Dealing with Colourism

A Step Towards the African Revolution

By Leslie,
October 05, 2006

EmancipationThe session at the last Moonlight Gathering in September was highly profound and without a doubt, edifying and interesting. Usually, after a period of song, poetry, drumming and other chosen activities, the group at the Moonlight Gathering would engage an issue; any issue that we feel worth discussing and for whatever reasons. However, the last gathering was the first time that the discussion was so heated; so much so, that some chose to ‘stay out of the kitchen’.

The issue discussed was the controversial topic, colourism. This subject had never been talked about so openly at the gathering before and some were stunned that it would have ever been brought up. Members of the gathering were knocked out of their positions of comfort and were forced to come to terms with this issue; at least those who were courageous enough to stay within the circle to discuss it. Seeing that many were largely unfamiliar with the term and issues surrounding colourism, I attempted to briefly explain it as I would do now. The word colourism is a recent term that has entered into our vocabulary which has arisen in an attempt to address the deeper complex of race discrimination which is a critical and largely unaddressed aspect of racism.

Colourism is an offshoot or a product of racism and is intricately linked with it. It is a form of discrimination which occurs worldwide and is based on the colour or shade of one’s skin and how close or far away it is from the perceived white ideal. It is distinguished by how lighter skin tones are preferred, and darker skin tones are considered to be less desirable. This is a problem within all communities: The Indian community, the Chinese community, the Hispanic community, the Japanese community, the Native American community, the Arab community, the African community and yes, even within the white community. However, because the blonde hair, blue eyed, thin, tall female/male is the accepted aesthetic ideal and the Black, fat, short woman/man is considered unattractive and ugly, it is those within the African community that face the brunt of colourism. This is especially so for the darkest, most kinky haired, flat nose, thick lipped, fattest, shortest African woman who suffers on all levels in this system that one individual in the last gathering wrongly described as “meritocratic”.

Some feel that when we talk about colourism that we are diminishing the potency of the word racism. I would disagree whole-heartedly because this word forces us to deal with the intricacies of racism. Now, don’t get me wrong, colourism is in no way devoid of racism as some would like to believe but it helps in dissecting the deepest layers of the beast which would normally be overlooked by just labeling it all as “racism”. Some believe that colourism is simply a form of Black on Black racism where Blacks discriminate against others based on their skin tone. This is not totally the truth because other races deal with Blacks based on their skin tone as well and do show preference for lighter-skinned individuals within the Black group.

Colourism affects every aspect of society and at all levels: the home, the school, relationships between that of mother/father, brother/sister, friends, husband/wife, boss/employee and the work place which was a factor developed by PhD student at the University of Georgia, Mr. Michael Harrison, in his study on how colourism affects the workplace. To quote him,

“You have two Black individuals going into a job where all of their qualifications and everything were equivalent to one another and the lighter skinned Black would get the job over their darker skinned counterparts.”

Even the so-called African revolutionaries within Black organizations treat Blacks based on their colour. People have a tendency of selecting their leaders and members of the upper hierarchy of these organizations based on how close they are to whiteness. Not taking away from the contributions of these individuals, we see examples of this in leaders such as Huey Newton of the Black Panther Party, Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, Elijah Muhammad, Booker T. Washington and others. Even when there are examples of Black African leadership, who are usually males, you are almost sure to find them with light-skinned women at their sides as if the true Black African Queens are not worthy of standing at their sides. Eldridge Cleaver, Al Sharpton, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan, Martin Luther King Jr. and even within organizations in Trinidad and Tobago such as the Emancipation Support Committee and the National Joint Action Committee are clear examples of this.

At the last gathering, someone mentioned W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey in the same sentence arguing that the economic betterment of Black people was critical to the Black revolution. “Marcus Garvey say so…” the gentleman stressed. But he forgot that Marcus Garvey was despised and his message dismissed by other so-called Blacks and Black leadership all over the world. He too was a victim of colourism and size discrimination. The well loved Du Bois even had this to say about Garvey in an article in “The Crisis” which echoed the general attitude towards dark-skinned Blacks at the time and even now, “[Garvey] suffered from serious defects of temperament and training” and went on to describe him as “… a little, fat, black man, ugly…with a big head.” Apparently Garvey was too Black to lead a “Black” movement. So stating that we need to gain control of the economy or whatever still does nothing to change the inherent and disgusting attitudes prevalent even within the Black community and these must be addressed if not before, concomitant with these other issues.

As a matter of fact and although few like to admit it, there have existed many so-called ‘Black’ organizations such as “The Blue Vein Society” which discriminated against Blacks on the basis of their hue. Unless blue veins were visible through clear skins, persons were denied entry into such societies. ‘Brown bag parties’ which disallowed entry of persons darker than the brown paper bag were also very popular in the 1960s and 1970s. In addition, as one writer pointed out, this type of practice was more common than one thought. The unnamed writer went on to explain, “Even before then, in the 1920s, “color-tax” parties were another means for alienating blacks. At these parties, men would have to pay a tax on the scale of how dark their dates were, the darker the date, the higher the tax.” These attitudes continue to live on today and people, whether they are cognizant of it or not, discriminate and treat each other differently based on the colour of their skins. It is also clear, even today, that light skin is preferable; even our heroes seem more heroic when they are lighter skinned.

Now I have met many people within and outside the bounds of the university (UWI) who claim to be revolutionaries/non-conformists or wish for a total or partial overthrow of the system. [Cool.] They talk of economic reformism, change in the political system and even a revamp or the creation of Black based movements to deal with the ills of the system. However, whenever the topic of addressing colourism comes up people tend to back away from the discussions or if involved, distort or distract from the discussions. Some, especially the lighter-skinned individuals tend to personalize the discussions and act as victims of separatism while their darker skinned friends try their best to “tone-down” these discussions to protect the egos of their light-skinned friends. They have accepted the notions of their inferiority and seem afraid to challenge the status quo with the hope that they too would one day ascend the rungs of socio-economic privilege or rather descend into the pit of lies and deception where most are happy to dwell. The funny thing about this is that they deny the truth and their own experiences so as to appease their fellow light-Black friends. Ask them, “When you and your girls/ boys were discussing good looking Black males and females in the entertainment industry, who’d be your pick?” I am certain without any doubt, (because I too engaged in these discussions) Halle Berry, Vanessa Williams, Jada Pinkett, Aaliyah, Shante Moore, Beyonce, Mariah Carey, Rhianna, Tyra Banks, Janet Jackson, Allison Hinds, Alicia Keys, that light skin dude on Soul food, Shemar Moore, and the list goes on. But the question was asked about Black entertainers and so far no dark-skinned Blacks were mentioned. Then they might say, “Whitney Houston with her polished features , Erykah Badu because of her light eyes and maybe Lauryn Hill.” They, would even, without proper consideration, boast of their support of media such as BET, MTV, Synergy TV, Tempo, Essence magazine etc. which promote light-skinned people and not dark-skinned Blacks as symbols of beauty, power and leadership.

Some even state boldly that they prefer a lighter skinned or white or non African male or female because they don’t want their children to have nappy hair or dark skin or that they could possibly have blue or green or even hazel brown eyes or other fantastical expectations. Some, particularly the females, are not afraid to hide their self-loathe and straighten their hair, add hair extensions, dye their hair (especially blonde) which is the ‘in thing’ now, grow fashion dreads for the long hair look, bleach their skins, wear colored contact lenses, utilize make up tricks to appear lighter or whiter – take the makeup Oprah Winfrey wears, for example – diet to gain the ‘ideal’ figure and so much more. Some, like their Asian counterparts, stay indoors and wear long sleeved shirts to avoid the sun; use skin lightening creams just as those in India and Japan do; or like those in China, surgically remove the slant in their eyes to appear less Asian and more European; or like the Jewish and Arab folk remove the characteristic hump from their noses. Members of the Black race who support these actions are enemies of the revolution because their actions also contribute to the genocide of the African race. And the term genocide is quite accurate and legitimate even though many cowards claim that it is too harsh. It is what it is and I refuse to use the language of the conformists and the assimilationists who are insensitive to the urgency of Black Africans addressing their issues.

It is evident therefore, that they too have bought into the system. And if they don’t deal with the issue of colourism then it is further proof that it is not a revolution that they want but merely a chance to assimilate into the same corrupt, white, male-dominated capitalist system that oppressed them and continues to oppress them.

I think that some people come here (to the Moonlight Gathering) and expect some type of ‘hippie’ get-together. If that is the trend that some of you wish to follow, you are free to do so – without my involvement of course. But those who are serious about change for the better must examine their conduct and demonstrate courageousness and deal with the issues that affect us frankly and honestly. Putting the issue of colourism on the backburner wouldn’t work either because of the very reason that we deal with each other, even here, based on skin colour biases. Those who are most affected must step up and demand that these issues are discussed. Others should respect our rights and allow us space to work out these issues.

The time for a world-wide revolution is now and it begins with the African revolution. Without first addressing colourism it is impossible to fight racism and without tackling racism then we are nothing but conformists and supporters of the system.

Reprinted from:

Trinidad and Tobago News Blog’s URL for this article:

9 thoughts on “Dealing with Colourism”

  1. You know I think that is what racism is: colourism. I don’t think it’s really a race as such but the tone of one’s skin that some people can’t handle.

    Interesting read.

  2. Racism is the root, colourism or the brown paper bag test represent the offshoots. Coulourism did not come about independently. It was na response to racism by those willing to compromise. If they could not get a seat at the table because they did not fit the exact prototype, at least they could become qualified for the scraps by virtue of how close they could emulate THAT PROTOTYPE.

    That is the continuum of color around which power and opportunity and acceptability in this world revolves

  3. It is interesting to note that most of these “stars” mentioned in your article:
    Halle Berry, Vanessa Williams, Jada Pinkett, Aaliyah, Shante Moore, Beyonce, Mariah Carey, Rhianna, Tyra Banks, Janet Jackson, Allison Hinds, Alicia Keys, that light skin dude on Soul food, Shema Moore are mixed race individuals.
    They belong to a group of “new americans” who consider themselves bi-racial. Should they not be recognized as such? Tiger Woods has boldly declared his bi-racialism on many occasions. Should he deny his mother’s heritage?
    Is it not possible for bi-racial individuals to claim their mixed heritage without being accused of racialism or colourism?
    Your point regarding colourism in society is however,well taken. A hierarchy based on color still exists in Caribbean societies today, and we are all aware that this was as a result of slavery and the roles given to slaves by slave masters.
    Your point regarding the practice of Asians to lighten their skin color etc. is right on.The desire to make oneself closer to “white” is a worldwide phenomenon.
    Look at the ad put out by the Clinton campaign, making Obama much darker than he really is, in an attempt to scare White voters. Colourism is at work!

  4. When Leslie first wrote this article in 2006, Barack Obama was that brilliant young Democratic senator who had been the Keynote Speaker at the Democratic National Convention, who had swept away all opposition in becoming a Senator from Illonois and so on.

    Now we have the Hillary Clinton campaign, accused by some media of darkening his face in ads. Now he has appeared in the American media dressed in the traditional custume of a Somali chief(Somalia being An American Enemy) The media has found his illiterate grandmother’s hut in Kenya, and tried to speak to her. She refused. They say she wanted money.

    Why all this change? Because he has the temerity to BE A Candidate for the US Presidency, and has won the popular vote of Democratic primaries.

    What of his white mother’s family? They are not interviewed in the media. What of his Hawaiian half sister who campaigned for him in Hawaii, his other home state, and whose primary he won by 70 percent? Not much on her either. It is his blackness that counts to the opposition. His wife is interviewed as the potential Black occupant of the White House. I think previous occupants, and present wishers think that there is more to the name of the house than the colour of the paint. I think they think its theirs for eternity!

    This is the modern delimma of race driven politics, race driven everything. Around the world, young people see him as a symbol of hope, of uniting people around common ideas and ideals. Young Americans see him as taking back the respect we had lost in the eyes of the world through war mongering and other immoral, illegal behaviours. Yet, the opposition and media see him as The black Candidate, and every state’s primary election is analysed along racial lines.

    Note, that the African-Americans are not doing this. The older white Washinton establishment is determined to frustrate the will of the voters, to keep power to themselves.

    At this level, colourism and racism are intertwined and one defines the other. The banks in Trinidad are another example. I am waiting to see an ebony beauty, like the late Pearl MArshall Beard, work in a high profile, public interface position at any bank in TnT.

  5. Colourism may be new terminology but the foundation and essence of the behavior described is racism.

    The existence of “colourism” among the former colonized and their progeny is a testament to the thorough job of brainwashing and remolding done by our oppressor. We have incorporated his thought pattern, manners, customs, culture, and his convictions. The colonial institutions —particularly schools and law enforcement—served to teach, coerce and gain acceptance for false and unscientific notions about race and colour. Thus, our lack of critical analysis as to the yardstick the colonizer applied to measure IQ, beauty, self-worth, and determine how the distribution of goods and services would take place in the society he created.

    While quite a thought-provoking article, it merely discusses racism— prejudice (the subjective dimension) and discrimination (the overt acts) that arise on the basis of skin colour.

  6. I am very fortunate not to have been raised in an environment where substance was the only way to measure a person. To me, the color of a person’s skin is unimportant. I think physically: bone structure and musculature are far more diverting – this form of beauty crosses all races and cultures. Taye Diggs is stunning. Nobody with good eye sight can dispute that. He’d still be gorgeous if he was purple. 😉

  7. “The banks in Trinidad are another example. I am waiting to see an ebony beauty, like the late Pearl MArshall Beard, work in a high profile, public interface position at any bank in TnT.” To think conniving distortions want to still make us believe that all is fine for kinky hair folks in Trinidad simply because the most successful political party in the country since 1962 was predominantly African. What a deceptive joke!
    Racism can never be used with respect to 99.9 % of the African leaders throughout the world, as most often tend to push the welfare of other over their own – especially in Trinidad and Tobago.

    As to the issue listed in the original article she indicated that Oprah Winfrey would repeatedly get on specific “diet to gain the ‘ideal’.” I would say , ‘as she should as well as million of obese black women that think there is some cultural pride in being overweight , and to prove it continually stuff their loved ones with humongous amounts of bad foods which in the end leads to ‘suicide by gluttony.’ To think that black folks by paying attention to their diets, are somehow mimicking their white counterparts, is as ridiculous as saying that they are trying to “talk white” if they make attempts to improve grammar, and diction where appropriate. Utter nonsense, as if whites’ copycats somehow have some monopoly on anything across the globe, including a wholesome and healthy lifestyle.
    To show how this colorization game can work in mysterious ways, it would have been nice to test the theory as to what Uncle Barack political fortunes in Chicago and nationally, would have been if he had married one of those many typical empty head, confuse, self haters that looked like him such as Tyra Banks, Halle Berry, Vanessa Williams, Jada Pinkett, Beyonce, Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, or Alicia Keys.
    Tyra Banks is attractive. Lord forgive us! I wonder why even with all her millions that such has not translated to any romantic fortunes as yet? That however is a much different topic.

  8. Dark skinned people-non-Europeans, whether they be South Indian, African or First American originated people must love the skin we’re in, and the hair that goes with it.

    My niece had noticed that European women have a way of tssing their hair, horselike, sometimes into the faces of others nearby. It an aggressive sexual gesture, based on the belief that their hair is ‘BETTER’ than very curly hair.
    In response, my neice has grown dreadlocks down to her butt.(Took ten years) She tosses it arrogantly also. Some people scatter. She is imitating Medusa, the Nuban described by the Greeks as having flashing black eyes, and snakes growing from her head. My neice is only about five foot four, but the way she wears that hair speaks of an arroagnce that no one dare deny.

    Thisis her hair of choice, it goes with her degree frpm Rutgers and all that.

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