Colorism is the practice of discriminating against people of a darker skin tone, and it happens amongst individuals belonging to the same racial group or between racial groups.
The roots of colorism go back to colonization. Many people of Indian and African backgrounds and ethnicities wish to be lighter skinned to meet Western standards of beauty.
In India, it is taught that the fairer you are, the better you are. The fairer you are, the easier it is to find a husband. The fairer you are, the more people will like you. Yes, something as trivial as the shade of brown or black you are has a large impact on the way people are treated in Indian and African communities.
In India, advertisements for the popular skin whitening cream ‘Fair and Lovely’ depict the darker woman not getting the job or the part in a play simply because of her skin colour. The advertisements are formulated in a ‘before’ and ‘after’ manner, showing the protagonist after she has used ‘Fair and Lovely’ finally landing the job and in a glowing white light, as if having fairer skin somehow propels you to the heavens.
The message that these advertisements convey is that light is beautiful and dark skin is something to be ashamed of; something to ‘fix’ with a cream that will open doors for you in life. Go to Ghana, India, China, Malaysia, South Africa and you will see billboards and magazine and television advertisements for skin whitening creams everywhere. The area of concern of this message is that it depicts dark skin as somehow inferior and has an impact on the young girls and boys in these communities.
As someone of Indian ethnicity myself, I often heard advice from my older relatives telling me not to go out into the sun for fear of getting too dark. I saw my grandmother use Fair & Lovely and cover her face with powder to look fairer. When relatives told me that I had gotten ‘darker’ from being in the sun too much, I always used to wonder why that was something to be ashamed of; something to worry about.
Only when I grew older did I fully begin to understand that these were comments stemming from a history in colorism in India. I was fortunate enough to grow up with parents who didn’t place much importance on the colour of my skin. I was fortunate enough to have role models like Lupita Nyong’o, Viola Davis and most notably, Mindy Kaling, who taught me that dark was beautiful, and just how little the shade of your skin should impact upon your future prospects in life. However, this isn’t the case for many young boys and girls living in Indian communities today.
I came across an interview in a documentary titled “Fair? A Documentary About Skin Colour in India”, which attempted to discuss the issue of colorism in India. The interview featured a young middle-class boy with a dark complexion conveying his wishes to be ‘fair’ and ‘attractive’ like his classmates. What do his classmates do to achieve such a fair complexion? They bleach their skin.
The boy looked distressed and somber, noting the different whitening creams he has used to try and lighten his complexion. The boy looked about 10. This shocked me, because I did not think that this was an issue amongst such young men and women. However, this boy was growing up around peers who bleached their skin and denounced his naturally darker skin as ‘ugly’, just because they were conditioned to think so. When the interviewer asked the boy “What do your teachers tell you?”, the boy replied with his head down “You are dark so we don’t like you”.
“You are dark so we don’t like you”. This is the gist of the Fair & Lovely advertisements and the marketing ploy of bleaching creams that this boy’s peers use. You are dark so society will not like you. You are dark so your potential husband will not like you. You are dark so you will not land your dream job. And so on and so forth.
Some people are lucky enough to recognize and reject the standard, but most are not because of the internalized colorism that exists within these communities.
Colorism can have a damaging impact on people in African communities too. There is a stigma of colorism in the US amongst, most notably, African American girls. There used to be something known as the ‘brown paper bag’ test that was common practice in sororities in the US. This phenomenon involved young college-aged girls comparing their skin color to the color of a brown paper bag to make sure that they were not darker in color than the bag. The point of this exercise was to somehow ‘weed out’ the darker girls, who weren’t allowed membership in the sorority on that basis alone. The brown paper bag test was not only used in sororities but at many multi-racial social events from the early 20th century to the 1950s. This surprising practice shows how colorism is rampant even in our modern society, and it is terrifying to think that colorism is often internalized within a particular racial community.
As of late, a lot of discussion has surrounded the Nina Simone biopic, which casted a lighter skinned Zoe Saldana in the lead role of Nina Simone. Nina Simone was known not just for her music, but for the fact that she was a darker skinned African American who had made it in the music business, at a time that having dark skin was looked down upon. This is why Zoe Saldana’s portrayal of Nina Simone sparked a colorism debate. Many people were outraged and believed that they did not receive an authentic representation of Nina Simone in Zoe Saldana. The fault was not with Zoe Saldana herself and her ethnic background, rather it was with the casting decision itself. Kierna Mayo, editor-in-chief of Ebony Magazine, conveyed her sentiments about the casting decision on NewsOne, commenting that
“The sensitivity here is particular of Nina Simone, who herself so embodied racial pride, who herself so did not fit the Hollywood package … image that we all have grown so accustomed to that we can spit off the names Paula Patton and Zoe Saldana with ease, but we cannot find their darker-skinned peers.”
Mayo alerts to the issue in question – that the casting directors missed out on an opportunity to cast a darker and talented African American who more accurately represents Nina Simone and the image she portrayed in Hollywood.
It is important to note that colorism is present in many different communities, not only in African and Indian communities. It is present in many East Asian communities, in Middle Eastern communities, and pretty much any other community that houses people of different shades of skin. It is not important where colorism originated. It is only important that we unlearn all of the beliefs that have been indoctrinated into our minds about colorism. The world is too many shades of beautiful to think that perfection can be achieved with only one shade.