The Issue of Colorism

The Issue of Colorism: Dark-Skinned Girls, Light-Skinned Girls

By Akilah Holder, BA, MA
April 24, 2012 –

Akilah HolderFor the most part of my life, I have had to deal with the drama of being stereotyped from the moment I step into a room because of my light-brown complexion. The animosity directed my way is usually intensified by the length of my hair and my mannerisms. And most of this animosity comes from my own sex, the darker-skinned of my own sex. This animosity seems to be indicative of and to be a result of colorism, defined as a conscious or unconscious state of prejudice that may be experienced by both blacks and whites so that they label as less attractive and intelligent individuals of a darker complexion… Continue…

Re: “The Issue of Colorism: Dark-Skinned Girls, Light-Skinned Girls”

By Leslie
April 25, 2012 –

LeslieThe article “The Issue of Colorism: Dark-Skinned Girls, Light-Skinned Girls” written by Akilah Holder in the April 7th 2012, Trinidad Express newspaper raised a number of points regarding colorism, but none was more poignant than the fact that the writer herself is clearly challenged by the topic which she is attempting to address. Holder’s article gives the impression that light skinned people are the main victims of colorism. I do agree that “Colorism, whether acknowledged or not, is present in Trinidad and Tobago” but the article is misleading and ill-informing at best. Holder believes that she experiences colorism in her workplace. For her, this is evidenced by the treatment — negative attitudes — of her darker-hued co-workers toward her. Not knowing the specifics of the author’s work environment, I can only speak from a general understanding of colorism, the workplace, the home and the society at large.

Because our still very patriarchal society values light skin over dark, dark skinned females are invariably most subjected to unfair bias and negative stereotypes. Conversely, lighter skinned persons suffer less negative discrimination which is roughly proportional to how close they are to the white ideal. Age, perceived levels of education, social standing in society among other things may factor into how people are treated along race and colour lines.

Light skinned colour and long, straight or curly hair textures are all annexed to the ideal of whiteness or European ancestry and mixed ethnicity whereas short, kinky hair, broad nose, along with dark skin identifies with African ancestry and is ultimately negatively stereotyped. This is also evident from her statement regarding Shelly-Ann Jacobs – “She’s even been accused of trying to be white because she dyes her hair frequently.” Dyeing one’s hair, specifically various shades of blond, is most often done either deliberately or unconsciously to mimic whiteness, and in an already fair skinned or mixed race person, to emphasize the European features that she already has.

Given that Holder provided quotes and paraphrases from persons who appear to have studied the subject of colorism, the conclusion she draws demonstrates a lack of understanding about the same information that she quotes. A similar lack of understanding of colorism and its effects can be found in Alidra Nicholas’ article “The Plight of the ‘Red Woman’ in T&T” published in the April 21st Trinidad Express newspaper which speaks about colorism affecting light skinned folks.

On the colour hierarchical scale people readily accept snobbish, boorish and elitist attitudes from those who are lighter in complexion. Even light skinned folks receive negative discrimination from persons who are more light skinned than they are but accept or tolerate it. Most people don’t think much of these poor attitudes because of the assumed benefits that they derive from being in the company of lighter skinned folks while the same poor conduct is emulated and unleashed upon persons of darker hue. It is often the case that from a young age children are trained, particularly through their family, to tolerate arrogant, spoilt and selfish behaviour from fairer hued persons but reject and cry down far less repulsive behaviours from darker peers. Often, darker skinned folks are more tolerant of the disgusting behaviours of lighter skinned folks once they are “friends” with them.

Besides the fact that light skinned persons are more favoured for senior positions in the work place, for example, a light skinned person is more inclined to show indifference to dark skinned folks, not defend them in situations that warrants it, not reward or recognise them equally for diligence in their tasks, not praise them in situations where they are deserving, unfairly delay addressing their requests, not recommend them for promotions etc. Because these issues are so prevalent in society at large and in the work place, some darker skinned blacks could be reacting to these attitudes and not simply envy due to someone’s light skinned complexion.

The writer makes two comments about the jealousy of dark skinned individuals toward lighter skinned ones based on the ‘mannerisms’ of light skinned persons: “The animosity directed my way is usually intensified by the length of my hair and my mannerisms” and “Jacobs has admitted that initially, she was unaware of the racial tension at play until another co-worker had pulled her aside and explained to her that her light complexion antagonises her subordinates; to them, she is arrogant, ‘feel she white’ and ‘feel she dey.’ Jacobs’ mannerisms worsen the situation.”

Could it be that the display of certain ‘mannerisms’ (whether wittingly or unwittingly) meted out to darker-skinned co-workers by lighter skinned counterparts worsen the treatment received from them? Could these mannerisms allude to some degree of aloofness, disdain or arrogance? Do these mannerisms refer to them (Holder and Jacobs) being more “sophisticated” based on their perceived physical attributes? These mannerisms, that is to say, attitudes and behaviours, can vary from flippancy, disdain to outright disrespect and may contribute to hostile reactions. Many light skinned ones develop a sense of entitlement as a result of their perceived desirability and are resultantly snobbish, perhaps armoured with the awareness that they are closer to the white ideal than their darker skinned counterparts. Most dark skinned ones have also bought into the notion of light and lighter skinned superiority and, as a result, tolerate poor attitudes and conduct from lighter skinned ones. Thus, when Holder speaks as though she is the victim of negative colour prejudice, it seems disingenuous.

In fact, light skinned ones cannot claim victimization at the hands of dark skinned ones; the term victimization implies systemic disadvantage and dark skinned ones do not have that power in this system where white and light is valued over black. Light skinned ones, however, can claim to be subjected to envy and even so, most do not complain. What this writer projects, rather than being the victim of colorism, is a shallow dismissal of dark skinned people, many of whom would be envious of her privilege… a kind of “don’t hate me because I’m beautiful” attitude.

The writer only speaks about the insecurities of darker skinned females as though lighter skinned females don’t have insecurities of their own. All people suffer from insecurities of one type or the other, especially based on how they look as they all vie to fit into the Eurocentric ideal of beauty. Most whites can’t even fit this ideal. Dark skinned Africans who are vying to attain a measure of “success” in this Eurocentric world have much to feel insecure about which can be addressed by developing a good measure of consciousness of themselves in this world. For example, persons such as the writer who are neither very fair nor very dark may desire to be fairer and may even perceive themselves to be fairer than they actually are. However, they may not get the kind of attention and privileges that fairer skinned persons receive and are continuously inhibited by that gap between their perception and reality.

The arrogance of the writer is clear when she states that colorism “is a state of mind that many dark-skinned women must overcome.” She sees it as a problem of “other” people: not “we light skinned people” but “them dark skinned ones.” Colorism is not just a state of mind for dark skinned people alone to work on but a social problem for all to address. I suppose she feels that dark skinned people should accept the status quo without complaint; accept that light skinned ones are preferred as children by parents as well as the wider society, treated better in the classroom by peers and teachers alike, promoted in the workplace often not necessarily based on merit as PhD student at the University of Georgia, Michael Harrison concludes in his study, get higher salaries, get off the hook far more than dark skinned persons for similar offences, are more desired by members of the opposite sex (or same sex) as sexual partners, among other things. Apparently, there is no need for light skinned individuals to check themselves to see if their attitudes and often undeserved privileges may be the reason why some darker individuals are resentful. Dark skinned individuals should slavishly accept societal notions that they are ugly (especially the darkest, broadest nose, fattest, shortest, kinkiest haired of them all), would be judged, not on their ability but on how society views them based on colour hierarchy, would be least favoured by members of their own families, peers, and the work place…they must be servile…don’t say a word…not a wince nor snicker. The issue here is not just about whether darker skinned persons are contented or not about how they look, but about how people (both light and dark skinned) treat dark skinned persons based on their appearance and genetic identity. The problem is also how most people tolerate the poor conduct and excesses of lighter skinned folks.

No one, as Holder suggests, is asking light skinned people to “apologise for how they look.” However, it would be in society’s best interest if we all examine issues such as colorism and see whether poor attitudes can be corrected. Of course, an evaluation of colorism may be seen as a threat to one’s own privilege in the system so most prefer to shy away from examination of this issue. Light-skinned people may prefer to forego self-assessment and place blame on those most disadvantaged by negative colour prejudice. As the writer lamely states, “The trick is to be ok with “you”. But being okay with one’s self means a total rejection of a system that values white over brown over black. It means tackling the issue head-on whenever and wherever it arises. It means not trying to fit in with the straightened hair, hair weaves, bleaching creams and coloured contact lenses. It means not accepting poor and demeaning attitudes from light skinned ones who would rather bask in their privilege than challenge a system that is clearly unjust. Often, dark skinned ones do not examine their own conduct in upholding these negative prejudices and are protective of their light skinned friends when it comes to addressing colorism because they want to fit in. So being okay with one’s self is to become conscious, confident and courageous, and not cower to light skinned privilege, racism and all other social ills.

3 thoughts on “The Issue of Colorism”

  1. I researched and published a book on colourism five years ago which is available to read online free:

    I am inclined to agree with Leslie’s analysis. Colourism works largely to the disadvantage of darker skinned women – not just because they are farther from the Eurocentric beauty ideal that many women of African descent internalize; but studies in the US show that there are economic consequences as well. Recent research even shows that darker skinned women get longer prison sentences than their lighter skinned peers. It was hard not to notice the contempt for darker skinned women exposed through Akilah’s condescending tone. She assumed that her dark-skinned co-workers were jealous of her without entertaining the idea that many dark-skinned women love and value their blackness and African features and do not wish to mimic European standards of beauty. She also wrote in a manner that devalued dark-skinned women and she suggests without foundation, that her dark-skinned peers are insecure and have feelings of inferiority. At no time does she ever question her own behaviour and attitude, though the arrogance and derogatory attitude she has towards dark-skinned women would clearly provoke hostility and is the most likely cause of her lack of popularity. She is clearly afflicted by ‘Acquired Anti-Own Race Syndrome’ a term developed by Clinton Hutton which refers to: ‘The philosophy and psychology of assumed European world cultural superiority expressed by African peoples in their relations with each other and in perceiving and operating in the world.’ Usually, knowledge sets you free, but sadly in Akilah’s case, despite reading up on the topic she remains ignorant – as understanding the historical foundations of colourism has not freed her from the mental chains of Eurocentricity – because she chooses to cling to the superiority and privilege that it affords her.

  2. If I was growing up today, instead of being fully grown, the new word colourism may have bothered me.My mother had eight daughters, almost carbon copies of her face, and that of her sisters, since we could have exchanged children and no one outside the family would have been any the wiser; and we came in every shade from palest pinkish yellow, to the colour of coffee brewed in rainwater. I am the “middle colour”.I have four shades of makeup, depending on the time of year.
    The discrimination I met in life had to do with the assumption that what I got, where I got to, had to do with my pretty face and not my brains. Up to now, I run into people who think I am cute, and then they want to classify me as a terrorist because of my hard-nosed views on many issues. In other words, cute and pretty, should remain quiet. You kidding.

    Colourism exists. I would have liked a grandaughter to look just like me. No luck, but I have lots of great nieces, again in every shade, who carry versions of my face forward.

    These things exist. Triumph over them with the best preparation you can for life. Be widely read, well informed and when you open your mouth, let pearls of wisdom and joy flow forth.Astonish the “opposition” and your colour would really not matter.

  3. I would never classify her as a light skinned black in the fashion of say Alicia keyes, halle berry or even rhianna. Her features are definatley african. She is just a silly, self indulgent, self conscious black woman who is completley deluded about what she really looks like, and exposes how much more value she places upon color than she really wants to let on.

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