What is colourism and how does it work?

A number of BAME figures have spoken out about being discriminated against based on their skin tone

Will Smith
Will Smith is tipped to play Richard Williams in upcoming biopic King Richard
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Racism around the globe is well documented, but many people don’t realise that it can occur not just when one race discriminates against another, but within a single racial group.

Colourism – what the BBC calls “discrimination against dark-skinned people in favour of those with lighter skin from the same race”– has been receiving increasing attention, raising questions about why black and Asian people in the public eye often have lighter skin.

Several high-profile figures, including the Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o and the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, have spoken out about facing colourist attitudes in the past. Nyong’o says she was once told at an audition that she was “too dark” for television, reports The Guardian.

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Nyong’o, who was raised in Kenya before moving to the US. referred to colourism as “the daughter of racism” in “a world that rewards lighter skin over darker skin”.

The decision last year to cast Will Smith as the father of tennis players Venus and Serena Williams in an upcoming Hollywood film called King Richard also triggered debate. Many claimed he was “too light-skinned for the part”, and that a darker-skinned actor should have been cast in the role instead, the BBC reported

Is this a new phenomenon?

The official definition of colourism in the Oxford English Dictionary is “prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group.”

According to The Independent, colourism has been around for centuries and is “thought to be a lasting relic of slavery; white masters showed preferential treatment to light-skinned or mixed-race slaves, who were often the product of rapes with darker-skinned women”.

Over time, the concept has become “intersected with sexism so that it particularly affects women of colour”, says Aisha Phoenix, a post-doctoral researcher at SOAS University of London, in an article on The Conversation.

Sociologist Meeta Jha, author of The Global Beauty Industry, adds that “physical attractiveness, whiteness, and youthfulness have accrued capital, just as darker skin colour, hair texture, disability and ageing have devalued feminine currency”.

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What are the effects of colourism?

Canadian site Canoe says this form of discrimination “has led to a lack of representation for darker-skinned people in film, noticeably in Hollywood and Bollywood”, with roles instead going to black or Asian performers with lighter skin tones.

Nicole Vassell, entertainment editor at Pride, a magazine aimed at women of colour, told the BBC in 2018 that this was why “a lot of the rising stars and the people who are the highest in the industry are lighter skinned”.

“The Beyonces, the Rihannas, obviously they have incredible talent but their lighter skin has been an advantage in getting them as far as they’ve gone,” Vassell said. “There could be darker-skinned women that are just as talented but we might never know because the attention is not paid in their direction.”

Mathew Knowles, father of singers Beyonce and Solange, has also spoken about how having lighter skin leads to more opportunities in the entertainment industry. In an interview with Ebony magazine, he asked: “When it comes to black females, who are the people who get their music played on pop radio?... Mariah Carey, Rihanna, the female rapper Nicki Minaj, my kids... and what do they all have in common?”

A Harvard University research paper published in August 2018 found that adolescents “experience colourism at school and college, in the criminal justice system, at work and in the media they consume”. The authors said it was “therefore unsurprising that adolescents of colour often express a desire for lighter skin tones and/or are dissatisfied with their skin tone”.

On The Conversation, Phoenix notes that the “outstanding achievements of some prominent people of colour with light skin” - such as the election of Barack Obama as the first black US president, and Meghan Markle becoming the first black British royal - are often seen by white observers as “milestones in race relations”, or as “signifying hope”.

But “those with light skin still benefit from the privilege that comes with an approximation to whiteness”, Phoenix argues. “People of colour with light skin who are public figures are often viewed as having transcended their ‘race’”, while the “negative perceptions of people of colour more broadly are left largely unchanged”, she concludes.

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