“Skin,” a documentary exploring colourism in Nigeria, produced by the British-Nigerian actress, Beverly Naya, has sparked discussions on an issue which does not receive enough attention. Reviews for the documentary range from high praise to critical criticism but her documentary is not my focus today. Colourism is.
The term colourism was coined by Alice Walker in 1982, and it denotes the discrimination which occurs within the same race based on the colour of a person’s skin and usually, darker skin tones are the ones prejudiced against. Colourism does not only occur within the black race but is prevalent in other races, but for the sake of focus, I will be concentrating on colourism within the black community.
Although the word was birthed in 1982, its origins long precede this date. During slavery in America, some of the slaves were raped by their slave masters which resulted in them birthing light skin children. Even though the masters did not acknowledge these children as their own, these lighter skin children were given certain privileges which were non-existent to the dark skin slaves. The lighter skin slaves were tasked with less strenuous work inside the households, whereas the darker skin slaves were tasked to work in the fields and perform other backbreaking work. Consequently, a dichotomy was created between these two complexions and being lighter was seen as an asset which accorded a person certain advantages. Colourism did not end during slavery but continued into the 19th and 20th century with the introduction of the “paper bag test.” This was a ‘test’ used in black spaces and in the hiring of blacks, where if a person was the same colour or lighter than the brown paper bag, they were considered for hire or allowed into a particular space. If a person’s skin tone was darker than the paper bag, well, you were less likely to find employment or be allowed into these spaces.
So far, the historical accounts I have given have been based in America, but countries in Africa also face colourism. Some trace the causes of colourism to the colonization of many African countries where whites were seen to be superior and blacks to be inferior. A glaring example is between the Hutus and the Tutsis in Rwanda, which was one of the causes of the Rwandan genocide in 1994. The colonizers in Rwanda would measure the noses, skin colour, temples, and faces of the Rwandans and determined that those with more Eurocentric features were superior. As a result, these colonial powers began to give more administrative power and privileges to the Tutsi ethnic group (because they generally had more western facial features) compared to the Hutus. What worsened relations between these two groups was the introduction of the ethnicity papers by the Belgians, which clearly indicated whether a person was a Hutu or Tutsi and propelled further discrimination among the ethnicities.
Colourism has been the root cause of many other issues such as skin bleaching, where in 2020, it is estimated that the skin whitening industry is a staggering $23 billion business. Some of the creams and concoctions used in the hopes of becoming lighter, are harmful to the skin and a person’s overall health. Colourism is also a subtle way of pitting blacks against each other instead of allowing the black race to be a unified one. Furthermore, the idea of a ‘preferred black type’ is created, which is prevalent in the beauty and fashion industry and even influences the dating preferences of some people. As Zendaya, who is considered light skin, said, “I am Hollywood’s, I guess you could say, acceptable version of a black girl and that has to change.” Moreover, some dark skin persons are left with deep insecurities and doubts and wonder if they will ever be accepted due to their skin colour.
Growing up, I remember watching music videos where the lead video vixens were usually white or lighter skin. I grew up and heard that some boys aspired to marry or date a light skin woman or a white woman. Almost as if dating or marrying a lighter skin woman was the ultimate status symbol. I’ve heard comments such as “You’re pretty for a dark skin” which conveys the message that dark skin is not beautiful, but there are some exceptions to that rule. All these and more emanate from a colourist perspective, and it is time for that to change.
So what’s the way forward? First, we must acknowledge that colourism exists. We cannot sweep it under the carpet and turn a blind eye. No. Secondly, we need to be introspective. Colourism has been ingrained into the subconscious of many that they don’t even realize their own personal bias when it comes to skin tones. We need to identify any of these partialities we may have and learn to discard them, and re-educate ourselves to be more accepting of all the shades of black. Next, we need to call out colourism when we see it. Is it a business that continually underrepresents women of darker skin tones? Your friend? Your sister or brother? Don’t be a silent bystander but an active participant in dismantling colourism. Another way to get involved is to join campaigns. In Ghana, Ama K. Abrebrese started an anti-bleaching campaign a couple of years ago. You could support causes such as these and other similar ones wherever you find yourself. And in your appreciation of dark skin women, please don’t make us your fetishes. Do not hypersexualize us or aim to see us in oiled nude photos or any other sexual fantasies you might have of us. Please don’t. Finally, teach the next generation to be accepting of all skin tones. From an early age, my mum gave me the name, “Black beauty” and growing up, I was usually referred to as black beauty. She never gave me the opportunity to doubt my dark melanin complexion and repeatedly enforced that I was beautiful; beautiful not only in looks but since she is a Christian, made sure I knew that I was fearfully and wonderfully made as a child of God. Let the next generation grow up knowing that black is beautiful no matter what shade it comes in.
To conclude, I want to reiterate that being black is not confined to a monolithic skin tone but varies in its colour, and all of these variations are beautiful. As Beyoncé says, our skin, the brown skin, is “the best thing in the world.” And on this note, I’d leave you to listen to a playlist I curated titled, “Black comes in different shades.” These are a selection of songs which appreciate the black race. Please click here to listen.
Keep on glowing in your black skin!
 Tharps, L. 2016. The Difference Between Racism and Colorism. https://time.com/4512430/colorism-in-america/
 Stewart, A. 2013. Documentary brings to light ‘Dark Girls’. CNN https://edition.cnn.com/2013/09/11/living/identity-film-bill-duke-dark-girls/index.html
 Thompson, A., 2007. Media and the Rwandan genocide. IDRC, Ottawa, ON, CA.
 Rehman, M. 2017. Getting Rich from the Skin Lightening Trade. https://www.businessoffashion/com/amp/articles/global-currents/profiting-from-the-skin-lightening-trade