Colourism: An Introduction

Colourism is a term increasingly mentioned in recent, modern racial discourse and is enjoying some much-needed attention during the current political climate. Colourism, by definition, is the “prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group” (Oxford English Dictionary); but does this mean that this problem is something that is in fact conceived, and perpetuated, by black communities?

In short, no. Colourism is an overhang from slavery. It’s some form of diaspora from within your own diasporic community; where darker-skinned women, in particular, suffer poor treatment, fewer job opportunities and less representation in the film, television and music industries. Lighter skinned-artists such as Beyoncé Knowles, Robin ‘Rihanna’ Fenty, Jorja Smith and racially ambiguous artists like Cardi B, enjoy mainstream success, largely straddling both sides of the Black Atlantic (a concept developed by Paul Gilroy). On the other hand, artists like Nina Simone, Grace Jones and Azealia Banks have enjoyed lower levels of success or heightened criticism for their artistic choices. (Banks is admittedly a contentious choice to some, but still valid in demonstrating the wider point.)

Knowles’ father, Matthew, conceded in an interview, when quizzed about whether the success of his daughters was in part down to their skin colour, that it was no ‘accident’ that the two were this way, elaborating further and revealing a greater attraction to lighter-skinned women. Mr Knowles admitted that his now ex-wife – Tina – seemed white to him when they first met. This was something that clearly was attractive to him and that he had been told by his mother to not bring home a “nappy headed black girl”.

The negative portrait painted of women with darker skin seems to be a perpetuated tale of self-loathing from darker-skinned men and women reaching back over generations, since slavery – where white masters did show preferential treatment to and force themselves upon the lighter-skinned female slaves. Mr Knowles’ testimony, simultaneously explains that these ideas were ‘conditioned’ into him by his mother, yet this does no favours to the stereotypes of black women being angry and abusive.

Beyoncé Knowles’ Lemonade visual album in 2016 was her third album away from the management of her father, who orchestrated her entire early career and her first three solo albums. On Lemonade, Beyoncé sampled speeches from Malcolm X, notably in the music video for Don’t’ Hurt Yourself: “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America, is the Black woman. The most neglected woman in America is the Black Woman”. In addition, the promotional appearance at the 2016 Superbowl Half-time Show referenced the Black Panther movement in costume and staging, much to the shock and dismay of ‘White America’. US comedy show Saturday Night Live even parodied the national reaction, joking that Beyoncé had become such a successful household name, that ‘they’ (‘White America’) had forgotten that she was in fact a black woman expressing – amongst other more personal things – her diasporic place in America.

Some would argue that the only way that this music was ever heard on a mainstream stage was due to her complexion and preferential treatment as a lighter-skinned woman, and as an established popular artist, with considerable influence and artistic independence thanks to signing with her husband’s label. Since then, Beyoncé also wrote a song for the Lion King soundtrack Brown Skinned Girl to empower and uplift women of darker shades—thereby using her privilege to uplift others.

It is worth noting that this particular colouristic scrutiny doesn’t affect men in the same way, not to say it does not affect them at all. Black men in entertainment are seen in all shades, from Childish Gambino to the darker Kendrick Lamar, to the problematic Chris Brown who, despite several instances of abuse, continues to make music. Clearly the issue is not about representation, it’s about male privilege and a lack of self-worth or self-esteem that is passed down generations, which further marginalises women who do not enjoy the same privileges as their male counterparts in any ethnic group of society.

It’s also about being held to a different standard to both men and people of lighter complexions. My earlier acknowledgement of Azealia Banks’ notorious spats serves a wider point. Many artists express un-savoury opinions about others, or are insensitive around hot-button issues: like Gina Rodriguez’s continued maligning of black women and throwaway use of the ‘N-word’; Cardi B’s abhorrent attitudes towards trans people, whilst appropriating LGBT+ turns of phrase; or Kanye West’s musings on slavery and support of Donald Trump under the guise of ‘free thought’. These are all people who swathes of people online have called out and ‘cancelled’ but who also mysteriously continue to enjoy success whilst remaining largely unscathed. It appears separating the artist from the art has qualifying factors and one of them is clearly skin tone – or at least when it comes to women.

Colourism itself highlights the complexities of ethnic minorities’ relationships with one another. It is perpetuated – at its root – by a form of white supremacy, that has filtered into various communities and left dark-skinned women feeling marginalised and unappreciated. Here, the term black is far from simple, as it does not encompass the inner prejudices within a diverse community of billions. Colourism is being discussed exponentially more in recent months and years; and hopefully, continues to get the attention it deserves for whom Malcom X described as the most ‘disrespected’, the most ‘unprotected’ and the most ‘neglected’ group in American society – and indeed the wider world.

Nat Richards

Nat Richards is a freelance musician with a post-graduate degree from the University of Bristol.

The Pangean does not condemn or condone any of the views of its contributors. It only gives them the space to think and write without hindrance.