Is fair really lovely? A look at colorism in cultures
By Ella Rodrigues
In the United States of America the process of tanning your skin to achieve a darker, more sunkissed glow is a very common practice. People across the country lay out across the beaches and pools to soak in the golden rays of sunshine.
Colorism is defined as, “prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group.” These individuals are treated differently based on the shade of their skin. When people think of racism, they often think about what is committed against people who are outside their ethnicity. Colorism highlights many of the notions of people within the same group; the idea that lighter skin is considered superior and more beautiful than those with darker skin.
Lauren Croom, a Modern World 1 teacher at Summit Shasta, has experienced many difficulties with colorism. She shared with me what her story and what her upbringing was like: “It varied. When I was young it equated to being one of very few black children at a predominantly white Elementary School in a more affluent neighborhood. I had transferred to that white school from a predominantly black private school where I had no problem.”
“When I went to the predominately white school, the few other black students that were there wouldn’t play with me for colorism reasons. They basically stated that, ‘Just because you are light skinned and you think you’re better than us?’ And my response was like, No, I don’t, I just want to play double dutch.”
Many of these notions date back to the period of colonialism almost 520 years ago. During those times, darker skin was associated with manual labor and field work. Those who worked outside for long hours developed a darker complexion. Those with lighter complexions worked indoors implied wealth and noble status. This was also emphasized by eurocentric beauty standards as those were seen as better and more beautiful than others with a sense of feminine elegance.
Ms. Croom explained what the dynamic was like in her family stating that, “In my family. I’m also one of the fairest people and pretty much everyone else’s like darker brown. I used to get called weird nicknames and that is, you know, from people who love me. But the same happened with relatives that I had that were darker. Our family ranged in all the colors of the rainbow. So I have other cousins who are darker who felt like they were kind of chided or made fun of for the darkness of their skin. And in this country, the closeness to whiteness affords privilege.”
When asked about what pressures people of color faced Ms. Croom had a lot to say, “I was made fun of,” she said, “Because I didn’t look black enough. People would actually make jokes about what other races I possibly was, you know, aside from being black. But then again, I have cousins in the same family who would say they had the opposite experiences similar to what you described, being told to stay away from the sun or you’ll get more black. Or you’re already dark, you don’t want to get burnt.”
Ms. Croom went on to describe the pressures eminent in society whether you have lighter skin or not. “I think pretty much anyone who is not white in a society designed for white eyes is going to experience a tug in both directions.You’re too much or you’re not enough.”
In ancient times there were many methods used to achieve a pale complexion, many of which were very dangerous and detrimental to the health of people. In Japan’s Edo Period women would lighten their faces with rice powder. In China, women would swallow pearls in hopes of achieving the same look.
One highly advertised method of obtaining this “desired” lighter skin in the modern age is through the process of skin bleaching. It is a process that many eastern celebrities have advocated for and has taken over the consumer market. Skin bleaching is a 24 million dollar industry and has become widely popularized.
These products can be found in the form of soaps, creams, medical treatments and much more. Skin bleaching is a very dangerous and chemically potent process. It can leave burns and discoloration on the skin as the result of not using the product properly.
Ms. Croom stated her opinion on the process,“Women are willing to do dangerous things such as bleaching for cosmetic reasons. And the reason they do it is because they want to feel like they can compete, or they’ve been made to feel like their version of beautiful is not beautiful. Their natural beauty is devalued in place of the European standard.”
From a very young age, children have been taught that what they look like is not favorable. Many stories and movies featured lighter skinned people as the heroes and heroines and those with darker skin as evil and villainous. In the Indian film industry, or Bollywood, the majority of the casting of roles is directed towards paler lighter skinned individuals. They have gone so far as to photoshop actors to make them appear lighter or darker to fit a certain role instead of hiring someone to fit that description.
This “light washing” of characters is also seen in western film and T.V. Many books, such as The Hate you Give, feature dark skinned leads and when those characters are translated to the silver screen, they lose part of who they were meant to look like. This takes away opportunities from those who do not receive enough attention in the media.
When asked about how the world is changing to better diversify what media we consume, Ms. Croom said: “I feel like in a lot of ways the media has really kind of recognized that the majority of their patrons don’t look like that. And so they tried to diversify what it looks like on screen. I think the trends are starting to show that we spend our money in different places. And so now we’re going to start to see a little bit more diversity with how products are marketed and what we see on television. So that should hopefully change the beauty standards. And I feel like that is starting to work like with my daughter.”
Ms. Croom continued, “I don’t think [my daughter] feels the same way about herself. That I feel that I felt about myself when I was her age. She sees cartoon characters that look like her. She sees, you know, pictures in books that look like her. And when I was growing up, I didn’t have that and when your parents were growing up I guarantee that they didn’t have that either. And so it’s tough when you are a brown, or black or tan child, and you’re facing a very publicly facing white world, you don’t know where to fit into this.”
“And so I think we’re getting better. I think we’re getting louder. And I think representation is happening in a lot of different ways, but we just still need to be careful. I read an article the other day that said over 50% of books with black or brown protagonists are written by white authors. So even though the face may change, is the content and the message changing? Are we really trying to be inclusive? Are we really trying to be thoughtful about whether or not we’re judging someone based off of their proximity to a white European standard?”
Ms. Croom explained what her message was for those who feel misrepresented. For those people who like have been judged or told that their skin color makes them less beautiful or less worthy of love and support.
Her response was very simple. “Don’t change anything about yourself.” She continued on, “I think that if we just step away and think of ourselves in the lens of what can I do make this not an issue anymore. I think You need to do more things like this. Have cross generational crossing. Racial crossing, ethnic crossing, gender crossing conversations about all of the different things that we know are wrong and we know our faults.”
“We’re so afraid to talk about it even amongst friends in a way that’s critical. We need to draw up the hypothesis of what’s going to make humanity work because we all have to share this planet. We just need to keep trying to do things, review the data and go from there. We cannot get stuck in old ways and old processes because they were making us money or because we’re scared of change.”
“We have to start learning how to appreciate each other and stop trying to change each other and really look at each other as all being human beings worthy of life and worthy of respect.”
“I mean at the end of the day, the color of your skin doesn’t change the fact that you are perfect.”
Featured Image (at the top of this page): Women can have a variety of different shades. (Photo Credit: Getty Images)