Colourism: The Evil Queen Mentality Part II

In part I, we discussed what colourism is, what kind of activities perpetuate it today and some of the common consequences of the same. However, to actually tackle the problems of colourism, it is important to analyse what its possible root causes are. 

A reasoning that is generally provided to explain the prevalence of colourism is colonialism. While it does not account for all the reasons behind the problem, it certainly is an important one. When various European powers occupied regions across the world, they took along with them their beauty standards which were based on what white people look like: thin nose, pale skin, straight hair and so on. Under colonial rule, the natives of the colonies were indoctrinated in Eurocentric views and soon, they learnt to view everything about the colonial power as superior to their own, including how they looked. 

The colonial power also instituted various discriminatory practices and granted marginally more privilege to those who were brown or light skinned over those who were black or dark skinned. This later manifested among the non white populace in the form of practices like Blanqueamiento or whitening which is prevalent in post colonial countries in Oceania and America. It is aimed at mejorar la raza (“bettering the race”) to achieve the ideal of white. Basically, people try to marry a light skinned partner to produce fair skinned children. In fact, in the beginning of the 20th century, Latin American countries put in place policies that promoted Blanqueamiento (for instance, promoting immigration of Europeans in an attempt to whiten the population). Even today, in countries across the world, whiteness is seen as superior and beautiful and more often than not, in pageants and other forms of entertainment, people praise those who embody Eurocentric ideals of beauty. 

Many experts maintain that colourism predates colonialism. Let us take India for an example: Hindu religious texts refer to dark skinned people as people of the low caste. This stereotyping is probably born out of the fact that lower caste people were often relegated to manual labour in the sun, which resulted in them getting tanned. Dalits, who belong to the lowest caste, were treated as “untouchables” for a long time. Conversely, those with a fairer complexion were thought to belong to higher castes. The advent of colonialism and the colonial teachings that aimed to subjugate the Indians using a divide and conquer technique only polarised the castes. 

Moreover, Indians started believing in a sort of supremacy of mixed race people, called the Anglo-Indians, over those who were full blooded Indians. The closer you were to your English ancestor, the higher up in the social strata you were. 

Additionally, a vast majority of Hindu gods are portrayed as being very fair which too results in an unconscious bias in favour of those who possess a fair complexion. 

Hindi sound films became a thing only in 1931. Prior to that, Parsi theatre dominated the scene. Parsis were much fairer than other Indian ethnic groups because of their Iranian ancestry. This too played a role in promulgating the idea that fair is equivalent to beautiful. 

Today, rarely any of the hundreds of Indian movies produced every year have someone from the lower castes or someone who is dark skinned in the leading roles. This lack of representation continues to harm the perception of Indians towards those who possess a darker complexion or belong to a lower caste. 

While the Indian Constitution does provide for protections against caste based discrimination, it is still widespread today. Dalits are looked down upon in positions of authority and responsibility, and also, often discriminated against in educational institutions. 

As a consequence of this rampant colourism, fairness creams continue to find a place in the shops across India. One of the most famous brands in the country, “Fair and Lovely”, came under attack for their colourist commercials promoting their skin lightening products in 2020. In response to the criticism, instead of dealing with the actual problem, they rebranded as “Glow and Lovely” and continued to sell the same products. During this time, the company officials claimed that the product was never meant to be a skin bleaching product, rather it was meant to  'improve skin barrier function, improve skin firmness and smoothen skin texture'. 

In countries like South Korea, colourism was born out of its feudal history. During the feudal ages of Korea those who belonged to the upper classes were lighter skinned owing to the fact that they could afford to stay indoors while those who belonged to the lower classes had to spend longer hours in the sun, often doing labour, and thus, were tanned. Fair skin was therefore a symbol of status and affluence, and consequently, coveted in Korea. 

In more recent times, as Korea got more exposure to the west, western countries, dominated by white folk, were seen as more modern and thus, the higher status of fair skin failed to fade away into obscurity. 

Today, in Korea, fair skin continues to remain an important beauty ideal. As discussed in part 1, Kpop and Kdrama stars are expected to conform to the strict beauty standards which includes fair skin. It is deemed so important that many who do not fit into the ideal are expected and forced to get surgery to achieve the same. Moreover, the members of each group who are closest to the ideal are regarded as the “visual” of the group. For instance, Jin is the visual for BTS and Jisoo is the same for Blackpink. 

In America, colourism was primarily born out of colonial practices and slavery. During the times of slavery, white people would rape their black slaves and the mixed race children who were born were treated marginally better than their darker skinned counterparts. They were allowed to work indoors while the dark complexioned slaves toiled out in the sun. In some cases, while it was still not allowed by the law, the white parent would informally recognise the child, though they could not inherit anything. This prevalence of the colourist divisions during the pre civil war times of America can be easily seen in James Stirling’s (a British writer who visited America in 1857) notes on the same: 

“In judging of the welfare of the slaves, it is necessary to distinguish the different conditions of slavery. The most important distinction, both as regards to numbers and its influence on the well being of the slave, is that between house­servants and farm or field hands. The house servant is comparatively well off. He is frequently born and bred in the family he belongs to; and even when this is not the case, the constant association of the slave and his master, and master's family, naturally leads to such an attachment as it ensures good treatment...The position of the field­hands is very different; of those, especially, who labour on large plantations. Here there are none of those humanizing influences at work which temper the rigour of the system, nor is there the same check of public opinion to control abuse. The 'force' is worked en masse, as a great human mechanism; or, if you will, as a drove of human cattle.”

  • Letters from the Slave States, James Stirling

This discrimination between Black people who are fair skinned and those who are dark complexioned due to the association of the same with a sort of marginal privilege, or lack thereof, led to light skin being coveted by African Americans. After the abolition of slavery, societies were set up which were open solely to the light skinned among the African American population. To determine whether one was suitable for being in such a company various tests were devised. The Brown Paper Bag Test required one to have a skin tone that was the same as or lighter than a brown paper bag to be admitted to such societies. Another similar test was the vein test: if one’s veins showed on their skin, then they were eligible for being a member. 

Another concept that was codified into the law in some of the US' states in the early 20th century was the “One Drop Rule”. This stated that if you had even a drop of African American blood, then you would be classified as black and thus, relegated to second class citizenship. This further polarised the demographic in matters of race and colour. Moreover, white passing black people took advantage of this to be registered as white and live as first class citizens, free from discrimination. 

Today, people are becoming increasingly aware of the problems of colourism. Various companies have been making an effort to prevent the phenomenon of “beauty bias” (preference of individuals during the hiring process or during promotion decisions based on their attractiveness) through unconscious bias training. Several studies and researches have been conducted to gain more insight into the issues of implicit bias. A 2006 study concluded that fair skinned individuals were looked at favourably in employment decisions. Another research conducted in 2009 exposed that skin tone played a major role in the hiring of black employees and was often “more salient and regarded more highly than one’s educational background and prior work experience”. In 2010, a study carried out showed that children of all races chose light skinned characters in response to positive descriptors like “smart” or “pretty”, and ascribed negative attributes to darker characters, that is, a persistence of a implicit bias against dark skin. In 2016, Chika Okoro delivered a TedX talk titled  “Confessions of a D Girl: Colorism and Global Standards of Beauty'' in which she expatiates on the prevalence of colourism in the entertainment industry. In 2018, a study demonstrated that light complexioned individuals “attain a higher educational level, receive higher wages and enjoy better-quality jobs than their darker-skinned co-ethnics”, proving that there are both inter racial and intra racial wage gaps. 

Clearly, an understanding and concern surrounding the pervasiveness of colourism is on the rise, and this is slowly manifesting in the form of increased and more diverse representation of various ethnic groups in the entertainment industry across the world alongside other marginal changes in policies and practices. However, the lack of awareness of the problem, its root causes, and its exclusion from popular discourse is making the process of change very slow. For now, we can educate ourselves better and reject discriminatory practices in order to aid in expediting the process of abolition of colourism.


Oindrila Ghosh

I am a student of Chemical Engineering at BITS Pilani and an Egyptology enthusiast, who loves reading about cold cases, creation and everything else that will probably never benefit me in my future career.

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