Colourism refers to the 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.
According to Cedric Herring "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.”
Colourism, is a form of discrimination that is ever so present in our society yet is hardly spoken about. It’s like a chameleon on a tree branch. On conducting research to write this article, I realised that most people didn’t know what colourism was. However, as I took time to explain, it turned out they did know what it was, just never put a name to it. Colourism is a global phenomenon. It exists in every continent from Europe to Asia to Africa, you name it.
Colourism doesn’t end at the shade of skin color alone. It also boils down to hair texture. In the natural hair community, majority of the hair that is being promoted is usually hair that is curly and wavy, and soft leaving out hair that is thick and kinky and hard. It’s disheartening that even in a community that is supposed to make one feel proud of being black, there exists a sort of hierarchy system.
Allow me to take you back in history. During slave times in America, biracial people, who were then products of rape by the colonial masters, were allowed to live in the house and do house chores, while the darker skinned slaves were made to pick cotton all day. Of course this created some sense of animosity among slaves. Decades later, in some parts of America, black people were made to take a "paper bag test". That is, if their skin was lighter than the bag, they were allowed into certain exclusive sororities and fraternities. But if not, they were denied access. There was also the "pencil test” to see how well a pencil could run through your hair. If one had thick kinky hair, then they obviously failed the test. It seemed the closer you were to being white, the higher your chances of enjoying certain privileges.
In India for instance, majority of the population purchase skin lightening creams. Actors and actresses are usually chosen based on the lightness of their skin, and dark skin is generally unwanted. It is reported that people generally desire to have marriage partners with very fair skin. I grew up watching a lot of Bollywood movies and wasn’t aware that there were dark skinned Indians till I was in my early teens, hence buttressing my point. Darker skinned people are usually associated with poverty, as they have lesser privileges and opportunities.
Now let me bring this down to Nigeria, my home country, where according to CNN reports, 77% of the population purchase skin lightening creams. To say colourism is a mental issue would be understating the fact. You see, when the colonial masters finally decided to leave our country, a country they took the liberty of naming for us, they left a few things behind, including colourism. Colourism is one of the psychological effects of colonialism on us. The belief that our dark skins are ugly and the desire to look as fair as the queen has been etched so deep into our minds, and passed successfully from one generation to the next. Now, several decades in the postcolonial era, colourism still thrives amongst us. As people longed for fairer skin, a demand was created and bleaching creams, in turn were supplied. It breaks my heart to see while moving through Lagos city, amidst the vibrancy and energy, billboards advertising creams promising to give you skin as fair as that of Snow White. Appropriately, models with very fair skins are always pictured next to the creams.
Talk about models, I watched a YouTube documentary on colourism in Nigeria –mind you that is the only documentary available (considering how largely spread colourism is in our nation, shouldn’t there be more documentaries?), In it, a young woman spoke about how she was turned down by a modelling agency, not because she was underqualified, but because of her dark skin. This happened in a country that consists predominantly of black people.
The media has also done a fantastic job in the negative portrayal of dark skin. Would this article even be complete if I don’t acknowledge them at least? Most magazines are notorious for making the skin of many celebrities several shades lighter than they actually are. Now, just take a step back and think about all the movies you’ve ever seen. Has it ever caught your attention that most of the criminals or villains were generally people with darker skin? How many lead actors have darker skins? If only you had any idea how these subtle messages have been passed to us successfully. Citing an example, a documentary was conducted with dolls-one white, one black placed in front of black kids and they were asked which they preferred, which doll was prettier. Majority of them chose the white doll. Isn’t it disturbing that at their young age, society had already succeeded in informing them that their skin colour was ugly and undesirable?
This documentary took me down memory lane as I remember losing an award that was rightfully mine because of my dark skin. Then, when my mum questioned this, I simply said "It’s because she’s fair." I was just six and I had already accepted the reality that with my skin colour, I would be less privileged.
In high schools, kids in order to “look cool” and fit into the status quo, are notorious for picking on each other. Colourism is the reason why as a dark-skinned child in Nigeria, you could get taunted and bullied, have other kids call you vile things, because of your skin colour. How unaware these kids are. But growing up in a society where they are taught to view darker skin as evil, dirty, lazy, stupid, etcetera could you really blame them for their naivety?
At the market with my mum one day, a lady said to me, that she liked my black skin, that my black was not ‘dirty black' She also said she had a friend with much darker skin than me and many people have advised her to stop moving around with this friend because of her dark skin. I feel like going back in time to slap myself for smiling and thinking this was a compliment, I feel like going back to slap the lady also for her ignorance and discrimination. Incase you didn’t know, saying to a person "You look pretty for a dark skinned person" isn’t a compliment. Telling a dark skinned person, with pride "I don’t usually date dark skinned people, but you’re the exception" isn’t a compliment either.
At the end of the day, what truly amazes me is to see people who liberally throw shade at people with darker skin tones, move on to call people out for bleaching, teasing them, saying their skin looks like roasted plantain etcetera. It’s like you refusing to eat eggs without pepper in it, but when eggs with pepper in it is put in front of you, you scrunch up your nose, and say you don’t like the way it looks.
Have you ever wondered why your favorite black artists usually end up with white or much fairer-skinned women? Reports have shown that black males generally prefer light-skinned partners as these women are considered more “attractive” and more “suitable” for child bearing, and they didn’t want dark skin in their gene pools. It rips my heart to find that majority of these males are also dark skinned. How can people hate themselves that much?
Of course, it would be nice to say that only people with darker skin colour have faced the brunt of colourism, but that’s not the case. Light skinned females are generally stereotyped to be arrogant, rude, and usually the object of envy among their peers, because of the certain undue privileges they receive. It is hard for them not to be envied --openly or secretly.
The health risk involved in toning/ bleaching of the skin is enough to make anyone run away from skin lightening/toning/bleaching creams like it’s a burning fire. In the actual sense, they burn the skin --slowly. These creams (toxic chemicals) are so harmful to our bodies as they have been known to cause burns, thinning of the skin, and even skin cancer. With the knowledge of these health implications, it still isn’t enough to deter people from purchasing them.
Although these days, it is amazing to see the likes of Lupita Nyong'o, Khoudia Diop --people with very dark skin, being promoted by the media. It is also encouraging to see make up and cosmetic brands finally creating products suitable for dark-skin. But the manner in which it is sometimes promoted is worrisome. Someone once raised important questions "Why is it that most dark skinned people usually have their skin excessively oiled in the pictures? Do they need oil on their skin before it can be considered beautiful?"
We definitely have a long way to go in eradicating Colourism. I think the first step to ending colourism is to raise awareness about it. The next step is to redefine our definition of beauty. Colourism exists in our society, but in order to eradicate it, one must begin with the self --the individual. There’s a lot of unlearning and learning that we, as a people need to do and colourism is on that long list. Let us realise that beauty does not have a colour and is in all shades and sizes. Let us unlearn the vile stereotypes associated with having darker skin tones.
Cedric Herring, Verna M. Keith and Hayward Derrick Horton, Skin Deep: How Race and Complexion Matter in the “Color-Blind” Era