What Can We Do About Colorism?

As a woman of color who is deeply concerned and invested in interrogating the ways in which women continue to be marginalized, I’ve often wondered why more work hasn’t been done on the issue of colorism, both domestically and globally. Not only has it played a tremendous role in the beauty myths that imperil women across the world but has also created disparities related to wealth, employment, politics, dating and popular culture.

Colorism usually makes its rounds through the public sphere in spurts, either from the latest celebrity fiasco (see Michael Jackson or Sammy Sosa), political or corporate misstep, or scientific study, then quickly dissipates. I’ve written extensively about it but have become more and more frustrated by the lack of attention and collective action afforded the issue, combined with the myopic discussions that counter any productive analysis, especially when speaking of issues related to gender and place. For example, although both men and women experience the explicit and subtle ramifications of color bias, there are few overt benefits accorded to dark-skinned women in the public sphere, especially when speaking in terms of beauty. Darker-skinned men have headlined blockbuster films (i.e. Samuel L. Jackson or Denzel Washington) or been widely regarded as beautiful (i.e. Reggie Bush or Morris Chestnut). Can the same be said for darker-skinned women?

Moreover, colorism has often been considered a Black or U.S. issue, but the color complex is global, diverse and multifaceted. It impacts the way Whites see and interact with people of color. (Consider this new study finding that Obama supporters believe him to have lighter skin than his opponents do, or Senator Harry Reid’s 2008 comments on the subject.) And colorism operates in places as varied as Jamaica, India, Malaysia, Korea, the Dominican Republic and Mexico. To appreciate just how pernicious colorism  can be, consider these facts:

  1. Dark-skinned defendants [PDF] are more likely to be convicted and receive the death penalty than lighter-skinned ones.
  2. India’s skin-lightening cream Fair and Lovely boasts 38 million users worldwide.
  3. Dark-skinned Brazilians make up 63 percent of the poorest sectors of Brazil.

These statistics and more make me cringe whenever I hear the phrases “colorblind society” or “post-racial”.  We live in a world where color matters; so why aren’t we talking about it more?

ABOVE: candid photograph of Beyonce (left); Beyonce airbrushed in a Loreal ad (right); juxtaposition by Feministing.

Comments

  1. “…there are few overt benefits accorded to dark-skinned women in the public sphere, especially when speaking in terms of beauty. Darker-skinned men have headlined blockbuster films (i.e. Samuel L. Jackson or Denzel Washington) or been widely regarded as beautiful (i.e. Reggie Bush or Morris Chestnut). Can the same be said for darker-skinned women?”

    This is soooooooooo key and noone ever wants to acknowledge this disparity. Thanks for calling attention! Looking forward to your book!

    Also, Nicole Moore of The Hotness (http://thehotness.com/about.html) called attention to the composition of a panel on Black Women & beauty last fall and noted that all the women were on the lighter end of the spectrum. Here is the link: http://thehotness.com/2009/10/29/from-hottentot-venus-to-the-white-house/

    I see this a lot.

  2. courtney,
    you are absolutely right. i definitely wonder about why no one talks about it more. when i ask my students to define colorism, most of them have no idea what i’m talking about and it effects every single ethnicity. lighter is almost always better. i guess to talk about colorism and black folks we have to talk about slavery and rape and no one really wants to go there. consider a part two where you talk directly about these images of beyonce. sometimes she’s lightened so much she looks downright gray! and, if you watched season 1 and 2 of the boondocks, part of their de-politicization was the lightening of the characters. i swear huey and riley and grandpa are lighter than they were when they were more revolutionary. the time oj cover is another great example and school daze, of course. keep writing the color commentary. our society needs it badly.

    • “Most of them have no idea what I’m talking about”.

      This is so true. Colorism affects everybody on every continent but no one knows how to define it. It’s time that we start telling people about the “C” word. I was writing a paper about colorism for my class, and every time I typed the word “colorism”, Microsoft kept underlining it as a spelling error. Its time we start putting a name to the face !

  3. Courtney says:

    I was recently in Brazil, visiting my step-mothers family. They celebrated their wedding while I was there, and the family contained a much wider range of color than I ever see in the States. I refer to myself as ‘translucent’ because I have sun-burned while sleeping in bed.
    I seemed to have unintentionally flaunted a beauty tradition while I was down by having poufy(couldn’t help it) messy, scrunchy, etc hair. They are obsessed with straight smooth hair, and many girls (including at least one of my cousins) have chemically straightened their hair. I couldn’t help but draw the similarity to ‘afro’ and kinky hair.
    I was also complaining about being so pale, and needing to bathe in sunblock, but one aunt immediately spoke up and said that my skin was so beautiful and I should try to keep it that way. (It felt odd to be ‘exotic’) My step-mother explained that pale skin is associated with high class because only those lucky enough to not do labor out of doors (generally less pay) could possibly stay anything close to pale.
    Personally I thought the most beautiful person there was my 8-year-old cousin Prisi who had soft black kinky hair, and played hide-and-seek with me in a dress and heels (me not her) even though I spoke ‘portunol’ and she only spoke portuguese.

  4. Thanks Ebony, Jalylah and Courtney for the comments to my article! Though I didn’t mention it in this particular blog posting, I think its also important to remember that colorism extends not only to just skin color politics but also discussions on hair and phenotype, in particular nose size. All of this plays a part in colorism, particularly as it relates to beauty. Thanks again for commenting!

  5. As a white, Jewish woman, I often encounter colorism in a way. On television, when a female character becomes more mature or attractive, her hair is always straightened (and her glasses removed, but that’s another issue altogether). As someone who has curly and often unruly hair, I am disturbed by this. Though perhaps not to the extent of the emotional effect on women of color, I too am disheartened and angered by the global idealization of blond, blue-eyed beauty. After spending my adolescence and my hard-earned money on trying to figure out how to make my hair as straight as possible, I am finally becoming more comfortable in my hair and what it may or may not signify to the world around me.

  6. Len Norris says:

    I am Feminist and an Egalitarian. I believe in Logic, Semantics and Phonetics. Cringe not when you hear phrases for that is all they are. Besides, it’s just Social Cackling. Consider the source. Color does divide us, but only because we let it. Talking about it only keeps it in the forefront. Ignoring it as illogical works mo betta. I am not of color. I am Len(cosmicfoole@bellsouth.net)

  7. Valerie Ann Johnson says:

    Colorism seems to be the step-child of identity politics. Even typing in the term in this comment elicits an underline to check the spelling. Why isn’t it in my “dictionary?” That speaks to Courtney’s post – we do not address colorism in any sustained meaningful way. And it matters!

    Sometimes when I raise this issue in my Women’s Studies classes at Bennett College (an HBCU) the tension in the classroom is palpable.

    I remember as a teen ager noticing that whenever men and women were together in an embrace the woman always seemed lighter – whether a woman of color or not – the man always seemed to somehow cast a little darker. Even in black and white movies. Anyone else notice that?

    I’m with Jalylah – can’t wait for your book!

  8. Thanks for speaking up on this, as colorism is an element of the cultural programming we’ve received (globally) under the system of white supremacy. We can overcome colorism by recognizing it, questioning its origin and intent, and choosing to base our decisions not on this programming but on our own values.
    I particularly appreciate you pointing out how sexism intersects with colorism, as well as how colorism has serious life impacts. It’s more than just a matter of people feeling “comfortable in their own skin”.
    I’d like to recommend an additional book: BRAINWASHED by Tom Burrell (www.stopthebrainwash.com).
    By the way, did you notice that in the movie “Precious”, the dividing line between the good and bad characters was also denoted by skin color?

  9. COLOR: My first born had carrot red hair, pink skin, and sky blue eyes. I thought all the other babies were in Black and White, and mine was the only one IN COLOR.

    When we went out together, my stroller buddy turned heads. Grandmothers oohed and ahhed. My darker skinned law school classmates and their mates giggled with me about my colorful child.

    Daddy is the whitest of white; son is the pinkest of the white; daughter has the pale tint of the Spanish Armada along with her Mediterranean and northern European ancestry. Mom (me) — I am just a little lighter than she is, but I have the most polka dots (sun damaged skin from growing up in California.) We all have “good” skin, and “good” hair. Hate that because it took me most of my life to figure out how to manage my too thin, too thick, not straight/not curly HAIR! My sister has auburn hair that will never turn gray, like our mother’s. And she has the white Afro, natural, what became her trademark in her professional, international circles. Praise difficult hair — praise difficult skin — that it must be dealt with early on in life, and then forgotten because that is the way it is.

    The rest of the women in my family, other than my auburn haired sister, have light reddish brown hair, particularly like our Scottish ancestors. I knew it was rare, growing up, and never felt as much at home as when in Scotland. I can pass.

  10. Jillian says:

    On my board, what do you suggest we do?

  11. Great post Courtney! Yes, lets compare the benefits afforded to light skin women versus dark skin women in the public sphere. The disparities are amazing from who moves up faster on the corporate ladder to who you see featured in movies (mainstream and indy black films). I’m writing more about this and the Black female body and would love to talk to you more in the future. Oh yeah, the fact about Indian women and their use of fade creams is utterly astounding!

  12. I love this article. Being more informed on the issue will hopefully help some of us to practice more awareness in our daily dealings with the stigma’s, stereotypes and injustices associated with colorism. I am not sad that I am dark-skinned, but sometimes I wish things were more equal b/t people of different complexions.

  13. I really love this article. So glad to know I am not alone in my quest to end the ongoing war we Black people are fighting with ourselves. You should read this take on it –> http://legallypresent.tumblr.com/post/3235337764/

  14. .

    THE FACTS on Mixed-Race Linage:

    .

    1) It is often a surprise for people to learn that,

    in reality, there is actually No Such Thing

    As a “Light Skinned Black” person.

    .

    2) Very few people seem to be aware of the fact that the term

    “Light Skinned Black” is really nothing more than a racist

    oxymoron created by Racial Supremacists in an effort to

    forcibly deny those Mixed-Race individuals, who are of

    a Multi-Generational Multiracially-Mixed (MGM-Mixed)

    lineage, the right to fully embrace and to also received

    public support in choosing to acknowledge the truth

    regarding their full ancestral heritage and lineage.

    .

    3) The people who have been slapped with

    the false label and oxymoronic misnomer

    of “Light Skinned Black” person are simply

    Mixed-Race individuals — who are from those

    families which have been “of a CONTINUALLY

    Mixed-Race Lineage THROUGHOUT all of their

    multiple generations” (starting with the very

    first generation of racial-admixing and

    leading to their present generation.).

    .

    4) Seeing that every other Mixed-Race group is allowed

    the dignity of receiving support in having itself referred to

    by the term that it most prefers … the question becomes

    …“Why should the situation be any different for

    those Mixed-Race individuals who are of an

    Multi-Generational Multiracially-Mixed

    MGM-Mixed) / Mixed-Race Lineage?”.

    .

    5) If an MGM-Mixed / Mixed-Race individual would like to

    be referred to by the term ‘Mixed-Race’ (which is what they

    actually are) rather than by that of “Light-Skinned Black“

    (a term, which, once again, has the racist-origin of being

    nothing more than an oxymoronic-phrase that was both

    created and coined by Racial Supremacists in an effort to

    try to deny these Mixed-Race people their right to and support in

    publicly acknowledging and also embracing their FULL-Lineage)

    there is no reason that they (like every other group on the planet

    – whether Mixed-Race or not) should not be allowed the right

    to choose the term that society uses in referring to them

    (and to have their full-lineage acknowledged within that term).

    .

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    .

    RELATED LINKS:

    .

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    .
    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Generation-Mixed/mehttp://groups.yahoo.com/group/Generation-Mixed/me
    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Generation-Mixed/me
    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Generation-Mixed/me
    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Generation-Mixed/me
    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Generation-Mixed/me
    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Generation-Mixed/me
    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Generation-Mixed/me
    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Generation-Mixed/me
    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Generation-Mixed/me
    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Generation-Mixed/me

    .

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    .

    ALSO …. here is a brief COMMENTARY on … the constant

    misapplication of the racist ‘One-Drop Rule’ ** (to the

    people who are of any part-Black / Mixed-Race Lineage):

    .

    [** PLEASE TAKE NOTE OF THE FACT THAT :

    .

    The racist ‘one-drop’ “rule” was made ‘illegal’ in the U.S. in

    1967 by the U.S. Supreme Court via the ‘Loving vs. VA’ case

    (i.e. The ‘Loving’ case) – where the U.S. Supreme Court ruled ...

    .

    --- 1) All ‘Anti-Miscegenation’ Laws found throughout the U.S.;

    .

    --- 2) The racist ‘VA Racial Integrity Act’ (upon which most

    of the anti-miscegenation ‘laws’ were founded); and

    .

    --- 3) The ('black-lineage mocking' and exceedingly) racist

    ‘One-Drop Rule’ (upon which the ‘Act’ was based.)

    .

    … as being ‘UN-Constitutional’ (i.e. illegal, banned, etc.)

    due to the fact that it was both 'racist' and 'unscientific'.]

    .

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    .

    Listed below are links to data on the Historical MYTH

    of a Color-Based / Slave-Role HIERARCHY — as well

    as the Urban LEGEND of Paper-Bag, Blue-Vein and

    Other Allegations of Features-Based Entry ‘TESTS’:

    .
    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Generation-Mixed/me
    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Generation-Mixed/me
    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Generation-Mixed/me
    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Generation-Mixed/me
    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Generation-Mixed/me

    .

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    .

    If there are any questions regarding the information

    presented, I can be reached anytime at the email

    address and / or websites noted below.

    .

    Thank you and have a good day.

    .

    Sincerely,

    .

    – AllPeople (AP) G.i.f.t.s.

    soaptalk@hotmail.com

    Founder and Moderator of the following

    online Lineage-Discussion Communities
    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Generation-Mixed
    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/MGM-Mixed
    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/FGM-Mixed
    http://www.youtube.com/user/APGifts
    http://www.facebook.com/allpeople.gifts

    .

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    .

    SOURCE:

    .
    http://www.facebook.com/notes/allpeople-gifts/the….
    .

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    .

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    This post was mentioned on Twitter by Cocacy: Check out my newest post on Ms Magazine: http://msmagazine.com/blog/blog/2010/03/28/what-can-we-do-about-colorism/

  2. [...] What Can We Do About Colorism? : Ms Magazine Blog Colorism usually makes its rounds through the public sphere in spurts, either from the latest celebrity fiasco (see Michael Jackson or Sammy Sosa), political or corporate misstep, or scientific study, then quickly dissipates. I’ve written extensively about it but have become more and more frustrated by the lack of attention and collective action afforded the issue, combined with the myopic discussions that counter any productive analysis, especially when speaking of issues related to gender and place. For example, although both men and women experience the explicit and subtle ramifications of color bias, there are few overt benefits accorded to dark-skinned women in the public sphere, especially when speaking in terms of beauty. (tags: race body.politics fashion crime statistics barack.obama) [...]

  3. [...] What Can We Do About Colorism? by Courtney Young at the Ms. Magazine blog Candid photograph of Beyonce (left); Beyonce airbrushed in a Loreal ad (right); juxtaposition by Feministing. [...]

  4. [...] intersectionality in every component of media representation, sniffing out and calling them out on colorism, homophobia, heterosexism, classism, racism, ageism, ableism [...]

  5. [...] intersectionality in every component of media representation, sniffing out and calling them out on colorism, homophobia, heterosexism, classism, racism, ageism, ableism [...]

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