Updated: Nov 23, 2019
Although many are far more familiar with the concept of racism, colourism is fast becoming a widespread and insidious issue in society.
Colourism refers to prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group. People from minority communities are far more aware of colourism, whether they are on the lighter or darker end of the spectrum. Ultimately colourism affects people in different ways. People with darker skin may typically feel less desirable and harbour other implications of having darker skin. However, there can also be prejudices against those with lighter skin because of envy, and a privilege that people with darker shades feel that they don't necessarily deserve, and thus makes this issue a complex and deep-rooted one.
Non-POCs may not be aware of the intricacies of coloursim, they would know of racism (even if they are inadvertently helping to perpetuate this - to them a black person is a black person, irrespective of the skin shade) and are most likely oblivious to structured inequalities that may lead to a particular preferred skin tone.
Photography by Nadine Ijewere
Colourism has different histories in different parts of the world. For the descendants of trans-atlantic slaves, coloursim can be traced back to the differential treatment given to enslaved people with light skin. These slaves were a product of rapes by slave masters. Typically, slaves with lighter skin were given jobs inside the house - the easier jobs were seen with higher status, and in some cases some of these slaves were freed.
Of course, there were repercussion, and over time this preferential treatment towards those with lighter skin continued and was perpetuated. For the countries that have a history of European colonialism, privilege has been associated with those with white and light skin. Colonisers had children with women of these countries, with some even marrying the local women. Naturally, these children would have lighter skin, and more ‘power’ in comparison to their darker peers, and were provided with better education opportunities.
Queen Charlotte by Allan Ramsay, 1761
Colourism can also be seen in renaissance paintings. Irrespective of lineage, affluent women and those in power were always depicted as chubby with porcelain skin, partly because they didn’t go outside and they didn’t engage in labour on the land. Similarly among many minority groups, there's a universal consensus that a person who works outside is deemed lower class, and paler skin equates to nobility.
Of course, there’s the debate that it isn’t just white skin that people are aiming for. There's also this idea that mixed, exotic or a racially-ambiguous shade is associated with power, wealth, dominance and beauty, and is the sole reason many darker people aspire to have whiter skin.
Photography by Godfried Donkor
Forecasters have predicted that the skin lightening industry will be worth 23 billion dollars by 2020, which isn't far away at all. There’s a host of public figures who adhere to Eurocentric beauty standards in some form or another. Skin lightening creams are favoured mainly by women across black and Asian communities. In Nigeria alone, the World Health Organisation estimates a staggering 77 per cent of Nigerian women use them.
Beyond entertainment, the beauty industry is responsible for amplifying the problem of colourism by upholding certain beauty standards. Cosmetic Scientist and MDMFlow founder, Florence Adepoju tells Grazia 'the mainstream beauty industry has shown a single view of beauty for a long period of time - this contributes to colourism as dark-skinned black women are rarely included in this narrative... if they are, they are usually the odd one or two and are celebrated for having western features.' She adds, 'by refusing to celebrate the various forms and complexions of black beauty, the beauty industry has perpetuated the narrative that lighter-skinned women are somehow inherently more beautiful'.
For generations colourism has been firmly embedded within black, brown and asian communities. We need to strive to combat colourism by raising awareness, taking a stance and building on anti-racism campaigns, engage in dialogues and challenge these societal constructs through discussions and articles. We need to stop supporting brands, companies and celebrities who are making a profit from people's insecurities. We need to allow for people to love their complexion, rather than resent the skin that they were born in.
Photography by Stephanie Nnamani