What You Need To Know About Colorism and Skin Whitening

You’ve probably seen stories of bizarre skin lightening creams being sold in far off lands and thought little of it. Maybe it was one of those thirty second facebook videos or an advertisement featuring a sad, dark skinned woman transforming into a light skinned beauty with a husband, a house, and a career

Chances are that after the thirty second clip was over, you probably scrolled away and never thought of what you saw again. Maybe subconsciously, you linked the skin lightening to tanning? Unless you’re from a region which is notable for its colorism, dismissing it as an issue from another continent or someone who doesn’t share the skin tone as you. This is just part of the reason why the Western portrayal and understanding of colorism is overly simplistic and incomplete. 

Colorism is a term unfamiliar to many people. To keep things short, colorism denotes negative treatment or attitudes on the basis of darker skin tones. The origin of colorism is debatable, and whether or not colonialism is entirely responsible for it should have no effect on all humans accepting their responsibility for allowing it to fester for so long.

Racism is a fairly easy concept for most to grasp because it is something that happens to a particular group from a outside group. Colorism is essentially racism that happens within a racial group or community that they dupe on themselves from viewing the outside world. Colorism and racism have many similarities. Much like racism, colorism solely exists to benefit people who are lighter skinned. Also like racism, colorism comes in many different forms, and each of these forms needs to be destroyed from the root on up.

Colorism manifests itself in many ways, such as the deliberate casting of actors who are lighter skinned rather than actors who are representative of the population (Bollywood is a great example), using skin tone to gauge someone’s value as a spouse, using lighter makeup to make darker skinned women more “beautiful”, and promoting the use of skin lightening products, including those of which have active ingredients known to be harmful.

The lack of awareness of colorism stems from several misconceptions. One such misconception is that skin lightening/bleaching to tanning. Tanning and skin lightening are simply incomparable, tanning is more of a fashion trend while skin lightening speaks to the deep, underlying views on race which plague many communities of color worldwide. If your skin is pale, it won’t cost you jobs, friends, or otherwise lead to you being treated negatively. With colorism, transgressions are more than just skin deep– skin color can be used to determine how someone will be treated and who they will be.

Another misconception is that colorism is not an American issue, or that it is a minor issue exclusive to few communities. While colorism might seem more jarring when shown through absurd South Asian skin lightening cream advertisements, it is far from unique to South Asian communities. Colorism is prevalent, most notably, across Asia and Africa– and it’s present here in the United States, too. 

The obvious response to this might be that as people immigrate, they bring their cultures and values with them, including their colorism. Walk into any South Asian grocery store, and you’ll be met with tubes of skin lightening creams, but this is far from the end of the story. Colorism also universally affects dark skinned black American women, whether or not they have immigrant ties– colorism is very much a homegrown issue.

In general, women of color are conditioned to strive towards whiteness, even if it means bleaching your skin, dying your hair, or undergoing plastic surgery. This pressure is particularly prevalent among black women. Think about it: how often do you really see a truly dark skinned black women in a movie or on a runway? How are darker skinned black women stereotyped?

Femininity and skin tone are closely intertwined. We stereotype dark skinned black women as being unfeminine, aggressive, and unattractive, as well as depriving them of representation. We further diminish the chance of colorism being actively acknowledged by brushing off colorism as a foreign issue, something we need not deal with as Americans.

Colorism is an issue, right here, right now. We need to shed the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality which is preventing us from seriously taking action. It’s important to understand that colorism is much more than a surface issue. It might seem a bit silly to some that colorism has become such a deeply ingrained part of many cultures, but it is a divisive and detrimental issue nonetheless. Here are a few things you can think about to challenge yourself and those around you to think more critically about colourism:

What do you consider to be beautiful?

The next time you watch a show or movie, consider this: what did the heroes look like? What did the villains look like? Was the casting accurate in terms of race and skin tone?

Be honest: what assumptions do you make on the basis of skin tone?

What attitudes seem unique to your community? Do you think these issues are improving with the younger generations, or are they at least receptive to progress?For example, I have noticed that Pakistani men tend to seek light skin first and foremost when looking for a wife. Similarly, light skinned Pakistani women are socialized and raised differently than darker skinned Pakistani women. Unfortunately, younger generations just seem more willfully ignorant.

Have you said one of these phrases before? Or, have you heard these?

“You’re so dark for that race!”
“You’re so pretty for a dark skinned person.”
“You don’t even look like Pakistani/Black!”

The first step to solving a problem is admitting that it exists. Until we admit that colorism is as much an issue here in the States as it is abroad, we will make no progress. Combatting colorism will move us one step closer towards more equal treatment and valuing humans for who they truly are, rather than for how much they fit into Eurocentric beauty standards.

This Article Was Written By: Saneeha S.


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