The World of Colorism
By: Leena Elbayoumi
When people think of racism, they usually visualize a white person asserting their “superiority” over a Black person or another person of color. What we fail to recognize as racism, however, is colorism. Colorism is prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group. A widespread issue, it affects people in all countries, and is especially present in the media. Colorism shows prejudice towards dark skin, and praises light skin for being more attractive and inviting. However, the reality is that there are negative connotations that are often more destructive and obvious to dark-skinned people.
Skin lightening creams are often marketed as a beauty enhancer in South as well as East Asia, fueling anti-dark skin sentiments among the population. In Africa, northerners are quite hostile to their southern counterparts, and often tend to separate themselves from darker-skinned Africans and black North Africans. In America, lighter skinned African Americans are seen as “friendlier” and less intimidating than darker skinned people. However, despite these surface “advantages”, light-skinned people have a difficult time mentally, seeing as their “blackness” or race is always called into question. They encounter slurs and prejudice on a different end of the spectrum than dark-skinned people, and are attacked by people of their own race.
Though light-skinned people also face criticism, it is true that they have privilege in society, especially in music and television. Hollywood often prides itself on its portrayal of people of color, but it fails to represent all types of colored skin in the movie industry. Lighter skinned actors are often represented, with little to no exposure of dark-skinned characters in animations, movies or television shows. Dark actors are almost never the main character and are usually used to reference old, negative stereotypes. For instance, dark-skinned Black women are frequently cast as characters who are aggressive, ‘sassy’, and/or no-nonsense (a.k.a the Sapphire).
The media often encourages these stereotypes. Pushing them out in the view of young, impressionable people can lead to their reinforcement. Harboring negative stereotypes can inadvertently, or intentionally, justify poor treatment and promote discrimination against dark-skinned people of color. A study conducted by professor Adam Alter of New York University “suggests that people do have a proclivity to perceive someone with darker skin as more likely to have committed an immoral act, regardless of the person’s race.” This can affect a person’s behavior towards someone of darker skin, such as crossing the street when seeing someone dark-skinned approach you, or even the emotional response you feel when this person walks by you. This may lead to microaggressions, like asking where someone is from, assuming they are not American, which can be degrading and hurtful. Furthermore, stereotypes can have an impact on a person’s self-image as well. Amy Morin, a psychotherapist states that “A child who has grown up being taught that people of his race engage in illegal activity, for example, is more likely to do so during his lifetime.”
Colorism creates hurtful stereotypes towards lighter skinned people, but it is vastly more harmful to darker skinned people, ultimately affecting how people treat them. In order to prevent the detrimental effects of colorism, it is crucial that we acknowledge its existence and work as a society to mitigate its repercussions.