The Racist Roots of Colorism

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Colorism-- this phenomenon is so deeply rooted within communities of color that it's almost taboo to talk about. Or maybe it just hurts too deeply to call out by name. But if you're not a person of color, everything I just said might sound completely foreign. But it is very real. And its traumatic effect on the mental health of communities of color continues to be an issue.

We want to boil colorism down to a simple explanation, it is discrimination, prejudice, bigotry based on skin tone and color.

And what is the difference between colorism and racism?

RADHIKA PARAMESWARAN: If we think about racism and how it's been defined, it typically pertains to attitudes, behaviors, the treatment of one racial group vis-a-vis the other. The interesting thing about colorism is it can often be something related to how members of a community of color treat one another. So in some ways, colorism is also about internalized racism that is perpetuated by members of one community upon other members of their same community.

Even though colorism is rooted inside each community, we can trace its origins back to an outside force-- European colonialism.

So for colorism in Black communities in the US, then, that is tied to chattel slavery. So there was a skin tone hierarchy that was created intentionally so if you were lighter skinned, you worked in a house. If you were darker skinned, then you worked in the field. What this did is it led to literal divisions among enslaved people. You're less likely to band together for a slave revolt because it added animosity within group.

So what happened in Latin America is that when the Spaniards came to colonize, they establish a system of ranking, where they place individuals who were lighter skinned and white at the top, and then darker-skinned individuals with non-European phenotype at the bottom of the ranking order. Now, this system has led to the adoration, the glorification, and the perception that anything that's European, that is lighter skinned is better. And because of that, they are deserving privileges that are afforded to them in society, like better jobs, like access to wealth, education, resources, and so on.

KELLY WAIRIMU DAVIS: But in some Eastern cultures, skin tone bias was an issue long before the Europeans arrived.

Colorism was a thing before colonization. In East Asia, the focus was on class. If you're lighter skinned, then that means that you're not toiling outside in the field. So it was this idea of having the luxury, having the means to be able to be inside. If you were darker skinned, then you were a laborer. And so skin color was associated with class. So that's how colorism started, particularly in Eastern Asia, but also in Southern Asia.

KELLY WAIRIMU DAVIS: But the ugly reality across cultures is that colorism usually starts at home. Ideas of self-doubt can be introduced very early and can be hard to shake.

Colorism within the community begins even before birth. So throughout the family, there is expectations and ideologies that are passed. Even before the child comes, it's very common for families to ask or make comments about the child's skin color. As if the child is lighter skinned, they will make comments like, oh, look at your child. They're so cute. They're so light skinned.

RADHIKA PARAMESWARAN: Oftentimes, there will be siblings in the family. And praise will be heaped upon the siblings who have a lighter skin tone. And part of it, of course, is that people want this child to have a good life. And light skin sets you up for a good life.

And these are all discussions that happened within families casually, not being aware that they are really doing damage to the dark-skinned child. They can feel excluded. They can feel less than. Their self esteem suffers a lot, and sometimes to the point where they may even think that their parents don't love them as much as perhaps a sibling who is lighter skinned.

So what it ends up doing is the child ends up carrying a lot of stigma and shame. And it's like a heavy backpack. It can be something they carry with them into their adult lives and even make it hard for them to have good romantic relationships and just be themselves to the fullest extent possible.

KELLY WAIRIMU DAVIS: In the next video, I'll speak to a mental health expert about how to address the psychological trauma of experiencing colorism from those closest to you and explore ways we as people of color at our core can truly esteem the beauty of rich skin tones and other ethnic features. Stay tuned.