccine at the Puerto Rico Convention Center in San Juan, Puerto Rico on March 31, 2021. Photo: Ricardo Arduengo/AFP via Getty…

Colorism in Puerto Rico: New study shows how health opportunities and outcomes often depend on skin tone

A new study conducted at the University of Puerto Rico showcased how those that identify as having a darker skin tone on the island were often reported to have…

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A new study conducted by two professors at the University of Puerto Rico found that residents who self-identify as having light skin tones may receive greater health opportunities and outcomes than those who self-identify as having darker skin tones. 

The study determined that colorism — prejudice against an individual on the basis of skin tone or the favoring of lighter skin tones — contributes notably towards health outcomes of dark-skinned Puerto Ricans.

The peer-reviewed scientific study was conducted by University of Puerto Rico professors Isar Godreau and José Caraballo-Cueto. It was published in the Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health

The study observed the affects of racial discrimination on physical and emotional health. Findings revealed there was a disproportionate number of Black or dark-skinned people who felt “worse in health,” according to Caraballo-Cueto.

To ensure the study was conducted effectively, Caraballo-Cueto and Godreau submitted a request for the Puerto Rico Department of Health to include a question measuring skin tone scales alongside a comprehensive health survey conducted annually by phone. 

After approval, the scale was used to measure skin color from one (very light) to six (very dark). The results showed how skin color is viewed as a means to conceptualize race in Puerto Rico. 

“This finding was consistent, no matter what statistical model we used, or if I was controlling for sex, age or income level,” said Caraballo-Cueto.

Research trends in the United States and Latin America were also taken into consideration when conducting this study. The ranking of skin tone has been shown before to effectively measure racial discrimination and inequality in Latin America.

The two professors utilized race categories — set by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget — used in the U.S. Census. These race categories are used when the American government seeks population identification based on guidelines that mix race and ethnicity.

Upwards of 6,000 people across Puerto Rico were selected by random to participate in the Puerto Rico Department of Health’s annual survey, now including the addition of the skin tone scale. The results were “robust” and “representative of Puerto Rico,” according to Godreau.

With the data, the researchers extrapolated that “approximately 202,817 dark-skinned individuals in Puerto Rico reported worse general health status” as opposed to the approximate “425,415 very light-skinned individuals.”

Caraballo-Cueto and Godreau found that current federal racial data collection processes in the United States do not reflect how Puerto Rican populations interpret race and identity markers, especially markers regarding skin tone. 

The U.S. Census does not currently inquire about the self-identification of skin tone. Data shortcomings such as this influenced both professors to consider the ineffectiveness and inconsistencies of racial and ethnic categories used by the Puerto Rican government.

“In the case of Puerto Rico, like a large part of Latin America, it is not so much your ethnicity, although there is an important xenophobic component in racism, but rather physical appearance,” said Caraballo-Cueto.

Both Caraballo-Cueto and Godreau hope the local and federal government will consider utilizing skin tone tracking in the future when measuring race and ethnicity in questionnaires; regardless of their function.  

The desired outcome of implementing skin tone tracking is a greater understanding of how skin tone and colorism — within certain areas, including health — are affecting Puerto Rico.

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