When I think of colorism I think of my freshman year of high school. “Wow, you got tan.” “You used to be light-skinned.” “Why are you so dark?” I found myself looking in the mirror to see if the color was starting to fade yet, comparing the darkness of my arm to the lightness of my friend’s, avoiding the sun at the beach by hiding under umbrellas, with the constant fear of getting too dark and never being considered light-skinned again. I regarded a measly summer tan as some sort of imprisonment within my own skin, afraid of being stuck with a complexion that crossed the strict border between what society deems acceptable and unacceptable, beautiful and ugly. Colorism to me goes beyond the act of bleaching one’s skin, beyond light-skinned girls flaunting their fairness, beyond individual insecurities. Colorism burns and it burns deep. It singes, flakes, and peels away at us all as we try to find a place for ourselves within society’s strict walls. Colorism is not picky. It affects me, it may affect you, it affects popular celebrities, and it can fracture and strain entire communities of color.
Colorism is a subcategory of racism and is subsequently discussed far less in public spaces, but is ever more present and influential in the way we women of color choose to live and present ourselves to others. Colorism is defined as “the system of privilege and discrimination based on the degree of lightness in the color of a person’s skin…[it’s an] internalized form of racism which involves prejudice, stereotyping, and perceptions of beauty among members of the same racial group, whereby light skin is more highly valued than dark skin.” This conditioned hate for darker pigmentation is both intraracial and interracial. In the same way in which we have internalized centuries of a racial hierarchy based on white supremacy, people of color have stratified ourselves based on pigmentation.
People wonder how an already marginalized group can divide themselves and perpetuate racial contempt and oppression against their own people when they know how crippling discrimination and disadvantages based on race, class, gender, skin color, or even hair texture are. We live in a world where racial groups boost their own self-esteem at the expense of that of others. Where does the pattern end?
Toni Morrison’s latest novel God Help the Child explores the psychology behind colorism: “how else can we hold on to a little dignity? How else can you avoid being spit on in a drugstore, shoving elbows at the bus stop, walking in the gutter to let whites have the whole sidewalk…” It is easy for us to pass judgement on people who feel justified in their hate for dark skin and privilege for light skin, excluding ourselves from that group. Blaming individuals for this ideology excuses our participation and hides just how prevalent it is. Just think: if you were darker, would you like yourself the same? If you were lighter, would you like yourself better? Do you actively avoid tanning? Do you engage in skin bleaching? Use skin-lightening creams? Use foundation lighter than your natural complexion? We’re all implicated in some way or another of validating colorist standards.
Colorism in the U.S. originates back hundreds of years to the age of slavery. The various shades of African American skin stem from the mix of genes resulting from white slave masters’ rapes of black slaves. Their mixed-race children were still considered slaves based on the one drop rule, yet they were granted more privileges than their dark-skinned kin. Light-skinned slaves were characterized as smarter and more capable, were often given some form of educational training, and worked less harsh jobs inside the house while dark-skinned slaves worked outside in the fields. This separation of families was an insidious means of dividing community, erasing their collective identities, and inhibiting communication amongst slave groups in order to prevent rebellion or escape.
However, the abolition of slavery did not put an end to race hierarchies or pigmentocracy. Institutional and societal racial inequality persisted through the Jim Crow era, when passing as white was a light-skinned black person’s only chance at higher education, equal pay, financial stability, and safety. Many aristocratic light-skinned black people would perform paper bags tests in order to decide whether another member of the black community could associate with them, enforcing a color-based class system. Light-skinned blacks, for their relative proximity to whiteness, are given more jobs and paid more, so they more often fall into the middle to upper social class. With class difference comes a superiority complex. The privileged feel that associating with those who are not so could tarnish their reputation or strip their privileges. Dark-skinned blacks have been forced to protect themselves from hatred, ostracism, and discrimination from without and within.
Colorism continues in the workplace today. A Virginia University study found that light-skinned African Americans receive preferential treatment in employment, ranging from the opportunity to secure a job to how much they are paid to do the same job as someone who is dark-skinned. The average hourly wage for dark-skinned blacks is $11.72, or about $468.80 for a week of full-time work. Blacks with a medium skin tone make an average of $13.23 an hour, or $529.20 per week. Light-skinned blacks make on average $14.72 an hour, or $588.80 a week. White people average $15.94 an hour, or $637.60 a week. The closer someone is to a white complexion, the more money they make on average. This reveals a system that privileges light-skinned blacks for being light-skinned in a way that mimics white privilege. This form of discrimination is also present in mainstream media, popular beauty standards, housing, and education.
Whether light-skinned blacks begin to believe that they are better than dark-skinned blacks or dark-skinned blacks begin to resent light-skinned blacks for their relative privilege, the ideology of colorism has been internalized. A graduate student at Wright State University conducted a study on the psycho-social impact of colorism among African American women and found that “populations of dark-skinned African American women tend to have problems with self-worth and confidence. Black women expect to be judged on their skin tone… [the] higher internalization of the external standards of beauty causes women to be more critical of their bodies overall (i.e. hips, lips, and thighs).” African Americans of a darker skin tone are pushed to dislike their self-image because society has told them that something is wrong with the way they look, that they are unattractive. This internalized hatred compounds the inferiority complex conditioned into the black community, and is perpetuated as black women bring little black girls into a world that is hell bent on hating them for what they cannot change. How do we women of color teach our daughters to love their skin and take pride in being black when we struggle to feel the same wholeheartedly?
Essence magazine released a video on colorism, suggesting that open and honest discussion is one way to actively combat the internalization and subsequent stratification in the black community, and encouraging people to feel comfortable enough to divulge that they may be self-loathing regarding looks and skin color. Your internal hatred for how you look is what causes you to hate the dark-skinned woman sitting beside you because her appearance reminds you of yourself. A big problem in the black community is that we cannot identify with one another enough to see that we are battling with the same issues, to come together on those issues, and to discuss them openly and honestly in a way that can help us to feel supported and not feel so alone every time we have to face ourselves in the mirror. We need to start a discussion about the psychological effects of colorism in individuals and in communities and stop bottling up or tip toeing around colorism the way we do racism. We need to stop pretending we are colorblind, that colorism does not affect us, or that the effects are not that bad. Colorism affects light or white-skinned people and black skinned people. It just affects us in different ways; while one group derives relative privilege from it, the other group is doubly disadvantaged. But overall, it hurts us as a community—no one is above colorism or exempt from it.
European colonization and the slave trade introduced and spread the idea of white supremacy through economic and cultural imperialism throughout the world. We are not alone. Colorism damages the self-esteem of women in Asian, Indian, and Latin American communities just as much as it does in the African American community. Legal scholar Trina Jones describes a point of view in Vietnam that “dark skin marked one as a laborer, as a person who toiled in the fields as opposed to one who lived a more sheltered and privileged existence indoors.” A documentary explores how the expectation for Indian women to be fair skinned can be so pervasive that many are willing to undergo constant skin bleaching. One woman says bleaching feels like it is “burning [her] eyes and nose off, but anything to become fairer right?” Dark-skinned Indian women have had their weddings cancelled, are told by relatives that they should lighten their skin in order to be considered an eligible wife, and light-skinned women assume dark-skinned women are poor and that they will never be married. If these shared experiences shouldn’t bring people of color around the world together to have an open discussion about the effects of colorism then I don’t know what should. Open up the lines of discussion.
We still grapple with the effects of racism and see institutionalized racism today and we will still grapple with and see the effects of colorism in years to come. Change takes time and patience and a collective group of people to get it started. We do not have to begin as the majority—sometimes the minority opinion gets the ball rolling. It is important that we get educated on the issue of colorism, share that knowledge, and get people talking. We can change the narrative and in turn, one day change American culture. Colorism is a creation of the colonizer, and dissecting and dismantling it is an important decolonization process that will strengthen our communities as a part of a collective fight against white supremacy. Start talking.
Feature image: Firelei Báez, Do I Pass or Introducing the Fan to the Paper Bag, 2009, guache, watercolor, ink and graphite on paper (from ArtSlant).
Melissa Rodriguez studies English at the University of Connecticut.