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.

About

Courtney Young is the Founder and Chief Creative Officer at Think Young Media, a technology and social media firm located in New York that specializes in social media consulting. She blogs at The Thirty Mile Woman. Follow her on twitter @cocacy @thinkyoungmedia