From Twitter to YouTube, many celebrities and influencers have been called out for being colorist, which is nearly synonymous with being racist in the Black community. Some call-outs occur from real-time actions and statements, while others happen due to uncovered past tweets or uploaded videos.
The issue of colorism is certainly not exclusive to the Black community and goes beyond simply social media. It affects us in every sector of our daily lives, nearly in the same fashion as racism.
What is Colorism and how did we get here?
Colorism has been a popular topic on social media starting in the mid to late 2010s. It is defined as “prejudice or discrimination [,] especially within a racial or ethnic group favoring people with lighter skin over those with darker skin.”
While the word itself was first used around the 1960s, the concept is rooted in slavery when lighter-skinned slaves were subjected to household tasks and taking care of a slave master’s family. The lighter-skinned slaves were typically the product of white slave masters raping a dark-skinned, enslaved woman.
The “house” slaves had more privileges than their dark-skinned counterparts and didn’t have to toil in the fields. They were seen as more desirable and intelligent. They were able to “pass” for white and were often allowed to get an education. Many of them, mostly women, were sold at higher prices than their dark-skinned peers because of these qualities.
On the contrary, dark-skinned enslaved people were forced to work in the brutal field conditions doing hard labor from dawn to dusk each day and enduring horrific, even lethal weather conditions. They also suffered more severe punishments from their slave owners. However, this did not mean that the house slaves were free from punishments, as they were often under increased surveillance due to their proximity to their owners and their family.
After slavery formally ended, the white supremacist hierarchy and ideology of light skin being favored over dark skin endured within the Black community and American society. At companies and even within Black social life, there was the implementation of the brown paper bag test. This “test” determined who would be allowed in certain spaces based on skin color. A brown paper bag was used to determine the halfway point between whiteness and Blackness. Those who were lighter than a brown paper bag were given job opportunities and more social status. They were more closely associated with “whiteness.” Many are often aware of the brown paper bag test in the context of house and field enslaved people but do not realize the practice continued into the “post-slavery” workforce.
The test was popular among Black Greek life as well. More notably, the members of Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) sorority were lighter than those members of the Delta Sigma Theta (or Deltas) sorority throughout the first half of the 20th century.
There is also the matter of the “good” hair versus “bad” hair argument. “Good” hair is associated with light-skinned Black people. It is looser textured hair that is seen as easier to manage since it’s not as coily. Many of the light-skinned slaves had this type of hair because their fathers were white. “Bad” hair is kinkier hair that is associated with dark-skinned Black people and seen as harder to maintain. It is also referred to as “nappy” because the coarse, coily hair tends to be thicker.
A good example of this “debate” is from Spike Lee’s 1988 film School Daze through the song “Straight & Nappy.” During the hair salon scene in the movie, the members of the Gamma Ray sorority, who were light-skinned with straight hair, and the Independents, who were dark-skinned with coily hair, were throwing jabs at each other. The dance number consists of the members from each sorority tugging on each other’s hair while singing about “good” hair and “bad” hair.
In the criminal justice system, the plot thickens. White prisoners are granted shorter sentences than their Black counterparts for the same crimes. Colorism is nearly equally harmful to society as racism. Ultimately, however, they are both interconnected and work together to perpetuate the white supremacist ideology of anti-Blackness.
A Villanova study from 2011 shows that light-skinned Black women served 11% less time in prison than dark-skinned Black women. Blackness is already criminalized with 33% of those in prison being Black Americans, and Black men and women making up the bulk of police brutality cases. The fact that color is being picked even more when it comes to sentences is incredibly disturbing and shows how dark-skin Black people face a sort of “hyper-racism.”
Even now in the 21st century, colorism continues to be used to dictate who gets a job and who doesn’t. A Black man with the same résumé as a white man is more likely to get passed up for job opportunities and less likely to get a callback for an interview. This disparity tends to be worse among Black women.
When a company finally does decide to hire a Black man, colorism still plays an enormous role. A study from 2006 conducted by the University of Georgia shows that a dark-skinned black man who has a Master’s degree and a more decorated résumé is less likely to get a job than his light-skinned peer who has a Bachelor’s and “typical work experience.”
With the rise of social media, there are more discussions about colorism as it pertains to the Black community. More importantly, in the music and entertainment industries.
Chris Brown has been known for having no “darkies” in his section at clubs and only associates with Black women “with the good hair.” Damien and Bianca Prince of D&B Nation on YouTube were called out for talking about how dark their daughter’s skin was shortly after her birth and mentioning how dark she is going to be as she gets older.
More recently, Dani Leigh, a white Latina, addressed the Yellowbone song controversy and how she didn’t know how severe and harmful colorism is and how offensive her song is. Zoe Saldaña was scrutinized for playing famous singer Nina Simone, an unambiguous, dark-skinned Black woman, in the 2016 biopic Nina through to use of prosthetic facial features instead of a talented, dark-skinned Black woman being cast for the role.
Colorism is not discussed as much as racism on a larger scale, especially within the Black community. In order for our community to truly engage in work towards the furtherance of Black liberation, it is essential that this layer is added to our conversations about dismantling racism, as they go hand-in-hand and both perpetuate the white supremacist ideology of anti-Blackness. Both ideologies need to be dismantled in order for the community and the rest of our society to truly progress.