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.

  • 3
    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, 2012 at 10:18
  • 7
    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, 2012 at 10:32
  • 1
    @Christi: That's it, I basically want to know if that would offend someone. Jul 17, 2012 at 2:41
  • 1
    Is the world really getting so ridiculously politically correct that such a perfectly reasonable term as "fair-skinned" must be questioned?
    – Dog Lover
    Apr 29, 2016 at 6:44

6 Answers 6


The term fair-skinned is common enough that it's very unlikely to be deemed as a politically incorrect term. 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)


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.

  • 2
    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, 2012 at 11:47
  • @PLL - just a hunch. What do you think?
    – JAM
    Jul 13, 2012 at 14:34
  • 3
    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, 2012 at 16:18

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,"


  • 1
    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, 2012 at 3:13

I happen to be fair skinned. The reason I use 'fair' over 'light' is for its precision in dealing with skincare and make up. In that terminology, 'light' is this side of medium; 'fair' is Snow White light! When you're trying to match foundation shades, the difference between fair and light IS important!

  • 1
    Plus one. There are "white" people who aren't fair-skinned. The ones who are, sunburn almost immediately and have little chance of maintaining any sort of tan. My dad's fair-skinned. I'm nearly borderline. Both of my parents are Caucasian and predominantly of Germanic descent. I wouldn't use this word unless there was at least some red blotchy-ness (you know, like a Ginger). Without any, that's what pale is for. An extra plus one for ignoring the loaded question.
    – Mazura
    Apr 29, 2016 at 5:36
  • I wish "Ginger" could be more broadly adopted here in the U.S. There seems to be a separation of descriptive terms for hair-color and complexion. "Red-head" is so common, and relatively neutral (though I imagine that beauties like Rita Hayworth and Lucille Ball come to mind for many) but for me, "Red-head" conflates an assumption of "fair" skin that sunburns easily. Though I've heard red-heads describing their complexions as "ivory" or "ruddy", depending on how pale they are, if they have freckles, or are "rosy-cheeked". As a kid, I called it that "always-blushing" look. Ginger's better.
    – Bea Bonmot
    May 10, 2016 at 1:49

Because of racialization, or "colorism", this is complicated and it really does depend on context, and whether you wish to speak with cultural sensitivity or political correctness. Are you describing yourself in comparison to another? Are you asking about someone's complexion in relation to race, beauty, or blood status? There are many meanings that can be correctly applied and still have a resulting incorrectness.

If you're speaking about make-up or sunscreen, just saying "fair" or "sun-sensitive" would be a way to avoid the "loadedness or baggage" that pairing "fair" or "light" with skin or complexion might get you mixed up in.

However, in the appropriate cultural contexts, many terms to describe complexion are used freely, even with the inseparable "loadedness and baggage." Describing a person to help identify them to another: "Do you see that cute guy near the door? The tall, light-skinned one with the blue shirt..." In Padma Lakshmi's recently released memoir she talks about terms used in arranged marriage ads, including words like "light" "wheat" and "dusky"; all with ascribed value for a potential match.

When others have described me, I've been called everything: red-bone, light-skinned, high-yellow, colored, the n-word, etc. and I'm not even Black. My older sister however, burns easily and I always call her "fair", not "fair skinned". (And she is beautiful too.) My other sister, I call "dark" not "dark skinned". She is just a touch "darker" than me. But in winter, I consider myself "pale", as I'm "darker" (not tan) in summertime....

There is so much, and yet not enough literature on this topic...here are a few resources:




this has nothing to do with people being vulnerable or sensitive as some of these posts imply. Yes, there is racial bias in the term. Fair meant beautiful until ~1500s when it became synonymous with pale which was believed to be prettier by the "fair"-skinned people controlling the vernacular.

  • Interesting! Would you have references for these facts? Oct 26, 2015 at 3:13
  • @NicolasRaoul Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all? :)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 26, 2015 at 10:40
  • @Mari-LouA: Good find, but this quote is only from 1937 if I am not mistaken? Oct 27, 2015 at 0:45
  • @NicolasRaoul It's taken from the Brothers Grim story, Snow White, which was first published in 1812, so it's a bit older than Disney's 1937 classic. But the fact is, the line is extremely well-known. It is a timeless phrase, which all little girls know and recite. I'm sure if you look at the etymology of fair you'll find even more info.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 27, 2015 at 0:58

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