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Roots of colourism

Credit: Unsplash / rawpixel

Tara Gandhi
Investigations Editor

Tara Gandhi explores the history of colourism and its lasting impact across cultures

Every few years, the topic of colourism crops up in the media and becomes an issue that is debated again and again. There was Kanye West’s 2016 casting call for “multiracial women only”, the infamous whitewashing of Beyoncé in her 2008 L’Oreal campaign, and more recently the controversy after old tweets from Radio 1 DJ Maya Jama resurfaced in which she mocked dark skinned women. But the issue cannot be restrained to being an interesting conversation piece every now and then when its impacts span so widely across the globe.

Colourism is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as: “Prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group.” It is a form of discrimination that exists within already marginalised groups, and has been overlooked for decades. Nowadays, we see its effects in Western popular culture through the pattern of predominantly favouring light skinned people of colour over dark skinned, for roles in film, TV and on the catwalk. However, colourism has been around for much longer and is deeply ingrained in the psyche of almost every non-white society globally. It is an issue that stems from both the community of people of colour, and from outside, however it is often implemented without realising. I am sure that the majority of people complicit in encouraging this issue don’t realise the prejudice that they are playing into, or the lasting impacts on people of colour that it can have.

Colourism cannot be tackled without first understanding the role it plays within the wider issue of internalised and institutionalised racism. To blame it entirely on the groups which it effects would be naïve, as the cause and effect of colourism expands well beyond culture and into the institutions that we rely on as a society. A US study of 12,000 African Americans showed that lighter skinned black women receive shorter prison sentences than their darker skinned peers and that light or white-presenting Latinos make $5,000 more on average than those who are darker. Colourism can therefore have concrete and harmful effects on darker skinned people of colour, inflicted by institutional prejudices.

While each culture faces its own unique issues with colourism, the issue can often be boiled down to two concerns – beauty ideals, the side of colourism that pervades today, and classism. In many Afro-Caribbean societies, especially for those living in America and Europe, colourism can be linked back to the slave trade. Here a class-like distinction can be seen to arise: lighter skinned enslaved people would be put to work in the household due to the slave traders belief that they would be better suited for lighter labour and more intelligent tasks, while dark skin meant they were better suited for hard, outdoor labour. Within Asia, many of the pre-colonial rulers had lighter skin, and dark skin began to be associated with the peasants who worked the land. The same thoughts can be seen within English history, as up until the industrial revolution, pale skin was seen as a mark of high status and class – only the poor who worked in the fields daily would allow themselves to tan.

Women of colour will jump through hoops to prevent themselves from getting any darker, and we need to start asking some serious questions about why we let this happen. We are told to try and avoid tanning, we buy foundation two shades lighter than our face, and some women take even more drastic chemical measures in an attempt to become a coveted lighter shade of skin. This is not a modern issue either – in a traditional Indian wedding there will be a “Haldi” ceremony the day before the wedding, where a turmeric paste is applied to the bride’s skin to make her skin appear lighter for the wedding day. Skin lightening cream, especially Unilever’s Fair and Lovely, dominates the cosmetics and skincare industries in South Asia and Africa, with the World Health Organisation estimating that around 77% of Nigerian women use skin lightening creams.

These are issues that are so prevalent and ingrained into society that many women do not even register the extent that they are socialised into believing the Eurocentric standard of beauty is the only standard of beauty. If you asked a random group of people what features they find attractive, it is likely you will be given answers such as “long silky hair”, “a small delicate nose”, “big round eyes” and “rosebud lips”. But when you truly begin to examine these ideals you notice the way non-European faces are cut out of the modern idea of beauty. Many of the most conventionally attractive features are impossible for women of colour to achieve naturally, and when the idea of beauty is constantly presented as something that is out of your reach, it is understandable that so many women find themselves turning to unconventional methods of altering their appearance in an attempt to be considered beautiful.

Nor is this issue restricted to one race or ethnicity. When one type of body is held up as the best and most desirable, everyone else does what they can to reach that ideal. While the desire for lighter skin is often the factor that spans globally, Latinas and South Asians undertake long and constant attempts at hair removal, black women hide their natural hair under longer, sleeker hairpieces and many Asian women spend huge amounts of money in an attempt to achieve the “double eyelid” that they are told is the most attractive way to look.

In some areas, however, things are changing. Fenty Beauty, Rihanna’s makeup line, has some of the darkest shades in the beauty industry, allowing dark skinned women access to an entire industry that has cut them out for years. And within the media, recent pushes for increased diversity have had huge impacts on the variety of people of colour we see on our screens, from Mindy Kaling, a dark skinned Indian being one of the only South Asians leading their own TV show in America, to Lupita Nyong’o being the ninth black women and one of few dark skinned women to land a Vogue cover. Within Hollywood, the positive reception of actors such as Viola Davis and Daniel Kaluuya present the stories that we may not have heard from their lighter skinned counterparts. The film Black Panther presented a huge variety of African actors, of a number of shades of skin tone, and tackled eurocentric ideals head on with the dark skinned Lupita Nyong’o playing the love interest.

But these changes within film and TV are not enough, and there needs to be an overhaul in the way beauty is perceived altogether. One may hope that through this increased representation within the media, the prejudices and stigmas faced by darker skinned people of colour will be slowly chipped away. But in the meantime we need to ensure that as a society we make active moves to stop colourism, and all its consequences, before it divides communities that ought to be looking out for each other.


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