Colourism can be defined as discrimination against members of a racial category based on skin tone. “‘Colourism’ is the discriminatory treatment of individuals falling within the same ‘racial’ group on the basis of skin color. It operates both intraracially and interracially. Intraracial colourism occurs when members of a racial group make distinctions based upon skin color between members of their own race. Interracial colourism occurs when members of one racial group make distinctions based upon skin color between members of another racial group.”
-Cedric Herring, Verna M. Keith and Hayward Derrick Horton, Skin Deep: How Race and Complexion Matter in the “Color-Blind” Era
Colourism has been around for centuries, decades and years. It all started during slavery. During slavery darker skinned blacks had to worked in the field, whereas lighter-skinned blacks were given housework. Mixed-race and lighter skinned children were given privileges such as desirable work, formal education, apprenticeships or even freedom in some cases. They were afforded more social and economic advantages over darker skinned individuals. The more European you looked the higher you climbed up the social ladder. It has been engrained in the black community to think light is right and dark is wrong. You know how the old saying goes, “If you are light, you are all right. If you are brown you can stick around. If you are black, get back.”
If you think about it, colourism is a modern day form of the brown paper bag test. For those that do not know, a brown paper bag was used to determine whether an individual could have certain privileges. Individuals with the same color or lighter than the paper bag were easily allowed into social events, churches, sororities and fraternities. Those with light skin were awarded more job opportunities than dark skin blacks. This test caused stratification within the black community and forced mass discrimination and hatred towards one another, solely due to a difference in skin tone. For years blacks have internalized the declaration that light and white are better. For instance, the results from the doll test, which was used to test the self-esteem of children based on race, color and status was performed by doctors Kenneth and Mamie Clark was used in the Brown vs. Board of Education case. A modern day demonstration of this test can be seen in the documentary “A Girl Like Me”, which was produced in 2005 by Kiri Davis, a Howard University student. Another source that sheds light on colorism as it pertains to the black woman is Tori Morrison’s book The Bluest Eye. The book captures a young black girl who is mocked for her dark skin, curly hair and brown eyes. She yearns for blonde hair and blue eyes in order to feel and be seen as beautiful.
This horrid concept of colourism still holds precedence in the majority of our media outlets. Just look on social media and you will see hash tags such as, #TeamLightSkinned, #TeamDarkSkinned, #LightSkinGirlsBeLike #DarkSkinGirlsBeLike, #LightSkinDudesBeLike, #DarkSkinDudesBeLike and so forth. These hashtags and memes portray lightskinned girls as being snooty and lightskinned guys as being effeminate, too emotional and too friendly. These memes, gifs and hashtags poke fun at our lighter skinned counterparts, which further creates a distinction between us that is disguised as being humorous. It is also apparent that certain media outlets will lighten images of actresses, singers and other celebrities in order to make them more appealing to certain audiences. Zendaya, a popular singer/actress, confronted a magazine company for retouching a featured image of her making it much lighter than the original copy. Other actresses such as, Gabrielle Union, Lupita Nyong’o and KeKe Palmer, all grew up wishing they had lighter skin because they viewed themselves as not being beautiful. They also thought being a lighter skin tone would award them more opportunities in entertainment.
As a testament, I have seen/been a part of this colourism spectrum within my lifetime. For example, in undergrad, one of my teammates never wanted to be seen with some of my teammates because she was of a darker skin tone and the some of us were of a lighter complexion. Her confidence in her appearance would be at an all time low if we were ever out together. She would say, “No one ever wants to talk to me because I’m dark, ya’ll get all the guys and attention.” Another teammate was told by one of the football players that she was pretty for a dark skinned girl. And until then I had never really paid attention to how others would treat my dark skinned teammates. I’m not sure if this is a Louisiana thing or not but I noticed that women who were “yellow bones”, “red bones” or Creole were treated significantly different than any other woman or person of color. I even got treated differently when I was with my lighter skinned friends which is crazy because most people would consider me to be light skinned even though I beg to differ.
In that moment, I realized that light and European features were right and according to society my tan, caramel shade, along with my humped nose, slanted eyes, big lips and curly hair was wrong. My sister who is dark skinned and a little plump has dealt with colorism her whole life. She has been called “tar baby”, “ugly”, “fat”, “lazy” and told to “go back to Africa”. It hurts my heart to hear those hurtful words come from black people, especially young girls and guys. In her eyes her dark skin is not valued by her peers, community or society, which brings feelings of shame and especially low self-esteem. Although the both of us have experienced colorism, our personal experience of the situations are totally different. I can’t even imagine walking in my sister’s shoes and witnessing the struggle she faces day-to-day all due to her skin tone and appearance.
Equally important, colorism can be seen on a global scale in jobs, schools, marriages and the natural hair community. On a global scale it happens everywhere from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Brazil, the Dominican Republic and Angola to name a few. In India, the preference for light skin pre-dates British colonialism and goes as far back as hymns and other religious texts. The desire for lighter skin in India cannot be detached from the caste system that plagues the country’s North-South divide. The massive impacts of colonialism and capitalism have seemingly exploited these prejudices through the beauty industry. Skin lightening products are continuously marketed at high value in the Indian community in order to achieve society’s standard of beauty. In the Dominican Republic, most Dominicans do not even consider themselves to be black. This stems from past anger when the county was under Haitian rule. We all know that Haitians are black, so Dominicans associated black for being bad.
To learn more about colorism in Latin America check out this piece by Frances Robles for the Miami Herald.
It is also apparent that there is always a preference for lighter or dark skinned individuals when it comes to dating or marriage. Some reports have said that lighter skinned black women are more likely to be married than their darker skinned women. I have known guys to date light skinned girls because they see them as the standard of beauty and also as an optimal choice for child bearing in terms of attractiveness of the child. Whereas some guys will date a dark skinned girl because they feel as though she is more connected to Africa. Certain businesses will only hire light skinned women and men because they assume they are more intelligent, attractive and less intimidating than dark skinned blacks. Also, lighter skinned men and women are more likely to have lesser prison sentences than darker skinned men and women due to the fact that they appear less threatening to society. And lastly the natural hair community has also become a victim of colourism.
Being natural is at an all time high, there are more women who are natural than ever before. You would think out of the plethora of naturalistas around the world the media would portray all hair textures respectively. Unfortunately that is not the case, the media portrays woman of all shades who have looser curls, and this is the so-called standard of beauty in the natural hair community. Whereas my sisters with the kinky thick hair hardly ever get any love. An example of colourism featuring skin tone and hair can be seen in the film School Daze produced by Spike Lee, which depicts two sororities, one light skinned “Wannabes” and the other dark skinned “Jiggaboos. There is a singing dance montage that features the women in a hair salon negatively commenting on each other’s hair and skin tone. I guess this was Spike Lee’s attempt at bringing colourism to the forefront in the late 80s, however it is still dreadfully breathing down our necks in the 21st century.
In addition, women will come to find that their texture is neither represented nor celebrated in mainstream media. We have all these natural haircare lines but your texture is not being represented in beauty brands, magazines or commercials which can leave you feeling disconnected by a community that is supposed to embrace and make you feel beautiful. The images portrayed are not equal to what some women see in the mirror everyday. I have had friends reference their hair texture to Kunta Kinte and not being comfortable wearing in its natural state because they do not think they will look beautiful. It is apparent that lighter skinned women with looser curls get more support, promotional deals and are put on a pedestal. I sometimes feel like we are back in the Jim Crow era with this house slave vs. field slave mentality. When children see images that portray lighter skin and loose curls as the standard of beauty it disrupts their psyche to now view themselves as ugly or not pretty enough. I’ll be damned if my future daughter feels ugly because of her skin color or hair texture. It starts with the children, we must uplift them and continually express that they are beautiful regardless of society’s standard of beauty.
In a time where colourism is at an all time high cyclical cycle, I have a great appreciation for campaigns such as Unfairandlovely and Dark Is Beautiful. These campaigns shed light on the fact that having dark skin is beautiful. They allow women of dark skin tones to finally be heard and scene within the media since there is a huge under-representation of them. Brands such as Curlbox, Shea Moisture, Dark and Lovely and Carol’s Daughter all shed light, portray and make beauty products for different skin tones and hair textures for all women of color. These images young and mature women to see women that look and represent them in a positive way in the media. It’s all about women empowering other women and defying society’s standards of beauty so effortlessly.
And this is exactly why My Melanin Rocks exists. We are here to uplift each and every woman. Shed light on important topics, such as this and let your voices be heard through our work. I love every single one of my sisters worldwide. You all better slay and let your Melanin Rock!