Ever heard people of colour refer to each other as “light-skinned” or “dark-skinned?” Ever found yourself classifying and stereotyping people you come across based on skin tone? We have become quite used to white people’s ideas of white superiority and even those black people who prefer lighter skin. But we often let it slip past us when people from different places, including Latin America, East and Southeast Asia and the Caribbean—actively take part in everyday forms of skin-colour bias.
In simple words, ‘Colourism’ refers to a preference for light skin tones and devaluing of darker skin (David Knight). It can be distinguished from racism in that the prejudice rests not in a person’s race or nationality, but in the shade of their skin.
The word was first introduced by the feminist author Alice Walker. In an essay from her book, In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens, Walker explained colourism as “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their colour.” Today, colourism still remains a widespread practice in different cultures.
However strangely enough, the word colourism doesn’t even exist officially. It will not appear in the dictionary.
Having first appeared in European history, its presence can now be noticed all over public media. This can be seen in the TV and movie industry, which prefers to have light-skinned people of colour. After centuries of being conditioned to value white over black, it can also be found in the everyday behaviors and attitudes of people from different cultures and ethnicities including Latino, South Asian or black people. We have all seen parents who hope for their children to be light-skinned, adults in the workplace who identify or categorize their colleagues based on how ‘light’ or ‘dark’ they are. All these are different forms of colourism.
With such mindsets, it is not unlikely that discrimination based on skin tone against dark-skinned blacks is much more extreme, than what light-skinned blacks are put through.
Complaints of discrimination based on skin colour/tone go both ways, but research suggests more complaints are brought by individuals with darker skin than those with lighter skin. Author and science reporter Shankar Vedantam’s research discussed the topic of skin colour and how even the most liberal, progressive thinkers, still show a bias towards light skin. He told the New York Times in 2010:
“Dozens of research studies have shown that skin tone and other racial features play powerful roles in who gets ahead and who does not. These factors regularly determine who gets hired, who gets convicted and who gets elected.”New York Times