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For those of you who have never encountered the word, ‘colourism’ is something that we cannot ignore and must be addressed to truly progress as a society. The Pulitzer Prize Winning author and activist Alice Walker is the person most credited for the first use of the word. In her 1983 book, In Search of Our Mothers’ Garden, she defined it as “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color”.
To understand how colourism came to be a pivotal part of the pain and struggle within different ethnic groups, we must understand that, like racism, its origin lies in white supremacy. And while here we discuss colourism through the experiences of the Black community, colourism exists everywhere – from Africa to Asia and even Europe. In the 19thand mid-20th Century, the opinion that the white race is biologically superior to any other became extremely popular and was used to justify the inhumane treatment of other races through horrific actions, such as the transatlantic slave trade. ‘Partus Sequitur Ventrem’ (‘That which is born follows the womb’) was brought into law during this time and essentially means that if a child is born to a slave, they too are slaves. Therefore, fertile Black women were considered of economic advantage to slave owners and these men were largely responsible for the huge numbers of children born with lighter skin in these regions. Between 1620 and 1865 there 9.3 million children were born into slavery and, as a result, by 1860 there were nearly four million slaves in the USA alone and 56% were under the age of 20.
From here we can see how the seeds of colourism were sown. Slaves with lighter skin tended to have favourable treatment (‘housework instead of fieldwork’), not least because of their proximity to whiteness. The ‘one drop rule’ meant that anyone with at least an eighth (four generations) of African ancestry was considered Black. But with more Eurocentric features, the more favourable you will be treated within society, and even amongst the Black community due to the internalised trauma. The ‘paper bag test’, for example, was used up until the 1950s and compared skin tone to that of a brown paper bag. Hair and bodies were also assessed to determine if a person could be granted ‘privileges’ such as jobs, schooling and social events. This was a huge disadvantage to those with darker skin and anyone born with stereotypical African phenotypes (physical characteristics you can see).
Melanin, a natural chemical in our skin and hair, is produced by the body to protect us from harmful UV rays. Levels of melanin production are genetic and for this reason there are many monoracial (biologically one race) Black people who benefit from colourism. For example, Erykah Badu (a monoracial and fair-skinned Black woman) will benefit, but ‘H.E.R’ (who is darker-skinned, biologically Black and Filipino) in some ways, will not. When we look across movies, magazines, TV shows, commercials, there are a significantly greater number of lighter brown complexions, while darker skin tones are still left under-represented.
The double standards of beauty standards
It is no surprise, then, that darker-toned people of colour have been pressured to adhere to western beauty standards. ‘Skin lightening’ is a painful outcome of this and has been practiced since the 1500s mostly in Asia, but today the demand is global. According to the World Health Organisation, in parts of Africa up to 77% of women use skin lightening products. Skin- bleaching or whitening creams, although banned in the UK, EU and US, can still be found for sale and continue to be legal in many countries. The risks around skin lightening are well documented and many products have been known to contain ingredients that can increase the risk of skin cancer, as well as other serious conditions.
The contradiction of Black women lightening their skin while Caucasian women are using tanning, fillers and other treatments in order to mimic the look of Black women shows the disadvantage in the beauty industry. Within white communities sunless tanning is a billion-dollar industry and far from a new phenomenon. Despite the fashion before early 20th century for pale-skin (many White Europeans and Americans considered it a mark of wealth and leisure), from the 1920s onwards, tanning has been in vogue. Most recently, however, some celebrities have come under fire when the depth of their tan, particularly when combined with other style choices, has been called out as cultural appropriation – that is, selectively using aspects of a culture that is not your own without respect or acknowledgement.
Colourism in our community
These unrepresentative beauty standards filter into society in further cruel ways. Studies show that, as a result, darker skinned women are treated less favourably by darker skinned men. Colourism also branches off into more specific experiences such as ‘texturism’ – hate or discrimination due to the texture of your hair. Black women have been conditioned to consider our natural hair unprofessional. By relaxing (chemically straightening) our hair or wearing a weave (a protective style where real or artificial hair is ‘weaved’ into existing hair), we believe we will be more acceptable. Colourist attitudes to hair can be clearly seen in the acceptance of looser curls. The 2011 documentary Dark Girls spoke from both sides of colourism. Those with lighter skin feeling they needed to ‘prove themselves’, and of being rejected and discriminated against for the privileges they have in the Black community. Even reporting that they have had their hair cut and spat at by members of their own community.
Zooming in on discrimination
Discrimination is complex, multi-layered and presents both at an individual and systematic level, with institutional racism still manifesting in policing, employment, housing, health care, education, and political representation. This is also why the concept of ‘intersectionality’ has come into sharp focus. First coined by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, it considers the way that all aspects of a person’s identity can create discrimination or privilege. And the combinations are endless – one might, for example, be a Black, cis-gendered, LGBTQ+ man. Or a white, transgender, neurodiverse woman. It is also entirely possible to simultaneously be privileged and unprivileged in society. These identities consider everything from nationality to religion, from social class to gender identity. It means that a person can be subject to discrimination or privilege based on many – or few – aspects of their identity.
Using awareness as an opportunity
Those of us with lighter skin – including myself – need to extend and use our privilege. Only once we are aware of our advantage in society can we begin to directly combat colourism, however big or small our actions might be. In understanding the privilege we hold, we will be more inclined to find the right solutions and feel more comfortable in talking to those disadvantaged by the unequal and rusty system we find ourselves trapped in. The existence of colourism affects us all – it creates layer upon layer of advantage and disadvantage. And that has no place in modern society.
About Caira Booth-Murray
A Black woman of mixed heritage, Caira was born in London, where she was raised by Dione, her mother with Jamaican heritage, in a single parent household. She graduated from Queen Mary University of London in 2018 with a BSc in Chemistry and has since worked for Canon UK as a Customer Service Agent. Her education in Black history and experiences of racism, even within her own family, have shaped her identity and she acknowledges that, “in current times, my complexion and hair texture are wrongly presented as the ‘acceptable standard of blackness’”. It is this powerful combination of experiences and insights which makes Caira so important to Canon UK’s Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Steering Group, who work alongside Human Resources to educate, support and guide the business.