It’s a conversation we’ve been having time out and time again.
Why is there so much colorism in minority communities?
I will only speak for my own but have heard the stories from my friends of all ethnicities: the lighter-skinned people of their ethnicities will often get preferential treatment and privilege over their darker-skinned peers. I will always react with annoyance from the pleas from my family members not to run so much — they tell me that because they’re afraid that I’ll get too tan and dark.
Colorism is defined by Pulitzer Prize winner, Alice Walker, as the “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people solely on their color.”
You don’t have to look far for skin-whitening products people around the world use — products in India, China, Nigeria, Senegal, Togo, and many countries around the world. What’s behind this colorism, and why do minority groups still buy into it? It feels unnatural for me and having it so deeply ingrained into my and my family’s consciousness has made me curious as to why we believe what we do in the first place.
“This is not bias. This is racism,” says Sunil Bhatia, a professor at Connecticut College. Mary-Rose Abraham cites historical trends in India that the darker you looked, the lower your caste was in the social hierarchy.
Again, I won’t speak for other ethnicities. It isn’t a politically correct drive, but I’m going to stop looking from answers from the outside and start looking for answers within my family and within what I have observed.
Do I personally find myself attracted to people perceived as more white? I don’t exactly know. But society behaves the way it does because that’s the message we were perhaps inundated with, that whiteness is equated with status. Whiteness is equated with power. My grandparents have always told me that in China, being in the sun and being tan was often an indicator of being of a low social class. They grew up as farmers, and didn’t want to be perceived so by others. Whenever I visited China, I would often be astonished by how many Chinese women would use umbrellas in the 90-degree heat to protect themselves from the sun.
You don’t have to isolate a certain racial or ethnic group to find colorism. It is so visceral and universal across the world, from the United States to Latin America to Asia to Africa. The fact is that your skin color will always be one of the first things someone notices about you as a first impression. Nothing is going to change that.
Talking about colorism is something we don’t acknowledge enough in a lot of minority communities. Why do we attribute a higher status to people with lighter skin? I don’t see it as a systemic injustice we are subjected to by white people, but a conscious choice many of our parents, grandparents, and even we ourselves make when we relate to each other.
I see these trends even within my kids, working in an inner-city, predominantly black school. The fact is that it’s not only white people who exhibit racial prejudices, but we all do, including people who are a part of an underprivileged racial group. “I did not expect that so many young people of diverse ethnicities — including Dominicans, Puerto Ricans and Cape Verdeans — would actively engage in everyday forms of skin-color bias,” wrote David Knight of Teaching Tolerance.
I am not saying that colorism wasn’t created by white people to just let them off the hook, but the problem is so much deeper than the active historical choices of prejudiced white people. It may be rooted in colonialism and imperialism, but the fact is that we are not colorblind. Whether we admit or not, we always notice color.
Maybe my parents and grandparents were looking out for me when they told me not to run so much — because I would have an easier life if I were lighter-skinned. I don’t know all the answers, but I do know that colorism is deeply engrained and not always something imposed on us by white people. In fact, colorism in minority communities seeks to divide and conquer in a much more implicit way, which is why I find it a lot more dangerous than we give it credit for.
Yes, colorism may be a form of internalized racism, but is it a switch we can just turn off? I believe that the change has to start on an individual basis. I have always fought against implications from my parents and grandparents against seeing light skin as a good thing, and darker skin as a bad thing. There is a deeply-rooted history in internalized white supremacy, but to everyday people just trying to get by, how is that history going to help us?
It’s time to not just look the other way and pretend that colorism doesn’t exist in minority communities, because it does. It can be very consuming. It’s not something we can just stop, but it’s a trend we can be aware of. That’s the first step. Yes, there may be a whole force of colonial, imperialist, and historical trends that promote colorism.
But right now the change we can make is in our personal interactions and daily lives. Maybe we can check ourselves and stop making comments about how light or dark people are. This may be easy for me to say, but many of us reading this may need to be part of the solution by not buying skin-care products that market themselves by helping us keep lighter skin.
It isn’t like the conversation will change overnight, but awareness is the first step.
This post was previously published on Age of Awareness and is republished here with permission from the author.
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