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A History of Colorism and How Its Pervasiveness Affected My Self-Worth Growing Up

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The first recorded use of the term “colorism” comes from Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose in the essay, “If the Present Looks like the Past, What Does the Future Look Like?” in which Walker defines colorism as “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color”. Walker is writing a letter to a friend whose skin color is lighter in complexion in which Walker is unpacking the dichotomy between dark-skinned Black women and light-skinned Black women. When coming upon the issue of “the hostility many ‘black’ black women feel toward light-skinned black women”, Walker’s friend says, “Well, I’m light. It’s not my fault. And I’m not going to apologize for it.” Walker explains that nobody is looking for an apology — women who are centered more in the darker region of the complexion spectrum are looking for validation and equity.

I often say that privilege breeds ignorance and ignorance breeds death. The calumny, character assassination, and execrable degradation hurled at darker skinned folks not solely in the Black community, but in all communities existing within this globalized society of violent racial bigotry, classism, misogyny, and other oppressive hierarchies is a fact. The unfortunate truth that follows is that those whose privilege shields them from experiencing such violence first-hand are able to– and often do– shroud themselves in ignorance that can be — and often is– fatal to their disenfranchised complements.

While it may not be the design of those with more social standing and privilege that others should suffer in order to account for their perceived luxuries in life, their mere existence exacerbates a savage unbalance. It is not enough to simply not consciously be creating more inequity, nor is it enough to simply acknowledge where it exists. If people of privilege are not actively rooting the dismantling of oppressive systems into the foundation of their life practice every single day, they are actively perpetuating them and therein actively contributing to the oppression of others. So, “Well, I’m light. It’s not my fault. And I’m not going to apologize for it,” is dismissive, cavalier, and frankly abusive.

As the conversation around colorism becomes more present in the zeitgeist due to issues of anti-Black violence and oppression becoming more salient, the fact that anti-blackness is pervasive is being subsumed into colonialism and the racism that was created by Thomas Jefferson in order to justify enslaving Black Africans. While American slavery certainly played an important role in the colorism of the Black community, global classism tied to colorism actually served these white supremacist ideations much more than the other way ‘round.

Within South Asian communities that largely practice or have been impacted by the caste system of Hinduism, having darker (kaalo) skin is seen as being less beautiful than having lighter (forsha) skin. The fairer one was the closer one was to god (Brahman)– even the term speaks to the ingraining of lighter (and therein whiter) being more beautiful, soft, elegant, civilized, refined. The darker one’s complexion, the further along the gradation of class a person falls until they find themselves in the lowest of castes—Untouchables. And while this may be a known and active structure in South Asia, all of the aforementioned terms associated with lighter skin tone are bereft of darker communities within this anti-black hegemony, namely for people of African descent. Perhaps the reason we don’t have as much insight into pre-colonial colorism in African countries is because of the attempt to destroy African history by white colonizers, labeling it a “dark continent.”

In civilizations the world over, complexion denoted (and still denotes) socioeconomic standing. In the agricultural societies that gave way to our industrial forerunners, the lower classes labored in the fields and were therefore darker than the upper classes who were able to find leisurely protection from the sun’s hot beams indoors. This distinction encouraged practices of shielding one’s skin from the sun using parasols and such in order to avoid becoming darker, and this “fairness” became indicative of beauty and grace, especially for women. These practices are still in use today, with parents scolding children from staying in the sun for too long lest they become “too black” and women in East Asian countries walking outdoors with parasols in order to protect the so-called delicate nature of their paleness. In more extreme– but certainly not uncommon– cases, people turn to the use of skin bleaching to effectuate these barbaric beauty standards. Skin bleaching products are actively used all over the world– all over Asia, the Caribbean, Africa, and yes, the Americas.

Wherever there exists class hierarchy, it seems, colorism exists because classist oppression especially rooted in phenological presentation predates whiteness and white supremacy as we know it today and it is pervasive to global societies. Meanwhile, it seems as though white people have reached such a level of global class privilege that as opposed to a tan being indicative of being of the lower classes, getting a “healthy glow” indicates having the space and time to have a leisurely lounge in the sun somewhere warm, potentially even tropical — probably a colony or protectorate of some Western country. Where communities of Black, Indigenous, and people of color are a massive global market for skin bleach, white people have a much less nefarious market for self-tanner and a (potentially equally insidious) tanning salon culture.

As a dark-skinned Black non-binary person who was assigned female at birth and is still largely perceived as a woman, I — like Alice Walker — fall squarely in the “brown” section of the complexion spectrum. Regardless of not being “dark dark skinned”, I am not light-skinned and therefore face the backlash of anti-Blackness and colorism. I’ve been encouraged to have children with white men in order to ensure that my children show up in photos, something I am still processing seven years later. I am still processing the low self-esteem and self-worth that developed from not being appreciated by the boys I had crushes on as a child. I am still overcoming my resentment towards light-skinned Black women, which is not easy.

It is no easier to process and transcend these traumas that proliferate as demons that hound my wellness and betray my peace when people claim that their disregard for people my complexion or darker skin is simply a matter of preference that has nothing to do with racism, misogyny, and colorism. It is no easier when people claim that they do not receive privilege and opportunity because they fall closer to monoliths of beauty and propriety. It may seem like a superficial quandary, but within a capitalist patriarchy, the level of attraction a person who is– for all intents and purposes– female or femme-presenting holds is majorly proportional to their economic well-being and quality of life; it can genuinely feel like the difference between life or death. This may be shifting as the modern workplace reconciles with feminism, but the brutal reality is reflected in wage gaps and racist rules of professional appearance.

Nobody wants to break with the idea that they are a “good person” and that none of their actions are accountable for subjugating or disenfranchising others. While being a “good person” is a concept that needs be done away with, being effectively anti-racist and/or an abolitionist, one must actively acknowledge and accept their privilege and leverage it for the advancement of those it exploits. Dismissing the suffering one receives at the expense of another is violent.

Justice is not demanding an apology for something that is out of anyone’s control, such as being born light in complexion or being a cis male or being heterosexual. What justice demands in order to truly drive in its roots into the foundations of our social interactions in this corrupt world are practices of equity carried out by privileged people, starting with the acknowledgment of privilege, inequality and inequity, and a real commitment to balancing the scales. It needs people of privilege to stop aligning themselves with the systems that actually exploit all of us and start having compassion for those who have very naturally feel derision and contempt for the seeming agents of their debasement. But ultimately, justice demands an understanding that while people may be vehicles and sometimes practitioners of the systems of exploitation, it is truly the system and the ideology it is founded upon that warrants scorn and that the only true liberation can only come from an exposition of the toxic truth of these practices and a thorough removal of all traces of these dastardly philosophies.

Originally published: October 16, 2020
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