Colorism in the Black Community

Colorism is a subcategory of racism and is subsequently discussed far less in public spaces, but is ever more present and influential in the way we women of color choose to live and present ourselves to others. Colorism is defined as “the system of privilege and discrimination based on the degree of lightness in the color of a person’s skin…[its an] internalized form of racism which involves prejudice, stereotyping, and perceptions of beauty among members of the same racial group, whereby light skin is more highly valued than dark skin.” This form of hate for darker pigmentation is both intraracial and interracial. It works as a means for people of color to stratify themselves the same way we have internalized decades of racial stratification that favors white superiority by non-whites.

People wonder how an already marginalized group can divide themselves and perpetuate racial contempt and oppression against their own people when they know by experience how crippling it feels to be discriminated against and disadvantaged by either their race, socioeconomic class, gender, skin color, or even hair texture. We live in a world where racial groups boost their own self-esteem at the expense of that of others. Where does the pattern end?

A justification for why people of color racially discriminate against others who identify in the same racial group as them is seen within Toni Morrison’s latest novel God Help the Child: “how else can we hold on to a little dignity? How else can you avoid being spit on in a drugstore, shoving elbows at the bus stop, walking in the gutter to let whites have the whole sidewalk…” It is easy for us to be judgmental of people who feel this way and use non-inclusive words to describe those who agree with the above statement as if we don’t hold this same ideology, if not consciously then subconsciously. We automatically pretend that we are color blind and do not share these type of views about race and color, but we all do. Just think if you were darker, would you like yourself the same? If you were lighter would you like yourself better? Do you actively avoid tanning? Do you participate in skin bleaching? Use skin lightening creams? Use foundation lighter than your natural complexion? We’re all guilty in some way or another of avoiding getting darker or trying to be lighter.

Colorism originates back hundreds of years to the age of American slavery. The various shades of African Americans stem from biological mix of genes of black slaves and white slave masters as a result of rape. Black women bore the mixed-race children of white slave masters, but their kin were still considered slaves based on the one drop rule. While the fair skinned children were still treated as slaves, they were granted more privileges than their dark-skinned counterparts. Light skinned slaves were characterized as smarter, more capable, were given opportunities to receive some form of educational training, worked less harsh jobs inside the house such as a master’s or mistress’ servant or house maid while dark skinned slaves worked outside picking cotton on the plantation in the sweltering heat for hours.

Slavery may have been abolished, but it did not put an end to race hierarchies or pigmentocracy. A Virginia University study found that light-skinned African Americans receive preferential treatment in employment that ranges from the opportunity to secure a job to how much they will be paid to do the same job as someone who is dark skinned. The average hourly wage for dark skinned blacks is $11.72 which is about $468.80 a week if they work full-time. Blacks with a medium skin tone make an average of $13.23 an hour which is about $529.20 a week. Light skinned blacks make on average $14.72 an hour which is about $588.80 a week. White people average $15.94 an hour which is about $637.60 a week. The closer someone is to a white complexion, the more money they make on average. This form of racial discrimination privileges light-skinned blacks for being light-skinned in a similar way that American culture privileges whites for being white. This form of discrimination transcends the workplace and is present in mainstream media, popular opinions on who is considered attractive, housing, and education. Whether light skinned blacks begin to believe that they are better than dark skinned blacks or whether dark-skinned blacks simply begin to resent light skinned blacks for the privileges they enjoy from being light skinned, either way, this racial group internalizes the ideology of colorism and separates.

The black community divides themselves by class. White people are considered the elites of American society while dark skinned blacks are considered to be in the lowest social class of American society. Light skinned blacks are given more jobs and subsequently paid more money so they fall into a middle to upper societal class. With a class difference comes a superiority attitude. Those who are privileged feel that they cannot associate with those who are not so as to not tarnish their reputation, be falsely categorized with the “dregs” of society, or have their privileges stripped from them by others in their social class for being friends with the poor.

The aristocratic light skinned black people would perform paper bags tests in order to decide whether another member of the black community could associate with them. If the person was lighter or as light as the paper bag then they were accepted as a black aristocrat, but if they were darker than the bag then they were turned away. To be cast out by your own people would incite anger and deplete one’s self-esteem immeasurably. Dark skinned blacks are now forced to protect themselves from hatred, ostracism, and discrimination from two evils instead of one.

A graduate student at Wright State University conducted a study on the psycho-social impact of colorism among African American women and found that “populations of dark skinned African American women tend to have problems with self-worth and confidence. Black women expect to be judged on their skin tone… [the] higher internalization of the external standards of beauty causes women to be more critical of their bodies overall (i.e. hips, lips, and thighs).” African Americans of a darker skin tone are known to dislike their self-image because society has told them that something is wrong with the way they look, how they look is unattractive, the way the they look is the wrong look. This internalized hatred causing African Americans of a dark skin tone to feel inferior physically on top of the mental inferiority society tells blacks they have in comparison to whites. This internalization is perpetuated as black women bring little black girls into a world that is hell bent on hating them for what they cannot change. How do we women of color teach our daughters to love their skin and take pride in being black when we cannot feel the same wholeheartedly?

Essence magazine released a video on a discussion about colorism in the black community and suggested that one way to actively combat the internalization and subsequent stratification in the black community is to have an open and honest discussion with black community members and feel comfortable enough to divulge that you may be self-loathing in regards to the way you look and the color of your skin. Your internal hatred for how you look is what causes you to hate the dark-skinned woman sitting beside you because her appearance reminds you of yourself. A big problem in the black community is that we cannot identify with one another enough to see that we are battling with the same issues, come together on those issues, and discuss them openly and honestly in a way that can help us to feel supported by our people and not feel so alone every time we have to face ourselves in the mirror. We need to start a discussion about the psychological effects of colorism in individuals and in communities and stop bottling up or tip toeing around colorism the way we do racism. We need to stop pretending we are color blind, that colorism does not affect us, or that the effects are not that bad. Colorism affects light or white-skinned people and black skinned people. It just affects us in different ways; while one group benefits from having lighter skin, the other group is disadvantaged by it. No one is above colorism or exempt from it.

We are not alone. Women of color in countries around the world experience colorism just as we do. Colorism damages the self-esteem of women in Asian, Indian, and Latin American communities just as much as it does in the African American community. Asians hold the point of view that “dark skin marked one as a laborer, as a person who toiled in the fields as opposed to one who lived a more sheltered and privileged existence indoors.” Sounds extremely similar to why African Americans resent dark skin and privilege light skin. Dark skinned versus light skinned is a question of socioeconomic status. India’s issue with dark skin comes from the colonization of their country by Aryan invaders hundreds of years ago. “They [Aryans] were considered as warriors who were physically sturdy and handsome due to their lighter skin, blue eyes, and sharp nose. The Aryans were mostly the European invaders of India whose descendants now occupy the upper class. In contrast, the indigenous darker-skinned people of India were described as ugly because of their dark skin.” Once again we see a power dynamic here that puts light skinned individuals at the top of the food chain and dark skinned individuals at the bottom. The socioeconomic, psychological, and physical ramifications of the debate between dark skin and light skin run deep in every community of people all around the world. Latin American countries battle with colorism due to colonization by Spain and Portugal and due to the Atlantic Slave trade just like African Americans, Indians, and Asians. All of these races have internalized the effects of colorism that stems from the same origin, European colonization and the slave trade. The countries and races may differ but the origins and effects of colorism are the same across the board. If that shouldn’t bring people of color around the world together to have an open discussion about this issue then I don’t know what should. In all of these racial communities, the lighter the skin the more elite someone is. We have a lot more in common and a lot more to talk about with one another than we would like to think. Open up the lines of discussion.

We still grapple with the effects of racism and see institutionalized racism today and we will still grapple with and see the effects of colorism in years to come. Change takes time and patience and a collective group of people to get it started. We do not have to begin as the majority, sometimes the minority opinion gets the ball rolling. It is important that we get educated on the issue of colorism, share that knowledge, and get people talking. We can change the narrative and in turn, one day change American culture. Start talking.



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