The term colourism was coined by activist and Pulitzer prize winner Alice Walker. She described it as the prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their colour.
Often when colourism gets brought up, black people will respond by embodying white fragility. This can sound like, "But we're all black", or "You're just jealous". We are all black, but within all groups, there will be groups within there that have an intersectionality which puts them at more risk. Unfortunately, amongst the black community one such group is dark skinned women. When attention is drawn to this, it isn't saying that light-skinned people don't matter, just that dark skinned people need raising within the group. In the same way that BLM doesn't say other lives don't matter, just that black people need attention, because black people need raising. To add to this, dark skinned people have nothing to be jealous of. The media perpetuates the idea that light skinned is better, because it is more Eurocentric. That is a pressure that dark-skinned people shouldn't have to deal with. Supporting this media influence just reinforces colourism.
Where do you see colourism?
Colourism is everywhere, and it is something that black girls are aware of from a very young age. Actress Lupita Nyong’o has said that she used to pray to God to wake up lighter skinned. Colourism is prevalent in communities, and is then reflected in the media. The media feeds it back to communities, allowing for a cycle of colourism that is prevalent in everyday life.
When we see high profile black celebrities, they are people like Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Beyonce or Solange. While British female artists consist of Jorja Smith, Mabel and Mahalia. These women are incredible successes, but would it have been even harder for them if they had darker skin? Well, yes. As can be seen in girl groups. Beyonce’s father Matthew Knowles has said of the success of individual members of Destiny’s Child, “I think [being dark-skinned] would’ve affected [Beyonce’s success]. And I use Kelly Rowland as an example of this. She’s a great example [of colourism]”. Kelly Rowland didn’t get anywhere near the same level of success and acclaim that Beyonce did - although less true in Australia. This is because in the music industry, there is a certain image of what beauty looks like. Out of 68 female solo artists who've been in the British Top 40 chart since 2017, 17 are of black heritage - and the vast majority of those are lighter-skinned. It is damaging. British artist Lioness has said she stopped music for seven years, because music scouts constantly told her she would be better if she was lighter.
Colourism goes further than the music industry too. It is also very prevalent in Hollywood, which has a massive problem with recasting erasure. Such as replacing the old Aunt Viv in ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ with a lighter skinned actress. Or how about the film ‘Nina’, in which Cynthia Mort cast Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone, despite her complexion being lighter than Simone’s was - and giving her a prosthetic wider nose and darker skin. Why did Mort overlook a darker skinned actress? - it’s not like there aren’t any: Viola Davies, Danielle Brooks and Birgundi Baker to name a few.
In the UK, we are constantly seeing American media, which affects the colourism of our society, as well as seeing our own media that doesn’t have enough darker skinned women. In 2017, the top 20 best selling films in the UK had black actresses such as Zoe Saldana, Nathalie Emmanuel, Tessa Thompson, Elise Neal and Halle Berry - all of whom are lighter skinned. To add to that, there’s also reality TV. On Love Island, there has only ever been one black winner - Amber Gill in 2019 - and she was mixed race. There is an obvious problem in that there will often be one token dark skinned woman amongst a sea of white women, who struggles to find a partner. Perhaps one or two mixed race women, who tend to do easier than dark skinned women, but struggle more than white women. There’s hardly ever any South or East Asian women. And when they have that classic discussion of, “So, like, what’s your type?”, the men will invariably say something along the lines of, ‘blonde hair and blue eyes’ - again the classic Eurocentric preference.
Having light skinned women in mainstream obviously wouldn’t be such a colourist issue if there were more dark skinned women. The successes of figures like Rihanna and Beyonce should be celebrated as amazing black and mixed race women who have done well for themselves, but we can’t fully congratulate this as a success until all shades of black are adequately represented. Black isn’t monolithic. You see all kinds of white women in the media: from brunettes to red heads; white women with blue eyes or green; petite white women and tall; pale white women and those that turn themselves orange. But when it comes to black women, there’s so often only one image that we see. Only one way to be black and have it be beautiful. When the opposite is the truth.
What about dark skinned men?
You might be thinking: but what about dark skinned figures like Dave and Stormzy? Well, dark skinned men are affected by colourism differently to dark skinned women. Historically, dark skin has been linked to masculinity. So while colourism reaffirms men’s masculinity, it denies women their femininity. A lot of this is perpetuated through men in the media. In music lyrics like those of Kanye, Kendrick, 50Cent and Jay Z, light skinned and white women are seen as exotic and the ultimate desire, because they are accessible through money and success. Part of this is from white indoctrination. For centuries, black men who showed even the slightest interest in white women would be brutally punished or arrested. So now affirmation with whiteness is seen as a sign of progress. When it comes to light skinned women, there is the idea of self worth, like Jay Z’s line, “I’m a hustler now…And all the wavy light skinned girls is loving me now, My self esteem went through the roof, man I got my swag”. When men do publicly disrespect or even humiliate dark skinned women in the media, they aren’t called out. Black men are able to selfishly invest in their own images by aligning themselves with whiteness and lightness.
That doesn’t mean that men aren’t impacted negatively by colourism. There is a whole topic to be covered here about how this alignment with whiteness plays into mental health and self esteem. Dark skinned men are also impacted in other areas. A report by Harvard sociologist Elis Monk’s 2014 study, showed that skin tone significantly impacts the likelihood of going to prison in America. For black people with very light skin, this is 40%, while for very dark skin the statistic jumps to 65%. In a University of Georgia study, potential employers preferred light-skinned black men over dark skinned black men - regardless of credentials. And studies into Skin Tone Memory Bias show that educated black men are remembered as lighter than they are; and black and hispanic people were seen as more intelligent by white employers when light skinned. (These issues also affect women). Again, this plays a huge role in the impact on men’s mental health.
Where does colourism come from?
Yep, you guessed it - colonisation! Throughout history, there has been the idea that anything that appeared closer to whiteness was better. During the Transatlantic Slave Trade, slave owners would pick lighter skinned slaves to work indoors, while darker skinned slaves would be subject to hard labour. This trope can be seen in a number of modern TV series, such as BBC1’s ‘The Long Song’, or Netflix’s ‘Self Made’. Even before Europe colonised the continents of Asia and Africa, it has been suggested that aristocrats tended to be lighter skinned, while darker skinned people laboured outdoors. All in all though, the concept of race was constructed by white people for the purpose of power, so darker skin has always been pushed further away. Even today, people still attempt to use creams which lighten skin in order to seem more appealing. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has said, “We raise girls to see each other as competitors, not for jobs or for accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men”. Colourism has played into this massively throughout history. Black women have tried to achieve lightness, not just due to the social norms of colour, but also because of the way girls are raised.
Why do black people get defensive about colourism?
This is in no way defending colourists, but explaining how the reasons behind colourism from black people, are different for the reasons behind racism from white people. On many social media accounts which try to educate dark skinned women, the creators are often accused of ‘dividing the black community’. But this is about listening to each other.
As has been covered, there is media perpetuation, and the weaponisation of colourism by men as reasons for general ignorance.
As well as this, for a lot of light skinned people, any time the black community is talked about in different groups, it is usually to say that mixed race people aren't black - so from that perspective, that is where the mind jumps first. But that is not what fighting colourism is saying. We have to be able to get past our own internal self defences, without it harming our dark skinned brothers and sisters. When mixed race people speak up about the difficulty of racial identity, dark skinned people don’t jump into our spaces and talk about their issues, so we shouldn’t do the same when it comes to colourism. In the same way that reverse racism isn’t a thing, reverse colourism isn’t either.
The privilege that being light skinned gives, tends to be unwanted. It is given by colonialism and systemic racists. We don't wield power over white people. So there is this feeling of survival guilt - feeling guilty for having more success, or having survived, at the expense of others. Light skinned privilege is given, not taken. It is a hand out, not purchased. Light skinned people get put on a pedestal. Good enough to be used by the rich white gate guarders of media corporations, but still not good enough to match up completely to whiteness. We are still oppressed by the white system. That being said, being light skinned doesn't worsen our condition. We have to learn to accept that we have this privilege, and to use it where we can, in spite of the pain it causes, so we can all get raised.