Colorism is real. For generations, it has plagued ethnic groups across the globe, dividing people of color against themselves for entirely superficial reasons.
This is not just some short-sighted American problem stemming from the Atlantic slave trade. Darker-skinned people in India deal with colorism every day. Aboriginal Australians deal with open and blatant racism. People of African descent throughout the Latin Caribbean have been institutionally told that their contributions to cultural history began and ended with slavery. For generations, the dark-haired, dark-eyed in Ireland have been referred to as “black Irish” despite their fair skin.
One can argue that this issue has its strongest roots in British imperialism, that oppressed peoples were told by their oppressors that their natural beauty was wrong, shameful, and ugly, and that those with lighter complexions were somehow better than their darker counterparts. While this notion seems archaic, it still exists.
From here, I can only speak from personal experience: I am a light-skinned black woman, and the strongest voice against my involuntary skin tone has been from my own people. While I may be lighter than most, I’m still visibly black — I’m not passing any paper bag tests any time soon. My features are black; my hair in its natural state is still black; and yet, black people will not hesitate to point out my fairness over and over again as if it has awarded me some kind of triumph in life.
They don’t realize that, while my skin is lighter than theirs, I strive to get a good tan every summer to hide the scars and blemishes my light skin does nothing to hide. They don’t realize that in this haste to look like an actual black person, I still burn if I’m out in the sun without protection. All they see is that my skin tone is lighter than theirs, and that my life must be that much easier for it.
Yes, this mindset stems from post-traumatic slave disorder, where the lighter people had more favorable positions within the home while the darker folks were in the fields. Yes, a lot of this resentment was fueled by the plantation owners and overseers to prevent any kind of united uprising against indentured servitude. But the institution of slavery ended over 150 years ago. The Civil Rights movement was over 50 years ago. Whatever social stigma is still held in regard to skin tone lies solely on the fault of those who perpetuate it.
I recently watched a friend (who is black) casually and jokingly give his toddler a hard time for being light-skinned, while this child’s white mother was sitting in an adjacent room. Of course, the kid was oblivious to the ramifications of his father’s jokes, but suppose he wasn’t? Suppose he was a little older child — intelligent, sensitive, and self-aware — who picked up on the implications of what his father had said? Who knows what sort of damage that seemingly innocent observation has left on that child’s mind? Suppose he’s like me, and at a young age will begin to question the validity of his blackness for the rest of his life? Is it then still a joke, all things considered?
I can only imagine the daily trials that dark-skinned individuals, regardless of ethnicity, must go through on a daily basis. Our media is plastered with lilly-white faces with yellow hair that dances in the wind, with slender figures and privileged lives in an declaring without speaking that “white is right.” No wonder so many dark-skinned people bleach their skin — the media is constantly telling them that they aren’t good enough, that nothing they organically have to offer is sufficient. It makes sense that they would harbor a certain amount of resentment towards those of us (again, through no fault of our own) who happen to be of a lighter hue. But the buck must stop somewhere.
There has been a massive surge in body positivity in social media from dark-skinned women recently, and it is glorious. Women of every hue are taking a platform for themselves and all the beauty they naturally encompass without offering a single apology. Personally, I applaud and support their movement, though I continue to face adversity from the same people I support for having a skin tone that I did not choose.
In recent news, there’s been a backlash regarding the casting of (light-skinned) Dominican actress Zoe Saldana portraying (dark-skinned) vocalist, musician, and civil rights activist Nina Simone. Images of Saldana painted a darker (and still not dark enough) brown, and wearing prosthetics to enhance or give the illusion of more prominent African features have set the Internet on fire. The estate of Nina Simone is outraged by the casting — not because Saldana isn’t “black enough,” but because, even in death, it seems Simone is plagued by the very same colorism she faced in life.
Consider the multitudes of dark-skinned black actresses who would have looked the part sans make-up. In blatant disregard for artistic, cultural, and ethnic accuracy, none of them could get the part, because the studio was more interested in seeing a return on their investment than in actual, factual storytelling. (See the recent blockbuster flop, “Gods of Egypt.”) In fact, those same dark-skinned actresses have difficulty getting any parts at all, because most “black” roles go to women whose lighter skin tone is non-threatening, and just ethnic enough to appear non-white.
Hollywood seems to bathe in these tepid waters of cultural dismissal, but what about the rest of us? What about that group of black men teasing their light-skinned friend, telling him that “light-skin n*ggas went out with the 90s”? What about that black Dominican refusing to acknowledge her black Hatian next-door neighbor when he speaks to her? What about the alarming number of dark-skinned Indian women who committed suicide out of shame? Not all of the issues that coincide with colorism are external — we cannot continue to blame all of our complexion-based problems on “the man.” While it will exist with or without outside help, people of color have the power to combat the evils of colorism from within. Someone, somewhere will have to stand up against this sort of divisive cruelty, take responsibility for their actions and their mistakes, and begin taking the necessary steps towards healing.