Many attribute the origins of colorism to the recent histories of African chattel slavery and colonialism. Let’s look it at it first from the American context. The first enslaved Africans arrived in British North America exactly 400 years ago.
To be Black in America meant that you were enslaved and if you were born Black in America you would be born a slave. But if you were white in America you could possibly get to own a Black person. It was very clear who was at the top and bottom of this racial hierarchy.
Most women of color have felt these feelings and that is because we know what some are unaware of or choose to deny – colorism. Colorism, a term widely held to be coined by Alice Walker in 1982, is defined by Merriam-Webster as “prejudice or discrimination especially within a racial or ethnic group favoring people with lighter skin over those with darker skin.”
It’s that uncomfortable feeling we get when we’re watching a film where a character, quick clearly, has two dark-skin Black parents and yet the character, their child, is being played by Zendaya, Yara Shahidi or Amandla Stenberg. It’s that unwavering feeling we get that, whilst lamenting the racism that Meghan Markle has had to endure, we know that it would be much worse if a dark-skin, 4c-haired woman with more Afrocentric features had married into the royal family. And it’s that uneasy feeling we get when Kanye West declares that he only wants “multiracial” women in his Yeezy Season 4 Fashion show, which we instinctively know just means light-skin Black women.
As Black people were viewed as property it was an unfortunate reality that Black women would often be raped by their white masters. Because of this, enslaved Black women would often give birth to lighter-skin babies, born as slaves, who would have the “privilege” of being able to do the nicer domestic “housework” rather than working in the fields like the dark-skin slaves.
The closer your proximity to whiteness the better your life would be, and whilst the system of enslavement formally ended, colorism still continued. History has consequences and hierarchies of racialization can evolve as we evolve and manifest in different ways. After slavery ended this informalised caste system, with white people at the top, light-skin people in the middle, and dark-skin people at the bottom continued into the 19th and 20th centuries with things like the “brown paper bag test,” where if you were darker than the bag you could be excluded from jobs and activities. Nowadays, people point to representations of Blackness in the media as a continuation of colorism, as dark-skin women are not often shown in mainstream film and TV.
Similar histories of colorism can also be found in the Caribbean and in Africa colorism is seen as a consequence of colonialism. Whilst not all African countries were not like South Africa, where whites instituted a formalized color hierarchy, it was clear across the continent that the colonized were deemed as inferior to the colonizers. After all, white people never really settled in Nigeria but yet Nigeria is one of the main countries in Africa where dark-skin women bleach their skin to appear lighter.
In Asia, colorism significantly predates European contact, as paler skin has often been associated with the wealthy and thus “higher” classes who would not have to go outside and work, but European contact undoubtedly exacerbated these issues.
And here in Britain, people of color, predominantly the descendants of Caribbeans, Africans and Asians, feel the effects of colorism too. The hierarchies that our ancestors were introduced to and subsequently reproduced continue to be reproduced by us, with some dark-skin Black British men asserting that they only want to date “lightys” so that their children will have lighter skin too.
Globally, colorism is particularly relevant in the fashion and beauty world as the global standard of beauty is still seen to be a thin white women. Thus colorism affects dark-skin women the most in this industry, as they continue to promote the ideal that the closer to whiteness you are the more attractive you are, with 76% of fashion advertising in spring 2016 featuring white women despite most women on the planet being non-white
With the fashion and beauty industry not really seeing them as a target market, it can often be hard for dark-skin women to find their footing within the non-inclusive industry, and find products which will truly work for them. It seems that only when women of color are in the room that dark-skin women are truly put on the agenda, like Rihanna most famously did when she included a wide range of dark-skin shades in her Fenty Beauty line.
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Without us being part of the discussion we get left out of the discussion, but it shouldn’t be up to rich celebrities to start up $570 million companies to get things going. To fight colorism the industry needs to start including dark-women in the conversation, diversifying their boardrooms and product launches- after all, when dark-skin shades are included in foundation launches they. sell. fast.
But on a global level colorism can only be defeated by all of us recognizing colorism for what it is, as part of a long-lasting system of white supremacy, recognizing our places within that system and work to counteract that system with our actions. On a day-to-day basis this could be done by very simple things, like if you go to compliment someone, don’t tell someone they look beautiful “for a dark-skin girl” but just that they are beautiful.
Or even just lifting the voices of dark-skin women on social media, like that of Kheris Rogers, a 10 year-old Black girl, who created an uplifting t-shirt line called ‘Flexin in my complexion’ or Simrah Farrukh, a South Asian American, who created a photo campaign called “The Underrepresented” dedicated to dark-skin women. As dark-skin queen Lupita Nyong’o once said, “What is fundamentally beautiful is compassion for yourself and for those around you.”