In General Knowledge

Understanding Colorism and its Effects on Society


Colorism is a very distinct type of racial discrimination which is commonly found and perpetrated within African American cultures. Colorism is defined as the practice of African Americans giving other African Americans preferred treatment if they are of a lighter skin tone than other African Americans. Although this type of racial discrimination is practiced within the African American culture upon other African Americans it is still a facet of white supremacy, in that individuals who more closely resemble white people are treated better than their darker African American counterparts.

It should be noted that colorism is not confined only to the African American communities, however, in the United States it is predominately seen among African American communities. In other parts of the world, colorism can be found as well. In many Asian and Middle Eastern countries colorism can result in legalized discrimination against people of certain pigmentations resulting in a loss of opportunities and social care to these individuals. In most cases groups with the lightest skin tones are awarded special opportunities and privileges, while those with darker pigmentation are at the bottom of the social ladder.

As it applies to the U.S. many African American communities are aware of the effects of colorism on their race. While the lighter skinned spectrum of the African American community have for centuries been awarded special privileges by the white community, many of these lighter skinned African Americans claim that they have at the same time faced a new type of discrimination from those within the African American community. Racial slurs such as “high yellow” and “redbone,” used to describe those with lighter skin originated within the African American community as a way of lashing out at their lighter skinned counterparts who were given an easier time during the days of slavery and later during the years of southern segregation. Those who do have lighter skin have felt alienated within their own communities for something entirely beyond their control, while outside of their communities they still face racial discrimination for being African American.

Even the simple fact that many lighter skinned African Americans have longer hair, especially women, can bring on an onslaught of insults and prejudice that is totally unfounded in our modern societies.

It is commonly believed that the entire basis of the particular breed of colorism which affects African Americans is sexual attraction. There is a deep seated belief that men, African American men, find lighter skinned African American women more attractive. This idea, being perpetrated through generations has led to an almost inborn knowledge in African American women that lighter is prettier. This then leads to jealously and the resulting racial tension and slurs.

As if racism itself were not a volatile enough prescription for bullying and violence in our communities, schools, colleges, young people must also face the sad truth of varying degrees of discrimination based on the actual pigmentation of their skin as well from within their own racial and social groups. This level of discrimination and prejudice can lead some young people to high levels of depression and even suicide.

Many groups who work with both African American and white young people are beginning to realize that discrimination is not a racial problem. If it were just a racial problem then we would not be seeing the levels of colorism that still exist within racial groups. Discrimination is a self-esteem problem. Low self-esteem knows no boundaries, knows no limits. One individual feels poorly about themselves, be it based on their race or their appearance or any number of other issues, and the lazy solution is to lash out at someone who has what you want, or is what you want to be.

What type of solution is there for these deep seated, cultural issues? It is very important for young people at home, at school at church to be re-programed into understanding that the color of an individual’s skin has absolutely no bearing on what that person’s character is like. Good character makes a good person, not skin pigmentation.

A perfect example of bullying spurred on by colorism comes in the recent firestorm between African actress Lupita and African pop singer Dencia. Both of these African celebrities have enjoyed success in their chosen fields and at first glance it is apparent that they are each from far reaching ends of the pigmentation spectrum. Lupita has been hailed as one of the most beautiful dark skinned women in Hollywood while Dencia is noticeably lighter skinned and admits to wearing a blonde weave and periodically having her skin lightened, both obvious rejections of her African beauty roots.

In a “tweeting” outburst began by Dencia after Luptia received an endorsement deal from Lancôme Paris, the singer taunted, “But they sell bleaching cream tho!” In one simple exchange of online bullying we can clearly see that even when society or big business (Lancôme) makes an effort to acknowledge the beauty in diverse skin pigmentations, a member from Lupita’s own racial/cultural group was there to tear down the success of the endorsement deal by insinuating that to truly be beautiful she would need to bleach her skin. This is classic case of “never winning for losing.”

What individuals must understand, however, is that they must set their own standard of what winning is. When young people understand that their success and failure is not based on their race nor is it based on their skin pigmentation, they can truly begin to move forward toward their own definition of success and help others in their race and/or cultural groups do the same. This type of building up will cut down on bullying between different races, and within races.

It is important to remember that these types of ideas are perpetrated through generations because very young children see these types of behaviors and think that there is no other way of interacting, it becomes normal. Our society must set a new standard of normal for children of all races and pigmentations.

It is important for teachers and care givers to recognize colorism when it is being practiced as a means of bullying among children. Teachers and caregivers are often hesitant to interfere in bullying or discrimination that is taking place within a racial or cultural group against one another. This is because in most cases the teacher or caregiver does not understand the dynamics at work within the racial or cultural group, especially if they are not a part of that group themselves. For instance a white teacher may not understand when she hears one African American student call another African American student, “red bone” that these are actually racial slurs. Sufficiently educating teachers and caregivers on all forms of racism and colorism is a great step toward ending these types of prejudices.

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