The Shady History of Colorism
I helped build the country
And I fought for it too
Now, I guess that you can see what a black man have to do
They says, "If you's white, she's alright”
“If he was brown, stick around”
“But as you's black, oh, brother, get back, get back, get back”
-Big Bill Broonzy, 1945[i]
Despite being released over 75 years ago, Broonzy’s blues record remains relevant to the social hierarchy that continues to hold whiteness on a pedestal. Written during the Jim Crow era of separate but “equal”, 21st century police abuse and unjust court rulings make it abundantly clear that with whiteness comes power and privilege not afforded to colonized people. Attempting to survive this unfortunate reality, many African people around the world have subscribed to the idea that, as Broonzy’s lyrics suggest, lighter skin is better than darker skin. This problem is known as colorism.
Colorism is the belief that people of a shared race are more attractive and acceptable if their skin is of a lighter shade. On a deeper level, colorism is the discriminatory practice of treating lighter-skinned people of that racial group better than darker people of that same group. Colorism is a byproduct of colonialism with multiple damaging effects on Black and brown women.
Socially, colorism was enforced by the paper bag test in which Africans lighter than or equal to the shade of a brown paper bag were granted a higher level of community access than those who “failed” or were darker than the bag. African fraternities, sororities, churches, and clubs are documented as having imposed these prejudicial practices in their own segregated spaces.[ii]
The enduring psychological impact of colorism is also abundant. Many darker women develop lower self-esteem as a result of social exclusion due to barriers based on skin tone.[iii]
Culturally, colorism surfaces in different ways. It looks like people using bleaching cream to reduce their brown pigment. In 2017, skin bleaching was a $4.8 billion business that is expected to nearly double by 2027.[iv] It sounds like many songs bragging about fair-skinned woman. She may be described as having a curvaceous body, long hair, and a bougie attitude. She may be nicknamed “yellow bone” or caramel and receive a request to ride in an expensive car. She may be said to have light brown eyes to compliment her complexion. Whatever it is, both male and female artists have found seemingly endless ways to celebrate lighter-skinned women.
This is beginning to change, however. To be fair, there are an increasing number of songs that attempt to acknowledge “chocolate” and “mahogany” women. Yet this inclusion has not come easily. Within the global African community, Blacks are both the perpetrators and victims of the colonial lens that has inspired and exacerbated the spread of color caste system for hundreds of years.
Europeans invented the belief that a pale complexion represents beauty, brains and power in order to establish and maintain domination over the people they colonized. Anything other than white did not measure up to their manufactured standards of superiority. This colonial ideology was used to pit Black people against each other during slavery. Black people with fair skin were often given preferential treatment over those who were considered darker, thereby creating division among and tension between the same oppressed population.[v] That division and tension is the current root of colorism throughout the African diaspora today. So, what is the solution?
Since slavery, Black people have been indoctrinated to believe the biggest lie of all, which is that, as Broonzy said, white is somehow right. The adoption of that mentality is an implicit acceptance of the fallacy that Black is inferior, bad and ugly. It is a myth embedded in the evil orchestration of white power imperialism and one that must be rejected. Black men and women must resist the internalization of European beauty standards and embrace the many hues in which African people are born.
There is a reason activists during the 1960’s Black Power Movement chanted Black is Beautiful and wore their hair naturally. It represented the restoration of pride in Blackness that slave owners hoped to destroy. It was the beginning of a long road to liberation from colonial forces that declared African skin and features undesirable. And it was a demonstration of solidarity among all Black people regardless of their complexion.
Black people must migrate mentally from Broonzy to Black Power. Together, we must continue to unite against the shady history of colorism.
Check out what our staff thought about this issue.
[i] Ellen Harold and Peter Stone, “Big Bill Broonzy”, The Association for Cultural Equity
[ii] Audrey Elisa Kerr, The Paper Bag Principle: Class, Colorism and Rumor and the Case of Black Washington, D.C. (2006)
[iii] J. Camille Hall, “No Longer Invisible: Understanding the Psychosocial Impact of Skin Color Stratification in the Lives of African American Women”, Health & Social Work, Volume 42, Issue 2, May 2017, pages 71–78
[iv] Coco Khan, “Skin-lightening creams are dangerous – yet business is booming. Can the trade be stopped?”, The Guardian, April 23, 2018
[v] Verna M. Keith and Cedric Herring, “Skin Tone and Stratification in the Black Community”, American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 97, No. 3 (Nov., 1991), pp. 760-778