BY MONICA VEGA
The Other “-ism”
The problem of racism is undoubtedly one that plagues all areas of the world and has created deep wedges in the path toward world unity and universal acceptance. However, there appears to be a subtler, more intraculturally formidable “-ism” which haunts a majority of the races today. Colorism, defined as discrimination based purely on the social values associated with skin color, is a more divisive issue that drives wedges within races and occurs to varying degrees in the majority of racial groups worldwide.
This cultural phenomenon results in the marginalization of darker skinned persons by lighter skinned persons in multiple ways. Research has linked colorism in the United States to smaller incomes, lower marriage rates, longer prison terms and fewer job prospects for darker-skinned people. What is most shocking is that this trend is not unique to the United States; it exists in most cultures where colorism in prevalent.
Colorism Around the World
In Latin America colorism has been and continues to be a worrisome issue. The origins of colorism in Latin American countries can be traced back to colonization by the Europeans (Spain and Portugal) and later to the transatlantic slave trade, which lead to the institution of slavery of African people in countries like Brazil. As copulation between the white Europeans, the natives and Africans continued, new races began to be born in Latin America. The name Mestizo was given to a child that had one native parent and one Spanish parent. Mulattoes had one Spanish parent and one parent of African descent. Zambos were the offspring of one native parent and one parent of African descent. With the continued interaction between the Europeans and the natives came the idea that when it came to skin color, lighter was better.
Presently, in countries such as Mexico, Colombia, Peru, and Brazil this way of thinking is deep-rooted in their societies and manifests itself in areas ranging from education to employment. Studies conducted in Brazil show that light skinned people finish nearly 9 years of education, while those with darker skin finish 7.6 years. A similar situation occurs in Peru, Colombia, Mexico and other Latin American countries. The differences in education are parallel to the differences in employment and income. In Mexico, 10% of individuals with light skin have highly qualified positions, while only 5% of those with darker skin have similar positions. In Colombia, those with light skin earn twice as much as those with darker skin.
In the Dominican Republic, where approximately 70% of citizens are of African descent, the rejection of “blackness” is all too common. This rejection also has historical ties. The Dominican Republic, unlike most Latin American countries, did not win their independence from Spain. Haiti took over this area of Hispaniola from Spain, and thereafter they were under the rule of Haiti for more than 22 years. After finally gaining their independence, the Dominican people refuted anything Haitian. This included the darker skin associated with Haitians. Anything “black” was stigmatized. Similar attitudes persist in other Caribbean countries. In the Bahamas, “the minority light skinned community forms the majority of the ruling elite,” according to born-Bahamian Elizabeth Pears in her article “Colourism: Why even black people have a problem with dark skin.”
The effects of colorism have been so widely felt that a term for the social hierarchy that they create has been coined: pigmentocracy. A pigmentocracy is essentially what its name implies. It is a social hierarchy based on human skin color that socially resides beneath and reinforces distinctions of class, gender, religion, and ethnic origin. Within a pigmentocracy, members of the society use skin color as the most important parameter for judging other members of their society.
So how far have the effects of colorism and pigmentocracy gone? One should argue: Too far.
Further than affecting economic and educational aspects of a society, colorism seems to have altered the very definition of what is beautiful. Within Latin American countries but more prominently with Asian and African countries, the idea that “lighter is better” is firmly fixed within their society. Lighter-skinned women in these areas are considered more beautiful, are believed to be more successful and more likely to find marriage. This twisted conception of beauty has led many women and some men to the unconventional method of bleaching their skin to appear lighter. Skin lightening creams with names like “Fair & Lovely” flood the Asian and African markets.
A study by the University of Cape Town presents that one in three women in South Africa bleaches her skin and that 77% of Nigerian women use skin lightening products on a regular basis. This is followed by Togo with 59%, South Africa with 35%, and Mali at 25%.
In Asian countries the skin bleaching situation is not any better. In Taiwan, about 50% of women, and increasing amounts of men, pay for continuous dermatological skin lightening services ranging from $300 to $500 per session. In 2010, India’s skin whitening-cream market was worth $432 million and was growing at 18% per year. The fact that cricket players and Bollywood stars in India frequently endorse and promote these products only adds fuel to the growing fire.
Colorism in our Backyard
Colorism in the United States predominantly affects the African-American community. The idea that “lighter is better” within this community can be traced back to the times of slavery. Slaves whose skin was lighter usually received less strenuous jobs, like working in the kitchen, than slaves with darker skin. This preferential treatment was usually attributed to the fact that lighter skin slaves were the master’s offspring.
Lighter skin, which began as a means of survival, is now a cultural obsession. The distinction between light and dark skin continues to be a source of resentment and tension within the black community today. The phrase “pretty for a dark-skinned girl” seems to be thrown around unapologetically further widening the wedge within the African-American community. The principles of the “brown paper bag test”, in which you had to be lighter than a brown paper bag in order to join certain clubs, fraternities, or sororities, still live on today.
Constantly pointing out the distinction between light skin and dark skin only fuels animosity between individuals. Instead of coming together as one, individuals seem to be destroying their own race’s sense of unity.