Written by Grace Osiemi
Of the many oppressive systems active in society, people often forget colorism and just how prevalent it is in our communities. Since colorism and racism are so similar in the way they operate, society tends to erase the idea of colorism and categorize it as racism, but that shouldn’t be the case. Although colorism is arguably a direct result of racism, the two are very distinct systems and not always interchangeable.
Racism is institutionalized discrimination carried out by the privileged group towards marginalized groups based solely on race and racial stereotypes. Colorism, however, is discrimination/prejudice towards people based solely on their skin, meaning it is not exclusive to one group but prevalent in all communities. In regards to racism, people with the same skin color but of different races will be treated differently. A light-skinned black person and a tan white person could have the same complexion, but the black person will still be oppressed and treated unfairly simply because of their race. With colorism, people of the same race but different skin color will not be approached in the same way. A light-skinned black person will be treated more favorably than a darker skinned black person essentially because their complexion is closer to that of a white person. Although both of these people are black and will face oppression due to racism, the light-skinned black person will have privilege due to colorism.
Colorism can be found throughout history, a prime example being the brown paper bag test. During the time of slavery, those that were lighter than the paper bag were given more opportunities than those darker than the bag (light-skinned slaves worked in the house while darker skinned slaves worked in the fields). The test was an indicator of worth, in which those closer to being white were of more value. This is often manifested as anti-blackness, which exists in all parts of the world. The concept of anti-blackness is that the darker you are, the more oppressed you are, the more negative stereotypes there are against you, the less opportunities you have. Colorism and anti-blackness are so embedded into society that many argue it is a form of internalized racism since black people also partake in it.
Surprisingly, many people in the black community find it difficult to grasp these concepts. Recently on social media, the #FlexinMyComplexion hashtag stirred up controversy because the original purpose of the tag was to uplift people of all races that have darker skin, but light-skinned people found this offensive. They believed that the hashtag was separating communities rather than bringing them together because “people of the same race face the same oppression.” However, this isn’t entirely true because racism and colorism are not mutually exclusive. Yes, light-skinned and darker skinned black people are of the same race and will both face racism, but light-skinned people will have more privilege and be more favorable in society because of anti-blackness and colorism.
Taking a look at mainstream media, one can see how the most visible black celebrities are light-skinned, such as Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, etc. Even celebrities that are darker skinned are often whitewashed and made to seem lighter because being light-skinned is more favorable in society than being dark. Growing up, I remember wishing that my skin was lighter and would often stay out of the sun so that I wouldn’t get even darker because I thought being really dark was “unattractive.” My peers often made jokes about how dark I was getting and would compare me to my lighter skinned classmates. I knew that I was uncomfortable with other people calling me names and judging me because of the shade of my blackness, but I didn’t realize at the time that the negative views I had towards my own skin were toxic in every aspect as well.
These systems are so interconnected that it’s easy to confuse one for the other which is why it’s so important to discuss them both constantly. Colorism and anti-blackness could quite possibly be just as harmful as racism since it is difficult for even those affected by it to notice. Colorism and anti-blackness are concepts that need to be unlearned and actively addressed if we want change. They are uncomfortable and inconvenient topics to discuss since they exist everywhere, in every community, in every person, but we must ignore the awkwardness if we want to progress. We have to love, value, and uplift those that are affected by colorism the most everyday so that they are given the recognition and representation they deserve.