Colourism, Featurism & 'Casual Racism'
Before we dive right in to this week's post, let's start with some definitions
Colourism: A type of racism directed towards people with darker skin tones within the same ethnic minority/racial group, giving privilege to people with lighter complexions.
Featurism: White people popularising features from ethnic minorities that are often degraded.
'Casual racism': Apparently a form of racism that's accepted when it comes from someone in the older generation.
Colourism has been a part of society for a very long time, far longer than I can remember in my life. Racial stratification may have began as a simple way to establish hierarchy and order but as time went on other ways of maintaining the order created other heads of racism which insidiously crept into the population, creating more threats to those perceived to be on the bottom of the totem pole. Thinking back to the 1700s when British colonisers landed in Australia and wiped out around 80% of the Australian Aboriginal population as they were perceived to be stuck in a primitive state of living. Along with the massacres, women were raped, of course leading to mixed race children, which were legally (as in a law was passed) taken from their families and placed into institutions to occupy servant roles. Most Australians today don't even realise or have recently found out that they had Aboriginal heritage as there are so few of them left. To the colonisers, the whiter the better and the dark complexion of the Aboriginal people was what was holding them back from being as civilised as the British.
In the States, mixed race people were referred to as Mulattos and were often regarded as the class between the Black and the White population. Mulattos were free Blacks and were hardly enslaved (around 10% of the Mulatto population were slaves) and thus their complexion came with many added benefits such as wealth, business ownership and increased life expectancy. They separated themselves from Black people and were regarded as being more intellectual, even-tempered and hard-working. The Mulatto privilege was sustained by the Slave Trade. Then, came the abolishing of Slavery and Jim Crow laws cascaded around the US creating the 'one-drop rule'. However, further restructuring to the racial hierarchy over time and throughout the Civil Rights Movement allowed lighter skinned Black people to reinstate their privileges and status once again.
The Scramble for Africa and colonisation of other states such as India resulted in a myriad of atrocities with a prominent one being the assertion of power in the hands of the white man. As the colonisers invaded countries in the global south, they stripped all power from citizens, assuming a dominating role in which citizens post colonisation (even 'til this day) still strangely admire, conflating whiteness with power and prestige. The carefully devised plan of manipulation of citizens by the British still has people in the global south seeking to construct 'civilised populations' in the same manner that they themselves experienced. It's basically just Stockholm Syndrome. But again, the same rhetoric was apparent that white is right and to be as great as the Brits, you had to conform.
All of these events combined led to non-white populations adopting westernised ways of living and by seeing the privilege afforded to people with lighter complexions, living in dark skin was hardly a desired option. In 2011, the United Nations reported that 40% of African women bleached their skin, with a strickling 70% of women in Nigeria alone looking to 'improve' their life by becoming lighter. In Asian countries such as India, there are walls in stores dedicated to skin lightening products. There are billboards everywhere advertising bleaching creams claiming to make people beautiful. Not only this, the synonyms of 'black' and 'dark' are always negative and the darker a Black person is, the more masculine they are considered to be. The Caste System in India proves the elitism associated with lighter skin, with children from lower Castes (they are often darker) not being offered the same education, people wanting to marry someone 'fair' and the need to assume authority by declaring the Caste one comes from in conversations.
So can you place the blame on dark skinned people (especially women) on wanting to become desirable, less masculine and seek the opportunity for a prosperous life? Not if that is what is promised to them if they are lighter.
Colourism isn't just preference, as many paint it out to be, it's a systematic arm of racism meant to organise society and who is afforded better things. It's ingrained so deep into White supremacy and sadly even Black culture, manifesting as anti-blackness. We see it in the world today on who is given a platform to speak and access opportunities in their field. Sometimes I feel like the world is reluctantly having to accept the Black population but will only accept the people who have proximity to whiteness. An example of this is Little Mix's Leigh-anne Pinnock, a mixed race woman releasing a documentary on colourism and race even though she benefits from the former issue. Example number 2 is Rochelle Williams recently being given the job of hosting a documentary looking at the Black maternal mortality rates (which is shockingly and disproportionately high and affects dark-skinned Black women the most) when Candice Brathwaite, a dark-skinned Black woman has made this the focal point of her work, was not allowed to be a host for a similar show. Look at all of your favourite brands and the influencers/models that they use, if a Black person is included, they usually have a lighter complexion. It just doesn't make sense, unless you look at it through the lens of colourism.
As the so called 'acceptance' of Black populations increased so did featurism. With the likes of The Kardashians popularising a big bum, darker skin and even braids, you wonder why these features are still considered unattractive, unprofessional and ghetto when seen on Black women. I know all too well of being made fun of for exactly the same features when I was younger but sometimes praised for the same things a few years later. What's worse is the association of such features with the Kardashians, i.e. she made them popular so if you want to get the same thing, you would ask for the "Kim K braids" etc. This places absolutely no onus on the origins of features such as braids which are extremely traditional and symbolic of important culture in the African community. Issues such as this are what get me so frustrated at the opposition of someone claimed to be blackfishing. Due to the intricate dynamics of colourism, people knowingly or unknowingly play directly to the narratives of the privilege that's received from being lighter skinned. If you know that you can make yourself darker but not too dark to be a dark-skinned Black woman, you will benefit from the privilege and fetishisation of light-skinned Black people. People will even go so far to desire a mixed-race baby so much that they will seek interracial relationships, not caring for the other person's culture or even knowing that their family is racist.
Featurism is cultural appropriation, hurtful, dismissive and violent to people with dark skin, at the root of it.
This week we have seen the real extent of Britain's racism with the Meghan and Harry interview with Oprah Winfrey being aired. As a dark skinned Black woman I think about just how much vitriol, racism and misogyny that Meghan has had to face being a very light-skinned mixed race woman, so how badly does the country view me? Like many people I was enraged watching the interview at the lies and deceit, controlled by the monarchy and UK press, came to surface. It shouldn't take a genius to link Meghan's treatment to racism, which makes Jane Moore's comment about concerns about Archie's skin colour from a member of the Royal Family being 'casual racism' absolutely absurd. Trying to make racist comments seem less serious, acceptable or casual is a slap in the face to everyone fighting to be treated like equal human beings. As we shine a light on how much everyone's mental health has been impacted by the events of COVID-19, let's not forget to give respect to those admitting that they once hit rock bottom and accept that racial attacks and lies can legitimately influence your mental health.
There are lots more articles, documentaries and books to access on the topics I've discussed on this blog post. I hope you take the time to look more into this to understand the weight of them and how they play out in society.
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Until next time,