Colourism and ‘preference’ (part 1)

Felicity
4 min readMay 14, 2021

The definition of colourism/colorism is the discrimination based on skin colour within the same race, where those with lighter skin are treated more favourably than those with darker skin. It is the same as racism, just within the minority groups. This could be in different Asian communities, Pacific islander communities, the black community etc.

I am going to focus on the black community for now, as that is the community that I am a part of. I am a monoracial black girl and I consider myself a dark skin black girl. Some people would not consider me dark skin and would say I am ‘brownskin’. This was put in quotations as I am new to the term and I do not use it.

People have recently been saying that amidst the colourism in the black community over the years, ‘brownskin’ people just sit back and observe and are not as affected. My experiences say otherwise, therefore I could never identify myself with that term. I will be discussing this new term another time.

So, what is all this dark skin and light skin business all about? Yes, I know that we are all black at the end of the day as several light skin people proclaim, while they ignore the colorism they continue to perpetuate. However, these sub-divisions within our race began a long time ago and not even by us. We never once segregated ourselves from each other until white people got involved back in slavery times or due to colonisation.

Origin… kind of

I am not sure how the idea developed or spread in other parts of the world, however from what I learnt about America, the division of black people begun during the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the 1800s. It would be safe to say that the same ideas used to enslave black people in America, were the same principles used in other parts of the world.

From what I know from slavery, (in America) is that they had plantations that the black people would pick cotton from. They had dark skin people outside and then they had lighter skinned people as houseslaves.

(Sidenote: white slave masters also raped and impregnated black women and they would have mixed children who were often light skin so instead of them working out in the fields they received the privilege of working indoors as they were family members).

The lighter skinned black people were more desirable because they were closer to being white than darker skinned black people. They were closer to ‘Eurocentric beauty standards. In this case, the idea that white skin is superior to darker skin.

Lighter skinned black slaves were favoured. They have always been favoured by white people. They were given less strenuous work and were only house slaves. Later, after slavery had been ‘abolished’, lighter skinned black people had more privileges than dark skin black people, such as the access to education and owning property. For lighter skinned black people to maintain their status they engaged in practices to exclude darker skinned people entering their social circles like: the brown paper bag test; comb test and blue veins test (Uzogara et al, 2014).

(sidenote: When I am discussing things like societies and organisations, this only applied to black men as women in general did not a place in society like that in this time period.)

The brown paper bag test was when white people compared a black person’s skin tone to a brown paper bag that was used for shopping. If their skin tone were lighter than the paper bag, they were basically calm (more palatable to the white society and could therefore receive privileges).

Next, the comb test, which in hindsight would not work. It is probably the origin of the idea that darker skinned people only have 4c hair and nothing else. Also, lighter skinned people can very much pop out of the womb with 4c hair too, so this was a very messed up test. The procedure was as follows: a white people would get a comb and brush a black person’s hair from root to tip. If the comb did not glide through a black person’s hair, they would be banned from certain fraternities. This practice excluded those with coarser hair textures (Uzogara et al, 2014).

The last test is the blue veins test. This test banned black people if their skin was too dark to see the blue veins in their arms (Uzogara et al, 2014).

All these tests favoured light skin people back in the day. Around this time there was a consensus that lighter skin black people are gentler and more approachable. Again, this is just because they are closer to Eurocentric beauty standards (closer to looking white).

As a result, the terms light skin and dark skin were created, and we still use them today. Different stereotypes were attached to these groups of black people. Mostly negative attributes were given to darker skinned black people, which is why colorism only affects darker skinned people.

to be continued…

references:

  1. Uzogara, E. E., Lee, H., Abdou, C. M., & Jackson, J. S. (2014). A comparison of skin tone discrimination among African American men: 1995 and 2003. Psychology of men & masculinity, 15(2), 201–212. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0033479

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