It's been said that if President Barack Obama were a dark-skinned black man, he would not have been elected president. This is debatable to some while others believe it wholeheartedly. In comedy circles, President Obama is referred to as someone who had the complexion for the protection and the connection. The idea that there is prejudice or discrimination, often among same-race people based solely on skin tone is called colorism. Essentially, it means that the lighter your skin tone, the prettier you are seen to be, the more value you are attributed, and the better you have it in life. It stems from the belief that beauty and desirability increase with the proximity to whiteness.
How did colorism start?
I will speak to the issue of colorism from the vantage point of the African American community, though the issue of colorism is not isolated to the African American community. It’s a problem that occurs in many places around the world, including East and Southeast Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa. This concept has a long-standing history dating back to the enslavement of the African people in the United States starting in 1619. Colorism is a spinoff of racism. It involves prejudice and power. Colorism was created and used by white Europeans in power who considered light skinned people to be more valuable than the darker skinned people. Oftentimes, the light-skinned slaves were the children of the slave masters who would want to keep them close by placing them into service in the house. These families believed that their homes could be run well if those slaves were given an education, so it was more likely that these light-skinned house slaves were taught to read and taught upper class tradition in white society. It was also believed by most white people at the time that if slaves had white blood, they had a greater intellectual ability and subsequently, a greater capacity to be “civilized”. From there, many light-skinned slaves internalized these assumptions and developed a sense of superiority to darker skinned slaves, which eventually lead to distrust and resentment by darker skinned slaves. Through that, colorism was, in part, an instrument used by slave masters to divide and conquer their own enslaved persons by extending to light skinned slaves more privileges. This would often pit light skinned slaves against dark-skinned slaves and make the light skinned slaves more loyal to their owners in the event of a slave rebellion.
How does colorism manifest itself today?
Race Bias in Children
The Doll test, created by Dr. Kenneth and Mamie Clark, is a famous psychology test that studies the psychological effect of segregation on children. The test was used in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education landmark Supreme Court case that made it unconstitutional to segregate schools. The doll experiment required that a child be presented with two dolls – one white and one black. Questions were asked to determine the child’s perception of:
-Which doll was the nice one?
-Which doll would you play with?
-Which one looks bad?
The findings showed a clear racial preference for the white doll by black children. It was evident that the black children had a self-hatred and an internalized racial inferiority, which helped win the case. Fast forward to 2010, there was a study conducted with children of various races. The children were presented with five images of dolls ranging from dark skinned to light skinned. When asked about which color was preferential, the majority of the children showed a bias towards white. This demonstrated that there is still a preference for whiteness that is perpetuated in different ways in society and needs to be discussed more. The research indicated that African American parents prepare their kids more for diversity and the potential of discrimination while a lot of white parents believe that discussing race creates more of a problem. The problem is that children will discover race very early on their own. Though I can understand the motive of being “colorblind”, it’s not healthy or safe to refuse to acknowledge someone’s racial difference, particularly in light of historical realities of race and their present-day implications. Racism used to show up primarily in lynchings, the KKK, racial slurs, swastikas, and hate crimes. Racism today shows up in the mass incarceration of people of color, racial profiling, police brutality, redlining, housing discrimination, hiring discrimination based on name, the presumption of guilt and implicit bias. As such, not discussing the issues around race is not a solution. Healthy and honest conversations around these issues will help bring awareness, begin to explore ways to compensate for these biases and hopefully eliminate the prejudice amongst the next generation.
Messages from Media
We cannot underestimate the tremendous power of advertising and media to influence our perceptions and standards of beauty, particularly images in magazines, music videos, TV shows, and movies. Not only is there power in advertising and media, there is also great thought given by people who study how to get consumers to respond to an image. Research has shown over time and from the testimonies of people I’ve worked with, most of the images seen on television hold lighter skinned people in higher esteem than darker skinned people. Because of this messaging, many people hold lighter skinned people in high esteem and aspire to be lighter. This aspiration manifests itself in skin bleaching. Globally, one of the most popular products is skin-bleaching cream. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on skin bleaching products every year all across the world because of the idea that lighter skin is to be preferred over darker skin.
Messages from Family and Society
All of our families send us messages about self-worth, value, and love. Sometimes those messages are good and sometimes not so good. It is important for each of us to acknowledge what positive legacies to receive from our families and what negative legacies to leave behind. Unfortunately, many people receive messages that demonize black people and deify white people. Personally, as a person with all different shades of people in my family, I was raised believing that folks with lighter skin were more desirable because that was what was taught covertly and sometimes overtly. Our environments and families of origin play a huge role in teaching standards of beauty. Beauty preferences have been learned, and if they can be learned, they can be unlearned. The notion of lighter skin being more appealing shows up in several ways. When I speak to the black women in my life, they are candid about what they loved about Barack Obama’s presidency – Michelle Obama. For many black women, seeing a dark-skinned lady in the White House did a lot for their self-esteem because images like that are not often seen on television. There’s a host of other women who helped to do that – Viola Davis from the 2016 movie Fences for which she won an Oscar and Lupita N’yongo, best known for her role as Patsy in the 2014 movie 12 Years a Slave for which she won an Oscar as well. These women being on the screen certainly validate their beauty and talent, but there is also a work of inner beauty that they possess that needs to be acknowledged and recognized.
A curious question still looms:
Are we accepting dark-skinned people as part of the tapestry of beauty or are we trying to over-correct for the legacy of white supremacy without acknowledging white supremacy?
Their appearances on screen are great to see, but more work is needed to ensure that women of all shades are given an opportunity to share the screens and magazine covers equally.
How does it end and how do we bring healing?
We must remember that we are the keepers of our souls and must guard our hearts against allowing unrealistic and imbalanced standards of beauty to enter our consciousness, which is pushed forward by certain cultures. Conversations create fertile ground for change. Listening to one another’s stories is pivotal to building a community that fosters healing.
1. I am a fan of people sitting with a coach or counselor who is familiar with the issue of colorism. No one person is the same, so the way it affects each person is different. It helps with getting aware of your baggage regarding standards of beauty that are unhealthy and unrealistic. I'm still unloading this baggage, but it's much lighter. The more you learn to love yourself, the less you’ll buy into standards of beauty that say you’re less valuable and accept yourself as God made you. You have to change your awareness of yourself so you’re no longer brainwashed.
2. The societies that perpetuate these views have a responsibility to self-correct. We need to affirm the beauty of black people of all shades, particularly black women. A push for media outlets to have casts of people representing all shades of black is important. Take a look at the channels you go to, the commercials you see, the movies and TV shows you watch and take a critical look going forward and take steps to challenge.
3. If given the opportunity, we need to listen to the stories of people who have experienced colorism and work hard to empathize with them instead of invalidating their experience. I’m not unaware that these conversations are delicate and can get unhealthy very quickly. We must remember that the issue of colorism affects everyone, not just those who experience them directly. It’s vitally important that we have the intentions of healing wounds and not pouring salt on the wounds. Healthy healing conversations begin and end with a posture of listening and understanding without judgment. In those conversations, everyone needs to be given space to share, be heard, and critique without being attacked. Otherwise, it will only do more damage and perpetuate pain and separation in the community.
4. Understand history in real terms. Understand the pain and the trauma of black people in America. Don’t stop there. Understand the resilience of black people so you can begin to know that there is a fight, a grit, and something unique about black people that cannot be oversold. This will help to reframe your perspective of people of color in healthy ways.
5. Elevate the colorism conversation to one about beauty overall – hair, facial features, weight, etc. What is considered beautiful and how do the concepts of beauty get determined?
Let’s all fight to right the wrongs of the past and move forward with a greater consciousness and a clear intention of bringing healing through healthy and honest conversations and promoting and supporting positive change in our world.