Colorism- The Roots of Colorism, Why Should We Take Colorism Seriously
What is Colorism?
Colorism is discrimination, often within races, based on skin color. According to the Meriam Webster Dictionary, Colorism is “prejudice or discrimination especially within a racial or ethnic group favoring people with lighter skin over those with darker skin.”
According to Colleen Campbell of Princeton University, Colorism, a global cultural, social construct with its roots deeply embedded in racism, exists within many groups, including Black, Asian, and Latino American communities. “Colorism can occur intra-racially (i.e., within groups) and interracially (i.e., across ethno-racial groups).
The Roots of Colorism, or Skin Tone Discrimination
Colorism harms people with darker skin and elevating fairer-toned people. Research has linked colorism to lower incomes, lower marriage rates, longer prison terms, and fewer job prospects for darker-skinned people.
In the USA Colorism evolved under slavery. Slave owners gave preferential treatment to fairer-skinned slaves. While dark-skinned enslaved people toiled outdoors in the fields, light-skinned slaves usually worked indoors at far less grueling domestic tasks.
Marita Golden, author of "Don’t Play in the Sun: One Woman’s Journey Through the Color Complex" explains that “in the USA colorism has endured since slavery. Higher class black Americans routinely administered the brown paper bag test to determine if fellow Black people were light enough to include in social circles.” “The paper bag would be held against your skin. And if you were darker than the paper bag, you weren’t admitted.”
In other countries, colorism may be more related to the class. While European colonialism has undoubtedly left its mark worldwide, colorism predates contact with Europeans in Asian countries. The ruling classes who had lighter complexions thought white skin was superior to the darker skin of the working and other lower classes. Discrimination based on skin color was most visible in India under British rule, where skin color served as a signal of high status for the British. Those with a fairer skin color enjoyed more privileges from the British than their darker counterparts and gained better education and employment among other things.
The caste system in India too involves skin color bias. Upper castes had lighter brown complexions as they were not involved in outdoor manual labor and hence less exposed to the sun, unlike the lower castes who on the other hand had higher melanin concentration in constant exposure to the sun from working in agricultural fields and outdoors.
Why Should We Take Colorism Seriously/Colorism Consequences?
Economically, and socially colorism yields many advantages for individuals with fair skin. For example, light-skinned Latinos make $5,000 more on average than dark-skinned Latinos, according to Shankar Vedantam, author of "The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars and Save Our Lives." A Villanova University study of more than 12,000 Black women imprisoned in North Carolina found that lighter-skinned Black women received shorter sentences than their darker-skinned counterparts. Research by Stanford psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt discovered that lighter-skinned black defendants were twice as unlikely to get the death penalty for crimes involving white victims than their darker-skinned counterparts.
While much more research is required, some studies have pointed out the damage caused by colorism. The effect on mental health was of major consequence. One study, for example, found a link between symptoms of depression and prejudices against darker skin tones among Asian-American women. Within the South Asian community, this has a long history with ties to the caste system. One major way in which older generations perpetuate colorism is in marriage. A study on Indian arranged marriages found that darker-skinned marriage candidates were rated lower in preference by prospective mothers-in-law, compared with their light-skinned counterparts.
Preferences for light-skinned brides have been prevalent in arranged marriage newspaper advertisements for many years; fair-skinned women are highlighted in these ads to attract more prospective grooms. Well-known Indian marriage websites like shaadi.com carried these practices into the internet. The matrimonial website initially requested its clients to indicate the color of their skin via a scale of descriptors ranging from “fair” and “wheatish” to “dusky” (i.e. dark), then allowed users to select their preferences in a potential match using skin tone as one of the filters.
Oscar-winning Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o has opened up about her struggles with colorism. She told BBC that colorism "is the daughter of racism" in "a world that rewards lighter skin over darker skin". Additionally, she mentioned she “definitely grew up feeling uncomfortable with my skin color because I felt like the world around me awarded lighter skin."
Colorism Is Rooted in Racism (averywellmind.com)
Colorism finds its roots in racism because, without racism, someone’s value and perceived superiority wouldn't be based on the color of their skin. Colleen Campbell, a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology and African Studies at Princeton University noted, "When we think of racism in the U.S. especially, we think of anti-Black attitudes or institutional processes that entrench whiteness at the top of the social hierarchy."
The Skin Lightening Industry
The skin-lightening industry is a multi-billion-dollar industry profiting from the stigma of dark skin everywhere. The centuries-old practice of lightening one’s complexion is achieved through pills, creams, and soaps and still remains popular. A World Health Organization survey found that “nearly 40 percent of women polled in nations including China, Malaysia, the Philippines, and South Korea regularly use products for lightening their skin. In India, 60 percent of the skincare market consisted of whitening products. The global skin-whitening market was valued at US$4.8 billion in 2017, according to Global Industry Analysts, and is anticipated to reach US$8.9 billion by 2027, with Asian countries making up a major segment.”
In India, popular skin-bleaching lines such as “Fair and Lovely” target both women and men with dark skin.
How can we combat it?
There are various ways we can combat colorism. A multi-pronged approach is required. The preference for white skin has been reinforced via numerous multinational companies and the media: television, magazines, and billboards. After we acknowledge that this discrimination does indeed exist, we can challenge the cosmetic industry and boycott products and services that promote colorism.
Social media and the digital world are helping change the discussion around topics like colorism. Social media campaigns like Dark is Beautiful and #brownisbeautiful are helping. Such campaigns have started to create a space for dark-skinned South Asians to talk about their shared experiences, break the silence and change the conversation on colorism in their communities. Younger generations are starting to realize the generational gap in the traditions surrounding racism and colorism and they are rejecting these values.
Personalities with a large media presence such as Hollywood and Bollywood superstars can use their platforms to address the issue and not only refuse colorism but call it out. However, more awareness about the issue is needed for meaningful change to occur. For example, according to a BBC article, in late June 2020, it was only amid public backlash that L’Oreal announced that they would remove the words “white”, “fairness”, and “light” from all of their skin products – in particular from their Garnier product line, which has thus far been widely marketed as a range of whitening products in South Asian countries. Increasing numbers of people have begun to denounce colorist ideas and the products that endorse them. Unilever, the parent company of the very popular skincare brand Fair & Lovely announced after the launch of a widespread that all skincare products under its umbrella would have the words “fairness”, “whitening”, and “lightening” removed, and the Fair & Lovely brand would be renamed, Glow & Lovely. However, many want the product pulled from the shelves entirely as they argue “Glow” is just another term for “lightening”
Research Coordinator - Sachi Gosal
Editor - Priyam Kusundal
Graphics - Thea Sinsin