Colourism: Modern Society’s Plague

Described by Lupita Nyong’o as the “daughter of racism”, colourism has been plaguing societies for decades with its jarring prominence and its blatant inclination towards belittling darker skin to glorify whiter skin. The seemingly positive effects from the influx of recent self-acceptance and self-love related media is ruled out by colourism, which consistently undermines these self-acceptance messages by alluding that only certain types of skin tones are worthy of being accepted. This can’t help but make us wonder: why is darker skin still seen as an unprepossessing physical trait?

What is colourism?

Colourism is mainly understood as a form of prejudice or discrimination which is manifested through preferential treatment based on skin colour, with lighter skin tones being favoured more than darker skin tones. Whilst racism is usually perpetrated by one ethnic group towards another, colourism is often perpetuated by individuals within the same ethnic group. In many cultures, the colour of a person’s skin affects their prospects for jobs, their desirability for marriage, as well as their perceived social standing. 

Why is colourism so prevalent?

In many countries, whiter skin is commonly associated with a higher social standing with the perception that a person’s paleness is directly linked to their lack of exposure to the sun due to a more luxurious life spent indoors whilst darker skin is deemed as evidence of hard work, and thus, rural poverty, which inherently subjugates one to a lower social status. This sort of cultural norm is so deeply entrenched within many societies’ history that it has become a challenge to defy and uproot them from people’s belief systems. Hence, the inferior treatment that individuals with darker skin are subjected to is seemingly justified by some cultures as it is a sign of their lower social ranking with a person’s skin tone indicating whether they were part of the upper or working class. 

Colourism can also be traced back to colonialism and the implications it instigated within colonised nations. The aforementioned cultural norm was reinforced by European colonists who constituted the upper class upon their arrival in conquered countries, which proved people’s long-held perceptions that whiter skin equalled more power. The presence of European colonists in Asian and African countries introduced beauty standards within these countries that mainly revolved around Eurocentrism. 

These Eurocentric beauty standards mainly upheld the West’s ideal perception of beauty, which was simply being white. However, such standards were strongly propagated by racial theorists whose sole desire was to ensure white supremacy by declaring that whiteness was the ultimate ideal of beauty. Hence, it can be inferred that the portion of the power that colonists held was derived from the widespread promotion of their Eurocentric beauty standards which inferiorized local culture; because a person’s skin is more than merely a colour, it reflects the culture of their people. 

How has colourism been evident in the media?

It is common to find darker skinned individuals reduced to a mockery in the media by depicting them as less attractive due to their skin or using the colour of their skin as a running joke. You may identify these “jokes” yourselves which range from the classic “I can’t see you in the dark” to the more profoundly colourist like “they can’t possibly be in a successful position because they are darker skinned”. The question remains: where is the comedy in a person’s natural state of being? 

This negation towards the roles that darker skinned people are capable of playing has only led to lack of representation in the media, with lighter skinned people being favoured. Many dark skinned individuals have been turned away from job positions despite their obvious eligibility, merely because of the colour of their skin. With the general perception that darker skin takes its place on the negative side of beauty’s spectrum, the media industry seems transfixed on their reluctance to cast a positive light on darker skinned people as they do not adhere to Eurocentric beauty standards. 

In fact, the depiction of darker skin has been a form of entertainment for some time through the practice of what is now widely known as “blackface” or “brownface”. Traced back to almost 200 years, blackface is the act of fair-skinned actors painting their faces darker with shoe polish, paint, or make up and creating exaggerated facial features. However, most of these portrayals were aimed at casting darker skinned individuals in an unfavourable light and reinforcing negative stereotypes that were attached to dark skin. Such degrading and dehumanizing portrayals are extremely harmful as they enable the perpetuation of prejudice and discrimination against darker skinned people by desensitizing and normalizing derogatory remarks perpetrated against dark skinned individuals. 

Although blackface originated in America, its appearance in mass media spread to other countries. Malaysia is not exempt to such portrayals, with local media presenting darker skinned in disrespectful manners. For example, controversies were sparked last year due to blackface being used in a drama adaptation of a Malaysian folklore, Dayang Senandung, which tells the story of a Malay princess cursed with black skin and deemed ugly for being so. More recently, musician Haoren was reprimanded for using brownface in his music video by depicting a “dark skinned” girl who eventually transforms into a more beautiful version of herself; in other words, her complexion transforms to that of a pale one. 

How does colourism affect self-esteem?

All these negative portrayals of darker skinned people can be damaging to their self-esteem and make them resent the skin that they were born with. The constant feeling of being judged for one’s natural features is psychologically burdening as it incites sentiments of self-doubt and incessant rejection. The lack of representation and the denigration of darker skinned people in the media has warped society’s perception and advertently led to an unbalanced power dynamic whereby darker skinned individuals are at a glaring disadvantage.

Hence, many people have been made to feel that changing the colour of their skin will award them with the worth that society has stripped them of and that it will give them the opportunity to be viewed as a more agreeable person. In truth, they are manipulated into probing for faults with themselves despite having none that are inherently associated with their skin. 

These insecurities which have clearly been fabricated by society itself, have been pounced upon by corporations for years. This is clearly seen in the beauty industry which consistently promotes skin whitening products to help people achieve a more “beautiful” complexion. They have monetised people’s feelings of inadequateness for years by creating the illusion that dark skin is the issue and whitening products will be the solution to all their problems. 

But wherein lies the true problem? Is it verily dark skin or perhaps merely societal perception? I believe that the answer is found within the latter. For years, colourism has plagued modern society and the forthcoming years must mark an end to this affliction that tears our society at the seams. 

Darker skinned people should no longer be made to feel inferior and their physical features should not be the impetus that fuels their self-judgement. Everyone should be allowed to accept themselves, especially when it is aspects that are held so closely to our identity and our history. 

However, accepting ourselves must also be strengthened by accepting others. As a member of society, we are responsible for uplifting our fellow people by quelling the false and damaging stereotypes that are constantly piled up against dark skinned individuals. It is time for everyone to acknowledge that beauty and success comes in all forms and colours; and that the colour of a person’s skin should no longer be a boundary to their pursuits.

By: Julia Rosalyn

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