Colorism is one of the discomforting “-isms” that pervade our society today. Aside from racism, colorism has been plaguing different societies for a long time. Although the term “colorism” was coined in the 20th century by author and activist Alice Walker, the practice has been in existence centuries way older before it. She defined colorism as “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color.”
Now, the definition of colorism has broadened to include bias, prejudice, discrimination, or inequality based on the relative skin tone, hair texture, and facial features among persons of the same race. One of the most common myths and widespread beliefs about colorism is that it’s just an issue faced by dark skinned people. In reality, colorism affects all of us, regardless of race or skin tone.
As mentioned earlier, colorism is a global issue with its complex history and roots extending far into the past. It has been commonly explained in many societies that the idea of white supremacy stemmed from European colonialism and the international slave trade. Even in the United States, colorism has roots in slavery. Not all of the black slaves toiled hard outdoors in the fields. Their light-skinned counterparts usually worked indoors and performed less grueling, domestic tasks. However, the issue of prejudice based on skin coloration did not just come from the Colonial Period.
In some Asian cultures, for example, skin color was associated with social caste even before the Colonial Period. Undoubtedly, European colonialism has left its mark on many countries worldwide during and after the Colonial Period; however, the practice of colorism is said to predate the first known contact with Europeans in various Asian countries. The early Asian social caste was structured in a way that the ruling classes typically have lighter complexions than the peasant classes. The idea that white skin is superior to dark skin may have been derived from this social structure.
Peasants became sun-tanned as they labored outdoors almost the entire day throughout the year, the privileged people, on another note, had lighter complexions because they didn’t have to work in the sun many hours daily, except for occasional trips outside their residence or when supervising the peasants. Thus, this is where dark skin came to be associated with the lower classes and light skin tone with the elite or ruling class. In the present times, history and the influences of the Western world have played a big role in the preference of Asian society for light skin.
How is colorism different from racism? It boils down to the basic principles of race and color. For the case of racism, two people of different races or ethnicities but with identical skin colors will be treated differently. For example, Annie is a black woman who has white skin complexion. Despite her white skin color, Annie is still mistreated and discriminated against just like the other blacks in her community.
In the case of colorism, even if two people are of the same race but have different skin colors, they will be treated differently.
Lighter skin color is given preferential treatment in the practice of colorism. The proliferation and wide patronage of skin-bleaching and whitening products has become an evidence of its legacy. Disparities in privileges such as income, marriage rates and job depend on whether you are darker or lighter skinned. This is a globally encompassing issue that has existed for centuries. This form of discriminations should be fought and put to an end with the same urgency as our efforts against racism.