Let’s Talk About Colorism

Given the events of the past year, we should all know what racism is and that it is, unfortunately, alive and well.

Today, I’m going to talk about a form of racism that happens to folx of color, often by folx of color. 

It’s called colorism. 

Colorism is prejudice towards darker skin; more specifically, it’s the idea that lighter skin tones are somehow superior to darker tones. With lighter skin comes more societal privilege.

Colorism is a problem because, in essence, it’s racism by a group of people who are already the target of racism. But, make no mistake, colorism can be implemented on folx of color by our non-melanated counterparts.

Meta, I know. 

Colorism is clearly self-destructive, but it’s nothing new.

Colorism was very prevalent during the Middle Passage spanning the 16th thru 19th centuries. Enslaved people with lighter skin tones, often the offspring of rape by white slave owners, tended to be given preferential treatment such as doing lighter domestic tasks, while their darker-skinned counterparts were often responsible for the back-breaking agricultural tasks. I’ve also read that slaves with lighter skin tones carried more value when being bought or sold.

Another example of colorism can be found in Apartheid South Africa. From reading Trevor Noah’s book, Born a Crime, I learned how Apartheid translates from the Afrikaans term, which means “apart-ness.” The policies of Apartheid lived up to the name, as it separated people into three categories: white, colored, and Black. Colorism was prevalent as whites were considered superior, followed by colored people, then Black South Africans at the bottom of the hierarchy. 

While these are just two examples of how colorism has existed throughout time, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that folx of color continue to grapple with it today. 

Story time!

I’ve written on a few occasions about how I’m the product of both African and Caucasian ancestry. I identify as Black but the environment surrounding my upbringing instilled the false notion that “lighter is better.”

One instance comes to mind in which I showed prejudice towards a colleague. It was a few years ago when I was working at an all-Black counseling agency. After a staff meeting one Monday, a few of the staff were standing around chatting about Black hair. I enjoyed the conversation, as we had every hair type represented on that staff: weaves, locs, fades, and relaxed. I was rocking what I called a fro-hawk at the time.

At one point in this discussion, a colleague had lamented about the difficulty in taming her curly afro. In an effort to be complimentary and encouraging, I said, “Your hair is great. You have really nice hair for a Black girl.”

I’m pretty sure I heard tires screech…

Seeing my “compliment” as short-sided, my coworkers graciously took the time to enlighten me on how colorism impacts self-esteem within communities of color. Had my comment been taken in the wrong context, it could have been very hurtful. While I meant no harm, my comment was in fact colorist. Why? Because I, a light-skinned Black man was commenting on a darker woman’s hair with undertones of the false narrative that Black hair is somehow inferior. By saying, “You have really nice hair for a Black girl,” I inadvertently endorsed the hierarchy that colorism places on folx of color.

I walked away from that conversation with a new awareness: all Black hair is good hair. 

Cicely Tyson (rest in power!) explained it well when she said,

“Whether you relax it or coil it, weave it or dread it, cover it with a wig, or or cut it plum off, the choice is yours. Good hair is your hair, however you decide to wear it.”

I hope this humbling experience of mine serves as a warning that marginalized groups (i.e., folx of color) are not exempt from the pitfalls of being prejudiced towards others.

How does colorism impact society as a whole?

Colorism impacts folx of color on a biological, psychological, and social level.

Exhibit one: there are multi-billion dollar cosmetic and plastic surgery industries catering to folx wishing to contour and lighten their skin. 

It’s not uncommon for Black people to avoid going out into sun for fear of becoming “too dark.” I dealt with this being raised by my white mother and grandmother who’d say things like, “Don’t stay out in the sun too much, people will think you’re really Black.” Thank goodness I found therapy in adulthood to undo some of the damage ingrained. 

A discussion on colorism isn’t adequate without mentioning the concept of “passing.” Passing is when a person of color is fair-skinned and presents themselves as being white. In her memoir, Mariah Carey shares how she experienced animosity from her siblings for being the most fair-skinned. Her siblings, who have darker skin, would often accuse Mariah of “passing.”

When my daughter was born in 2019, I was shocked at how quickly the comments rolled in about Mya Jayn’s fair skin. 

Grandma often says, “It’s so good that she came out white,” which is especially hurtful as it insinuates that the subtleness of her Blackness is somehow a good thing. 

Then there’s the folx that have made comments such as, “That’s not your baby.” And let’s not forget the numerous occasions where I’m walking through my neighborhood with the baby harnessed to me and receive comments from other Black Folx such as, “Looks like they’ve got you babysitting today” or, “She’s such a sweet baby, is she yours?”

Conclusion

Colorism is prevalent and can be destructive. As I reflect on how colorism has impacted me personally, I can’t help but consider the scars that slavery has left on those of us with African ancestry. It’s unsettling that people of color (myself included) can fall into the trap of colorism, using the same tool of the oppressor to tear each other down.

I don’t have the answers for how to fix all of these challenges, but I will say this: by having these conversations, we are able to gain awareness. With awareness comes the opportunity for change. While I gave many examples of how colorism has been used against me, I also acknowledged a time where I committed colorism through my own words.

We all have room to grow and a lot of work to do. Consider these insights as we continue to shape the world we live in.

Thanks for reading!

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