21 Sep 2023
How I Unlearnt My Colourism
As a society, we have gotten better at detecting and challenging racism, discrimination, and harassment, but what about colourism?
In this blog post I will outline some of the context and dangers associated with colourism before sharing my own story, and some experiences from my colleagues.
What is Colourism?
Recently, I’ve noticed a growing awareness around how colourism impacts ethnically marginalised groups, and how it is formed by the societal norms embedded in our communities. However, there is still a lot of ignorance around colourism versus racism, and the far-reaching impact it can have.
So, what is it? Colourism is a form of prejudice based on one’s skin tone, establishing a skin tone hierarchy whereby a light skin is viewed as superior to darker skin. Colourism mainly exists within ethnically marginalised communities and reinforces the notion that the lighter your skin tone is, the better you are treated, the more attractive you are, the more respect you will receive.
This form of discrimination impacts people of colour globally, from African and Asian countries to South America and the Caribbean. It’s a belief system that persists today, even embedded in younger, more enlightened generations, and in Western countries too.
Interestingly, there is a lack of UK-based research on colourism, but a plethora of studies conducted in the US which leads me to question, are we ignoring or even minimising the issue in the UK?
Why does this exist?
It can be difficult to fathom how discrimination can exist within marginalised groups, but actually colourism is a prime example of how this works.
Colourism was born from the socially constructed idea that whiteness is the superior race which has spread into ethnically marginalised groups, making Eurocentric features the goal. Implicitly disseminated through things like the media and the beauty industry, having light skin, lighter coloured eyes, straight hair, and small features was seen as the most common and beautiful, causing people who did not look like that to feel as though they are less worthy. Let us not forget that it is only within the last few years that we are seeing beauty brands cater to darker skin!
Of course, we are slowly seeing more realistic and empowering representations of people of colour, but the skin tone hierarchy is not so easily erased. It has been deeply embedded into older generations’ world view which is then passed onto the next generations from an early age, causing a continuous loop until we break the chain.
What is the impact?
The impact of colourism can have negative consequences, especially on those with deeper skin tones, such as:
- Lack of self-esteem
- Increased anxiety/depression
- Decreased life satisfaction
- Poorer general health
- Difficulty in maintaining relationships with family and friends
- Detrimental to career progression (due to bias in the workplace and recruitment)
This ultimately means that we begin to internalise these colourist views which place deeper skin tones as ‘lesser-than’ compared to those with lighter skin tones.
These ideologies feed back into wider society, impacting not only how people of colour view themselves but also how white people view us too. Research shows that those with darker skin tones face more overt discrimination and racism than those with lighter skin tones, again pushing the idea that the closer you are to having Eurocentric features, the ‘safer’ you are deemed by western society.
In more extreme cases, colourism has led to dangerous skin lightening/bleaching products being widely marketed and utilised in countries outside of the UK/EU. Bigger companies within the beauty industry have become complicit in promoting the use of these products, so much so, they are almost a norm in these communities. The medical implications of such products can be dire: they include thinning of the skin, kidney & liver damage, and scarring. In some cases, these products have been known to cause blindness and mercury poisoning.
The Local Government Association has compared these products to ‘biological paint stripper’ and the FDA does not recognise them as safe or effective.
Intersectionality is the overlapping of social categories (such as race, gender, disability) within a person’s identity which can cause multiple layers of discrimination against them.
I felt it was important to also touch upon how intersectionality plays a role in colourism. A study on colourism conducted in the UK by Phoenix & Craddock (2022) deduced that:
- Black people reported more colourism than Asian and mixed-race ethnic groups
- Asian women are more likely to experience overt colourism than Asian men
Therefore, additional elements to our identities can indeed worsen or improve our experiences with colourism.
My own experience
Growing up in the South-Asian culture, colourism has always been normalised within my family. As a young girl, I was told that I was lucky to have light skin as it would mean that I would be able to find a husband much easier than others. I was encouraged to stay out of the sun so that my skin does not get darker.
These comments not only came from my parents but also the wider family: aunts, uncles, cousins, even family friends! It is so commonplace to say these things that many do not think anything of the weight these comments hold in South-Asian culture, and the implications they can have on young people.
As much as I’d love to say that I ignored these comments as a child, as an adult I can admit that I had internalised them and now recognise how my light skin put me at an advantage. Of course, growing and understanding more around these discriminative behaviours, I see now that these fears of getting darker were not my own, but passed from the generation before me, which were passed from the generation before them, and so on…
The only way we can stop this cycle continuing is by acknowledging that this occurs and doing better for the next generation. If I think about my nieces and nephews, I never want them to feel better or lesser than another due to their skin tone, nor would I want their self-worth to be affected by colourist views.
In Indonesia, lighter skin is a sign of beauty and there is a long history that pre-dates European colonialism. Because of this beauty standard, you can easily find skin whitening/lighting products such as face creams, deodorants, and body washes in the shops. If you look at anything in the Indonesian media (TV, cinema, ads etc), many celebrities have lighter skin.
I’m a mix of white British and Chinese Indonesian heritage, and I have light skin. In Indonesia when I tell people I am mixed British and Indonesian, they will often comment on the lightness of my skin and that I am beautiful because of it. Someone once tried to set up a meeting with me and a talent agent because I fit in with the celebrity image, even though my Indonesian is not up to scratch.
Looking at the history of why lightness is the ideal, it first comes from India, then Japan, then the Dutch and now from Korea. Wild!
Colourism is still a huge issue that is faced within the Black Community and adversely affects us in so many ways including our careers, relationships and overall health and wellbeing. Most people with a darker skin tone first experienced colourism in their childhood from their very own family members or friends which later may have impacted their self-esteem.
From being told to not stay in the sun for too long, or seeing how people with lighter skin tones were favoured, to unfortunately witnessing others using bleaching products were all experiences I remember growing up. It was also something that was seen a lot in the media within TV shows, movies, and music videos where there was a lack of dark-skinned representation in comparison to fairer skin tones.
Luckily, more spaces have been created to openly discuss the impact of colourism and how we can ensure that these same mistakes are not made for our future generations.
The most important element of this blog is what we can do next. There are steps that we can take to tackle and deconstruct colourist views within our communities.
- Acknowledge that colourism exists
- Understand how you may internalise these ideologies too
- Educate others on colourism & its impact
- When you witness colourism, take action
It may seem easy, but I have had to ‘unlearn’ the colourist views that were embedded within me from a young age by grasping where these thoughts and opinions came from. But you cannot just stop there. I had to (and still must) challenge the older generation when they make such remarks, especially in front of the new generation of little humans in our family! It was only recently that one of my parents came back from holiday and used the term ‘dark Indian’ to make my four-year old nephew laugh at their tan. Of course, he didn’t understand why it was funny, but it needed to be challenged directly otherwise we are normalising the behaviour and sending a message that it is acceptable.
For the next generations of children growing up in ethnically marginalised communities, we must teach them to embrace their beautiful skin and the various skin tones of others. As people of colour, we have been told for far too long that we should force ourselves to adjust to western society (and the beauty standards that come with it). Now, it is time for us to love ourselves for who we are, how we look, and teach the younger generations to do the same.
Written by Chloe Chand, Lead D&I Trainer