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I have recently seen "fair-skinned" written to mean the opposite of "dark skin".

In other contexts, "fair" usually sounds to me as judgemental, implying it is better.
Example: fair weather

Is "fair-skinned" politically correct?
Should I prefer another term?

Here is an example of the term being called questionable: First comment by heltonbiker to this question.

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I'd say you shouldn't be choosing which terms to use on whether they're "politically correct" in the first place. ;-) –  Jez Jul 13 '12 at 10:18
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The question really means "will this term be considered offensive by someone?" I wish more people asked that sort of question before saying something. –  Christi Jul 13 '12 at 10:32
    
@Christi: That's it, I basically want to know if that would offend someone. –  Nicolas Raoul Jul 17 '12 at 2:41
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3 Answers 3

up vote 10 down vote accepted

In this context "fair" means "light." You could use light-skinned instead (which in recent years has begun to vastly exceed fair-skinned in use).

The more important point, however, is that if a term is taken as problematic, let's say racist in this case, by a vulnerable group, then it does not really matter what the dictionary definition is ("fair" meaning "light" as opposed to "just") -- what matters is the way the term is perceived by that group. I suspect that the increase in use of "light-skinned" compared to "fair-skinned" in recent years has at least in part to do with this.

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I absolutely agree with your general point that what really matters is whether offense is actually caused, and to whom! However, I’d be surprised if the increase in light-skinned is due to this; I’ve never heard of anyone being offended by or misunderstanding fair-skinned. Or have you come across that? –  PLL Jul 13 '12 at 11:47
    
@PLL - just a hunch. What do you think? –  JAM Jul 13 '12 at 14:34
    
Fair-skinned is slightly narrower in meaning. A person may be called light-skinned if their skin color is a light brown, but not fair-skinned. –  Charles Jul 17 '12 at 16:18
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The term fair-skinned is common enough that it's very unlikely to be deemed as political incorrect. I did some corpus searches, and found these excerpts, which I think would be fairly safe from being labeled as racist:

The transmission of UVA into the dermis of an untanned fair-skinned individual is approximately 50% of the impinging flux. Even-pigmented persons with brown skin transmit a significant amount of UVA radiation (30-35%).1

Non-melanoma skin cancers occur more frequently than any other type of cancer in fair-skinned populations, and their incidence has been rising rapidly for several decades.2

However, if you were brazen enough to say:

I'm much more likely to do my business dealings with fair-skinned individuals.

then that probably would be considered politically incorrect – but not because you used the word fair instead of light. In fact, if you swapped the word light for fair, I doubt the perceived unfairness of the statement would change.


1(Phillips and Verhasselt, 1994)
2(N.J. Lowe, 1997)

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adjective. Fair: (of hair or complexion) light; blonde.

is not related to

adjective Fair: treating people equally without favouritism or discrimination

"Fair-skinned" actually has a positive connotation, in comparison to saying "pale-skinned," or "light-skinned." The positive connotation is likely the result of the Old English meaning:

O.E. fæger "beautiful, lovely, pleasant,"

http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=fair

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The problem is with people who are not fair-skinned misunderstanding the intended first definition with the third definition. They will take that to mean that their own skin is not beautiful or pleasant. –  dotancohen Jul 17 '12 at 3:13
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