Day 12 of White History Month: The Imposition of Colorism and Colonial Beauty Standards on People of Color
This is a long post adapted from a longer essay which references a lot of studies so you might notice there’s no works cited, but if you really want it, send me an ask.
Related to racism and colonialism, colorism is the discrimination against darker skin and preference for lighter skin among people of color. Colorism was created by European colonial standards. It was engineered by white people and white people continue to harm people of color with colorism in the media, workplace, and in their own minds.
White people tend to be unaware of the nature of colorism because of the popularity of tanning. Within mainstream white American culture, tanning has become a trend, leading many white people to be ignorant of how prized fair skin is. A preference for tanned (white) skin among white people does not negate colorism. Tanned skin is a trend and is also tied to class and status (time for leisure) while in the past, tanned skin was linked to working outdoors. When white people are aware of colorism, they often try to portray it as a tragic phenomenon among people of color and not one that is the result of whiteness, racism, and colonialism.
Many people of color are also unaware of the true nature of colorism, as well; some believe it to simply be a harmless “feud” between lighter and darker skinned people of color. This is not the case. While many light-skinned and white passing people of color may feel a disconnect from their racial identity due to their skin color, this does not negate the privilege they have. Colorism is directly related to colonialism, showing tangible effects on people of color. Communities of color are divided by skin color and given privilege based on their proximity to whiteness.
Racist colonial logic emerging from slavery associated Blackness with savagery and ugliness, as opposed to whiteness which was associated with civilization and beauty. From this logic emerged features associated with whiteness – light eyes, straight/long hair, narrow nose, and thin lips – being considered good, while features associated with Blackness – dark eyes, kinky/short hair, wider nose, and full lips – being considered bad.
Historically, during slavery, light-skinned Black people were treated less violently by overseers, were more likely to be given household duties instead of more difficult work, had better living conditions, and had more possibilities for education and eventual manumission (Rockquemore and Brunsma). After slavery, lighter-skinned Black people had more opportunities for prestige and success.
Hypodescent - the “one-drop” rule - meant that anyone with Black ancestry would be considered Black, no matter what their appearance was. Light-skinned Black people were encouraged to think highly of themselves and were literally “valued” at higher prices during slavery. Those classified as “Mulatto” were more likely to be freed; mixed Black people (classified using the antiquated term “mulatto”) made up 10-15% of the total Black population, but 37% of all free Black people.
Freed Black people during slavery and those were well established after slavery tended to be light-skinned. Paper bag tests were used in Black communities to establish admission to social events, fraternities/sororities, and more, shutting out darker-skinned Black Americans from networking opportunities. Noting that lighter skinned Black people were more likely to successful, sociologist E.B. Reuter (1918) noted that even some “white blood” would “improve” Black people (rather than the obvious fact that lighter skinned Black people were treated better).
White colonizers created caste systems and categorizations deriving from this racist logic, and from it emerged the categories of quadroons, Mestizos, and Mullatoes. In the Southwest United States, Mexicans were more likely to receive United States citizenship if they had lighter skin or passed for white. Colonizers in Africa, the Americas, and Asia treated lighter skinned people with more “European” features better than those with medium or dark skin and indigenous features.
People often try to absolve white people of responsibility for colorism that existed in Asian societies before European colonial contact, but it was not racially-based. The concept of race itself is a European and Western construction. Lighter skin was a class marker just as in European societies - darker skin was linked to laboring in the sun rather than proximity to whiteness. Even when lighter skin color was preferred, indigenous hair and eye color and facial features were previously the standard of beauty.
Effects Today (behind the cut)
According to this post, 40% of people in the Philippines use skin whiteners, and I believe it. My sister visited for less than a week, but became accustomed to being told that she looked like a model (though we’re both half Chinese half white, she is lighter and her features are more Anglican). And it’s true. In almost all advertisements, the people look very similar to her, very European.