GeneralDissecting Colourism

Dissecting Colourism


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By Mike Banks.

If you have been on Twitter over the last few weeks or so, you might have noticed that colourism has become a popular topic of discussion.

Colourism is a relatively new term; American writer and activist, Alice Walker, coined it in 1982 and she defined it as ‘preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their colour’. Colourism is essentially the preferential treatment of the fairer/light-skinned members of a racial group or discrimination against dark-skinned members of a racial group, often perpetuated by other members of said group.

Alice Walker coined the term in 1982

Despite the term only entering our consciousness in the early 1980s, it is not an inchoate phenomenon and it is intrinsically linked with slavery, colonialism, and white supremacy.

During the transatlantic slave trade, slave owners often gave light-skinned slaves preferential treatment. This preferential treatment included being given an education and less grueling tasks to undertake, whilst dark-skinned slaves were subjected to arduous work outdoors. One of the main reasons for this preferential treatment was that their fairer skin meant they were viewed as more virtuous than dark-skinned slaves as they bore more of a similarity, in complexion, to their white slave owners.

This preferential treatment created animosity and tension between black people and colourism did not end following the abolition of the slave trade. In America following the slave trade, light-skinned black people enjoyed better employment opportunities than their dark-skinned counterparts and began climbing the social ladder. Eurocentric ideals of beauty were also internalised meaning light-skinned black women were more aligned to these ideals and many dark-skinned women began to covet Eurocentric features.

Colourism affects both dark-skinned men and women, but research in America has found that women are more likely to be psychologically affected by it. A 2012 documentary titled ‘Dark Girls’ gave some dark-skinned women the opportunity to shed light on some of the psychological effects of colourism, which include low self-esteem and a feeling of unattractiveness.

I believe that colourism has been exacerbated by mainstream media representation and popular culture, particularly in the case of women. Rap songs and music videos often glorify and heavily feature light-skinned black women, whilst demonising dark-skinned women. It is quite hard to think of an influential dark-skinned black woman that featured heavily in popular culture in the UK. There is also a lack of diversity in the representation of black women in the USA. Prominent black women in the USA include Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, Halle Berry and Rihanna, all of whom are fair-skinned.  Dark-skinned women are less widely embraced however. For example, Serena Williams, one of the greatest athletes of all-time, is constantly derided for her Afrocentric features.

Earlier this year, Mathew Knowles, the father of Beyoncé, claimed that Beyoncé owed some of her success to her fair skin. Knowles added that he was conditioned to only date white or light-skinned black women and even claimed that one of the reasons he was attracted to Beyonce’s mother, Tina Lawson, was because he thought she was a white woman.

Lupita Nyong’o has spoken of her struggles as a dark-skinned woman, and how she would pray to God for fairer skin, while American actress and singer, Zendaya has gone on record to suggest that there is room for improvement when it comes to the representation of a diverse range of black women in entertainment. She also noted that as a light-skinned woman she does enjoy a level of privilege.

Lupita poses after winning an Oscar for her performance in Twelve Years a Slave

Colourism is not just a problem black people face, in the United Arab Emirates; fairer-skinned people are usually higher up the social ladder than their dark-skinned counterparts. In India, there is a huge market for skin lightening products, with fairer-skinned women viewed as more beautiful and virtuous. Skin lightening creams and soaps are also popular amongst women in Africa; in fact, the World Heath Organisation found that 77% of women in Nigeria regularly use skin-lightening products.

Black men and women of all shades should be celebrated and embraced. Black Panther was a step in the right direction as the film featured a diverse cast of black actors and actresses. The fact that the two leading female roles in the film were played by Lupita Nyong’o and Letitia Wright is hugely significant, as in the past these roles might have been played by fairer-skinned women.

Dark-skinned women should not feel under societal pressure to bleach their skin or relax their hair to adapt to European ideals of beauty. Mainstream media outlets need to do a better job at representing a diverse range of black people. It goes without saying that Black people also have a duty to stop reinforcing European ideals of beauty by celebrating all shades of beauty.


Mike is a Politics PhD student and takes a keen interest in social issues, all things British politics and Liverpool FC.

Twitter: @mxkes_

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  1. Really well written article – Colourism is a really touchy subject in the black community, but it needs to be addressed in an open and honest manner for things to change and progress.

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