While communities of color constantly find themselves fighting back against the racist and white supremacist realities of American and global culture, they also often battle another more insidious oppressive force: colorism.
Whether one considers themselves a BIPOC (Black or indigenous person of color) or they come from any other non-white racially or ethnic background, they are likely to have familiarity with concepts of colorism. Almost every non-white race has its own form of this dangerous pathology that “lighter is better.”
In effect, we become our own problematic enemy when we embrace colorism. That is precisely why it is difficult to combat — it requires us to look inward at internalized aspects of white supremacy and anti-blackness (or anti-dark skin). Though it is difficult, it’s still worth calling out when you see it in yourself or others. Here’s how:
Challenge Your #BabyGoals
It’s quite common to hear people suggest they look forward to having light-skin or light-eyed babies, due to a recessive gene that runs in their family. While all babies are adorable, this concept suggests that it is ultimately more desirable to have a child that will grow up to appear white passing. This type of colorism doesn’t necessarily suggest people want their children to pass for white, but it does imply that their child’s beauty and desirability is directly correlated to their physical proximity to whiteness.
Anytime these types of comments come up, it’s important to question the underlying reasons why one hopes for lighter babies. Is it because they think that will be more beautiful? Or, is it because they believe they’ll have an easier life? These types of “goals” should always be questioned.
Rethink Your Beauty Routine
Once upon a time, American culture descended into the anti-Wakanda land of Kardashian, where everyone beat their face — to go to the gym or the grocery store — with the tribal marks of a hyper-contoured culture. The problem? Contouring was specifically made to “shade” naturally occurring black, brown, and indigenous features (such as wide noses) and “highlight” or create more white features.
Moreover, many skincare routines on notions of basking in lighteners and brighteners to ultimately give skin a much lighter complexion (under the guise of “reducing hyperpigmentation”).
While it requires a critical and re-educated eye, it’s important to embrace non-white features as acceptable beauty (not to be corrected or made over) — even if that means making the radical decision to not contour your nose or resist using brightening agents on your skin.
It’s about high time we rethink obsessive contouring and other practices that cause us to subconsciously reject our features.
Stop Assuming Diversity Can Be Exclusively Solved by Light Skin Women
From J.Lo to Beyonce to Priyanka Chopra, it’s easy to feel like we have “so much representation” in Hollywood these days. But truly, many of the women of color in Hollywood continue to reflect one end of the color spectrum for people of color. While some inroads have been made with Lupita N’yongo and Amara La Negra, we rarely see the full scope of colors in that industry.
That means other industries are even less likely to reflect women of color who are much darker and less ambiguous. Ultimately, when all of our diversity looks the same — are we truly being diverse at all?
It’s important to acknowledge the role colorism plays when selecting who will represent people of color to ensure that we’re not replacing racism with colorism and defeating the purpose of including non-white folks, to begin with.
Learn the Difference between Ethnicity and Skin Color
This one may be a bit controversial, but if it upsets you — it may mean you need to reassess your relationship to skin color. Many people continue to confuse their ethnicity with their skin color, thinking that being Asian or even Latina can preclude someone from being dark-skinned or Black. The reality: Many Latinx people and even Asian people are very dark-skinned; at times, as dark or darker than African people.
Skin color varies broadly in all non-white ethnicities, yet colorism has caused many of us to erase those of darker skin tones across various groups. We do not want to associate our ethnicities with dark-skin or Blackness, so we rarely allow darker skinned people of our ethnicities to be spotlighted. Rarely do we see darker skin Latinx people represented in popular culture, and we almost never see darker Asian celebrated.
If we want to stop the erasure of entire masses of our own ethnic groups, it’s important that we begin acknowledging that dark-skinned people exist among us and start giving them platforms to be represented.
If You’re Light-Skinned, Accept Your Privilege and Use It
Another tough pill to swallow among people of color is that light-skinned people experience vastly more privilege than dark skinned people. More often than not, we discuss the privilege afforded to white people — access, accolades, love, and adoration — without recognizing how much our culture exclusively offers those same benefits to certain people of color.
Why? Because their appearance reflects whiteness.
Having the ability to manipulate your appearance to be less ethnic, and cashing in on that ability when necessary, is ultimately capitalizing on colorism. It is using one’s ability to shape-shift and be viewed as racially ambiguous to gain access to more spaces, opportunities, and even romantic relationships than dark-skinned people of the same ethnic group. It is not far fetched to say light-skinned people find themselves being called attractive or good-looking by white people more often than dark-skinned people.
So when we also jump to call light-skinned people attractive more than we do dark-skinned people, we perpetuate the cycle. What’s worse, though, is when light-skinned people take advantage of those moments. Instead of embracing that colorism, it’s important to push back and use privilege to educate others on their own ignorances.