In 2019, Oscar-winning actress, Lupita Nyong’o, referred to colorism as the “daughter of racism”. With this simple but poignant statement, Nyong’o summarized an often overlooked form of discrimination: darker people in many racial and ethnic groups are seen as lesser than their lighter counterparts. Her particular use of the word ‘daughter’ could allude to the idea that women suffer from this discrimination more than men – a notion I agree with.
The word ‘colorism’ was first publicly used by author and activist Alice Walker. She defined it as, “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color.” Its roots are widely agreed upon: colonization and white supremacy. These led to the introduction and adoption of a Eurocentric beauty hegemony by communities of color; the closer you are to whiteness, whether it be having straighter hair, lighter eyes, or fairer skin, the better.
As a South African Indian who was raised in an Indian community, I have had my fair share of encounters with colorism. A country previously colonized by Europeans, South Africa has a long and sordid relationship with racism. Hence, other forms of bigotry were sidelined in popular discussion. But being brought up in a same-race community, racism was never really the issue. Instead of judging me for my race, people took to judging me for my skin tone.
In my little brown bubble of Tongaat, a town that was built by the first Indian settlers who were brought to work in the sugarcane plantations, colorism was a subtle tool used to oppress the dark and glorify the fair. In my experience, the main perpetrators of this form of discrimination were older women or ‘Indian aunties’ as the stereotype calls for. I was constantly told (by women I barely knew) to use fairness creams or to avoid staying in the sun for too long. Ironically, many of these women were also considered dark-skinned women.
The Association of Black Psychologists has labeled colorism as a form of internalized racism, the process whereby ethnic minorities absorb the racism of dominant ethnic groups to their own detriment. This phenomenon of internalization was clearly present here. Reinforced over generations, it was now a part of the social lenses we viewed our world through.
What made it worse was having an older sister who was taller, thinner, and lighter than me – a direct (and personal) point of comparison. People in our age range were not largely complicit in such discrimination, but when they were, it was blatant. In high school, my sister and I had an unwanted joint nickname, “Top Deck”, referring to a Cadbury chocolate which had a bottom layer of milk chocolate and a top layer of white chocolate.
[Image description: two girls, the one on the left with a darker skin tone than the one on the right, sit smiling together.]
Older people were more subtle in their deliveries. “You’re very beautiful,” my grandmother would say to my sister. “So slim and tall, and such fair skin. ..You’re pretty too!”, she’d say as I walked past.
There was no escaping it – I was objectively shorter, fatter, and darker than my sister. It dawned on me that to many, I was automatically less attractive than my sister due to those factors. And because they thought it, they thought that I thought it too. But I didn’t…until then.
Colorism can largely be considered a feminist issue in the wider context of our patriarchal world. Women already have certain beauty standards forced upon them – shave your entire body but have voluminous hair on your head and wear makeup to “enhance your natural beauty” – but not too much or you are “falsely advertising”! Even my sister, praised for being tall, was often told not to get too tall “or else boys will feel intimidated and won’t marry you”.
Colorism is only one example from a very long list of criticisms allocated to the female body. Through arbitrary social constructs, women are conditioned to tie their self-worth to their level of attractiveness. What I saw occur in my town were efforts to become lighter (an attribute synonymous to being more sexually desirable) in the hopes of one day having a man choose you as a wife.
European “norms” have lingered in our societies and have taken away from various cultures’ own values of beauty for far too long. I have not been back to my home town for three years now. I can only hope that some progress has been made and that women are allowed to feel comfortable in their skin, no matter the shade.