A CONVERSATION ON COLOURISM

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By Akola Thompson

I RECENTLY overheard a conversation between two dark-skinned women regarding the skin colour they perceived to be the better one. One of the women was Indo-Guyanese and the other was Afro-Guyanese. The Indian woman was commenting upon the fact that her “fair” son had married a darker woman, and that while the girl was “a good housewife,” she would have rather he had taken someone of lighter complexion.

The African woman echoed and agreed with her sentiments, stating that she like persons who have “colour.”

While I had thought about it before, that conversation caused me to think more deeply about not only the hierarchy of skin colour, which too often results in racism, but the division particular shades of one colour can often cause within various societies. Like with so many of our harmful social beliefs about self and others, colourism was born, and in some cases heightened, during the slavery era; as, while lighter-skinned slaves (mulattoes) were provided indoor work, the darker-skinned ones were forced into field labour. Whether it was done unwittingly or not, segregation of the black slaves according to shade was an effective measure of controlling and manipulating them, as it set the light-skinned slaves against the dark- skinned ones and vice versa, and managed to breed perpetual distrust among them.

There have since been countless internalized declarations of the superiority of lighter skin to that of dark skin. While there may not be chains still holding us in bondage, there appear to be psychological prisons made of self-loathing and envy born out of the practice of colourism, which have trickled down and solidified themselves in the 21st century.

While many may say that colourism is not an issue, I would be inclined to disagree, as I myself have often unwittingly benefited from this flawed ideology. While several of my darker friends have been subjected to some form of colourism or racism throughout their lives, I have never had this experience. So, often, when they tell me the things they experience, it is jolting, because I realize that there is privilege in a colour over which I had no say; and, too often, it is easy for me to dismiss issues that I have never been confronted with.

Many persons don’t realise the subtle and often blatant privilege which comes with being light-skinned, so they question the reasoning behind those who lighten or “bleach” their skins, as they often see it as a stupid act. While I do see skin lightening as an unnecessary act (I have been told that this position is a privilege my semi-light complexion allows me), I know that these persons feel it is the rational decision to become more ‘aesthetically pleasing’, because it makes them escape a life of poverty and opens to them opportunities which might have otherwise been closed. So the question for them often is not ‘why?’ but ‘why not?’

Some of the questions which will most likely continue to be asked throughout the years are: How do we, as a people, challenge something which many do not believe exists? How do we tell the men, women and children that their preference for lighter skin is not really a preference but a conditioned belief which has perpetuated countless social and economic hierarchies? How do we, in a continuously media-driven world, grapple with self-identity and beauty issues and deconstruct the notion that our beauty can be measured by the shade of our skin?

I don’t have any significant answers to these questions, and there is the possibility I never will. What I believe, however, is that, much like how institutional structural ingrained inequality persists, so too will colourism.

As long as every new generation is taught that their skin is not light enough to be considered beautiful or afford them certain opportunities, the colour hierarchy will remain, and along with it, all the insecurities, envy and disadvantages that still exist.