If you’re a Colourist you’re no better than a Racist.
Despite the controversy of the snappy title, what is meant is that you should be neither and it could be partly argued that it’s hypocritical to be anti-racist but remain colourist. What is this term colourism? It was born out of racism and intertwined with misogynoir, as a way to discriminate within an already marginalised community. Deeply rooted in white beauty standards, colourism is a “harsh prejudice on the base of skin colour against the dark skin tone people by the fair colour people. It causes fraction, break in mutual understanding and the wider gap among the people living even under the same roof” (Dayal, 2018: preface).
Recollections of the paper bag test are all too sadly common, with modern iterations on social media such as ‘team light skin’. It is unfortunate that colourism is still seen to continue, and even the briefest sweeps of media will reveal how light skin is valued over dark skin. A clear example of this was the casting of Zoe Saldana for Nina Simone by choosing an ethnically ambiguous woman, and putting her in blackface, to play an unambiguous black woman who fought against colourism. This was a clear symbol of media disrespect of dark skin black women.
Colourism, just like racism, permeates all facets of society. It “affects courtship, marriage, incarceration, housing, income, education and mental health” (Witt, 2018:1). The insidious nature of colourism is very present in mainstream hip hop, “While … not solely responsible for perpetuating these stereotypes, it currently has one of the most significant roles in doing so. Hip hop spreads its colourist message around the globe, and it’s heavily marketed to highly impressionable youth, which leads me to the issue of low self-esteem in girls” (Webb, 2013).
This becomes very apparent with numerous instances of black rappers being colourist, which not only reveals an internalisation of self hatred, but perpetuates colourism and the thought that dark skin women are inferior to light skin/white women regarding dating and so idealised by men. An example of this would be rapper Kodak Black proclaiming his preference for light skin women by degrading dark skin women, referring to them as “too gutter” (Witt, 2018:1). This is not an isolated incident and is an insight into how entrenched colourism is when black women, in particular dark skin, are being analysed alongside a white beauty standard that was constructed to uphold white supremacy.
Colourism is not exclusive towards the black community. As a result of colonialism, colourism has been transported across the globe, with the result that skin bleaching is a worldwide epidemic. Research has shown how colourism also exists across Asia with Joanne Rondilla and Paul Spickard’s investigations of skin-tone discrimination among Asian Americans that reveals “the importance of skin color as an indicator of class…in Asia, observing that long- standing preferences for light skin, especially in women, exist in all Asian countries. They note that in “almost every country in Asia, the celebrity class, and especially movie stars, are noticeably lighter and taller, with more angular features, than the general population” (Jones, 2013:1115). This shows how the media and society promote and place more value on people of colour with lighter skin and Eurocentric features because of their proximity to whiteness. From personal experience while in Korea and Vietnam, I witnessed how a significant number of women were completely covered up, for example wearing gloves in the heat.
On first thought I assumed it was something to do with modesty, however when my sister, who worked in Korea as an assistant head teacher and experienced a number of racist encounters, retold how a shop owner referred to her complexion as dirty, coupled with skin bleaching products being openly sold as if they were a natural part of skincare. It dawned on me that the women where covering up because they did want their skin to tan. Now everyone deserves autonomy over their own body, however it is sad to think that some beauty practices are a result of white supremacy telling us that our own complexion and race are inferior.
To comprehend how colourism has become so pervasive you have to take a look back through history. Just as colourism is a by-product of racism, classism is deeply entrenched in colourism. Historically, dark skin represented lower class labourers who toiled in the fields out in the sun, compared to the white upper class, and their light skin offspring who were unfortunately in many a product of rape, who lived privileged lives indoors.
Unfortunately skin bleaching, as a way to uphold colourism and buy into white supremacist beauty standards, looks like it is not going anywhere, with research revealing how In 2017, the global skin-lightening industry was worth $4.8bn (£3.4bn), and it is projected to grow to $8.9bn by 2027”(ibid).
Globally, women of colour are made to feel the only way they will be perceived as beautiful is to align them with whiteness. What can be done? A complete overhaul of our racist society is a good start. We can also be reflective, when we rightly call for racial justice, to make sure we include everyone. In one statement you say Black Lives Matter but in the next you claim your dating preferences are exclusively light skin. Do not take this as you being told who you can and cannot date, although you should not be elevating one group of people by degrading another, but it resembles racism doesn’t it? Hence the title – do not be hypocritical.
Written By Maya Bednall-Greaves