Colourism in BIPOC Communities

Posted on 7th August 2020

We live in a country that is systemic in its racism, which is evident in the differential treatment of POC from white counterparts within institutes and  stereotypes portrayed in the media. Racism is a common discussion point when examining the social ills of our society. But, what about the colourism: the ‘daughter of racism’ as Lupita Nyong'o puts it? Colourism refers to the preferential treatment of lighter-skinned individuals compared with their darker-skinned counterparts. We are living in a society that is fuelled with colourism. It is, therefore, important that we acknowledge such intra-racial discrimination that is prevalent in our communities and look at ways to dismantling it. 


Colourism is a seed that was planted into full fruition by white supremacy. During colonialism and slavery, the notion of ‘whiteness’ was seen as a form of power and privilege, whilst POC was ‘othered’ due to their difference in skin colour. We know that this discourse was highly influential when studying colonial representations of POC at the time. Commodity Racism was a common feature in which British adverts were often racialised. For example, ‘Pears Soap’ was advertised on the premise that it could ‘brighten the dark corners of the earth’ whilst showing how a black baby’s skin colour was able to transform to a white shade. Hence reinforcing the stereotype that black skin was seen as undesirable, while White was inherently superior and pure. Such ideas were also prevalent in slavery, where the slave-master would use one’s skin tone to determine their hierarchal position on the plantation. Due to such forms of classification, lighter-skinned slaves were seen as more intelligent and therefore suited for indoor work. Whilst, those who were darker-skinned were seen as inferior and suited for more menial tasks such as fieldwork. Hence, showing that idea that the whiter you appear the more privileges you can attain. 


We must examine the colonial era, since such prejudicial acts have had a significant impact on perpetuating the colourism that we see today. For example, the media is still influential when it paints the idea that being dark is a symbol of undesirability. This was pointed out by the singer Alexandra Burke who had won X-factor. Being dark-skin she had to face many racist microaggression and was even told by her record company that she would be more appealing if she bleached her skin. Consequently, we have successive generations of POC that have been affected by the impact of colonialism and may have wrongly socialised their children to believe that being ‘fair’ is more attractive. 


These beliefs hold premise in regions such as South Asia. Many people are brought up believing that if you’re lighter, you are somehow superior. Such ideas are so ingrained in countries like India where there is a caste system that is highly tied to one’s skin colour. Those in a higher caste or the top of a power structure would often be lighter in colour. If you are lighter in complexion it is more likely that you will be more likely to attain better life chances, from the job market to finding marriage. Growing up surrounded by these colourist systems would have a detrimental effect on one’s wellbeing, especially if darker  skinned as you would be made to feel that you are unappealing. This has, in turn, led many people to alter their skin colour to fit into societal norms of beauty. The manufacturing of skin lightening products, their marketing and consumption have become such a global enterprise. In many ethnic nations, the concept of being ‘fair’ has become so normalised through advertising bleaching creams for your skin despite the severe health risks that come with it. For example, skin lightening soaps and creams are commonly used in countries such as Nigeria, where it was found that 77% of women regularly bleach their skin. It is therefore possible that a significant proportion of these women may experience psychological issues due to feeling uncomfortable with their blackness. Many may view their blackness as a “mark of oppression” and hence go to lengths to lighten their darker skin with bleaching creams to become more appealing to society and themselves. 


Having stated this, there have been significant progressions with regards to how people of a darker complexion are viewed. Media and entertainment have become more diverse in how they portray people of various shades. For example, in the film, Black Panther (2018) Lupita Nyong'o and Letitia Wright, was praised for representing darker-skinned women in film. This film was very monumental as black people were being shown in a heroic, powerful light and were very inspirational for people like me who have been fuelled with images of dark-skinned people always being depicted in an angry, unworthy or in a demining way. 


Despite gradual improvements, there is still work that needs to be done when it comes to socialising future generations. It was clinically found that dark-skinned African American women tend to have problems with self-worth and confidence. How does it impact children? I am sure many children with darker skin are growing up believing that their skin colour is less than those who are much lighter. The divisions between light and dark-skinned people that were found in the context of slavery and colonialism mirrored my schooling. During secondary school, jokes were constantly made towards my dark-skinned peers who were called awful names such as ‘blick’ or ‘af’ and jokes were made when the room was dark and you were not able to be seen. The idea of being lighter or ‘mixed’ with various nationalities was always more captivating to many people, and this in turn wrongly justified the abuse that dark-skinned people would receive.


Growing up in such an atmosphere would greatly affect someone’s self-concept and may explain why people go to length to bleach their skin. For example, they may lack confidence in themselves and feel that their skin colour is seen as a burden. Our children must be socialised to be proud of their heritage and know that their colour should be a symbol of pride and worth. It is now 2020, POC must be no longer bound by the destructive effects of colonialism and slavery. We should not be divided, and should take steps in viewing every individual as worthy beautiful human beings irrespective of ones complexion.

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