Colorism in Black America

Skin color is a potent factor of the criteria of social perception shaped by American society. Observing one’s physical appearance is normal behavior, as it can reveal a story immersed in unique cultures and ethnicities. Nevertheless, social constructs, such as race, have been impediments that disregard human diversity.

With racism as a form of oppression, it especially targets people of color and minorities in this country. In regards to the Black population, the debate over color has created an unrealistic system in perceiving beauty and self-worth. This predicament creates a problem that denies social equality and the appreciation of skin tones within the Black population.

Colorism, a term coined by feminist author and activist Alice Walker, pertains to the social values and meanings attached to skin color. She, personally, defines it as “prejudicial or preferential treatment of the same-race people based solely on the color of their skin.”  With the suffix –ism attached to “color,” it implies that there is an ideology attached to the societal preference of skin tones. Simply, it is an idealistic term used for discriminatory purposes . As a matter of hierarchy, specifically in the Black population, this causes discourse on how one’s skin color correlates to their social acceptance. Existing within the Black race of America, misinterpretations of “true blackness” are analyzed through within-group racial discrimination.

Prior to arriving to the United States at the age of five, I did not experience personal discrimination regarding my skin color. In the West Indies, there are numerous types of ethnicities present originating from all regions of the world. The diversity of skin colors was collectively condoned during my childhood. Whether a person was white, Black, brown, or did not identify with a color, discrimination based on race was a rare sight. I even saw color classification as a means of tunnel vision, because one’s color is not a determinant of their character. As far as it was from colorblindness, bigotry was not an ethical issue.

With a skin color that is socially defined as “Black,” someone could not look at me and know my true roots of origin. Debates on colorism, and prejudicial attitudes were practically nonexistent. There was cohesiveness and appreciation, not discrimination.

My early school years in the United States took a turn into self-perception, as biased opinions on skin color were challenged on several occasions. The interpersonal anger over one’s shade of skin tone was new to me; I began to experience it while growing up.

A personal encounter of colorism I faced was the “Brown Paper Bag Test.” Not long ago, I was packing lunch for school using a brown paper bag, and it was a surprise when I saw people of color using the bag as a subjective test of beauty. “Are we really basing our appearance off a paper bag?” I said to myself.  For a distinct shade of brown to be a determinant of one’s beauty was a shock to me. If one was darker than the brown paper bag, are they automatically deemed unattractive? Everyone has different definitions of the words “unattractive” or “ugly,” but why is there a tendency for people who are classified under the same race/ethnicity to target one another? There is no one way of seeing it, since beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Insecurities about skin color influences doubts about physical appearance. Such a feeling leads to mental health issues, and internal turmoil continues to spiral along the way. I grew angry about colorism when it came from the mouth of my Black classmates, the people I could physically relate to. We were already in a country that promoted dehumanization of minorities. We had to stand for one another, love one another.

“Light-skin” and “dark-skin” are the two types of classification commonly used with colorism. The occasional “brown-skin” is heard from time to time. The terms “yellow-boned” and “red-boned” were also in their prime for decades. The skin color paradox of America has deemed all light-skin tones as a desirable feature of the Black population. But what of dark-skin tones? The color hierarchy constructs a biased view, and it has a risk in being implemented in future generations to come.

The systematic and institutionalized operation of European colonialism is a critical root of colorism. The ideology behind European beauty standards largely affects the value of darker skin tones in American society, with the assumption that “the lighter, the better.” With the media’s lack of representation for Black complexions, marginalization becomes a catalyst of segregation. American history continues to carry a pattern that refuses to accommodate equality and change the racist system with new societal norms.

Everyone has a different experience with the effects of colorism in their own lives. Both colored males and females deal with its implications based on gender salience. Regardless, skin color is the label that ascribes them into a marginalized entity in American society. Misconceptions of Black skin tones, in comparison with the majority group of America, also raises the conversation of poverty and lack of formal education. The perception of inferiority insinuates inequality, or at least supports the current existence of it.

A fight for equality is not sufficient when there is opposition within the circle of the oppressed. The discrimination of skin tones that are defined as “Black” was created through hate. For that reason, the endorsement of colorism can not only be reversed, but also serve as a reminder that the Black population must continually support solidarity.