Day 12 of White History Month: The Imposition of Colorism and Colonial Beauty Standards on People of Color
This is a long post adapted from a longer essay which references a lot of studies so you might notice there’s no works cited, but if you really want it, send me an ask.
Related to racism and colonialism, colorism is the discrimination against darker skin and preference for lighter skin among people of color. Colorism was created by European colonial standards. It was engineered by white people and white people continue to harm people of color with colorism in the media, workplace, and in their own minds.
White people tend to be unaware of the nature of colorism because of the popularity of tanning. Within mainstream white American culture, tanning has become a trend, leading many white people to be ignorant of how prized fair skin is. A preference for tanned (white) skin among white people does not negate colorism. Tanned skin is a trend and is also tied to class and status (time for leisure) while in the past, tanned skin was linked to working outdoors. When white people are aware of colorism, they often try to portray it as a tragic phenomenon among people of color and not one that is the result of whiteness, racism, and colonialism.
Many people of color are also unaware of the true nature of colorism, as well; some believe it to simply be a harmless “feud” between lighter and darker skinned people of color. This is not the case. While many light-skinned and white passing people of color may feel a disconnect from their racial identity due to their skin color, this does not negate the privilege they have. Colorism is directly related to colonialism, showing tangible effects on people of color. Communities of color are divided by skin color and given privilege based on their proximity to whiteness.
Racist colonial logic emerging from slavery associated Blackness with savagery and ugliness, as opposed to whiteness which was associated with civilization and beauty. From this logic emerged features associated with whiteness – light eyes, straight/long hair, narrow nose, and thin lips – being considered good, while features associated with Blackness – dark eyes, kinky/short hair, wider nose, and full lips – being considered bad.
Historically, during slavery, light-skinned Black people were treated less violently by overseers, were more likely to be given household duties instead of more difficult work, had better living conditions, and had more possibilities for education and eventual manumission (Rockquemore and Brunsma). After slavery, lighter-skinned Black people had more opportunities for prestige and success.
Hypodescent - the “one-drop” rule - meant that anyone with Black ancestry would be considered Black, no matter what their appearance was. Light-skinned Black people were encouraged to think highly of themselves and were literally “valued” at higher prices during slavery. Those classified as “Mulatto” were more likely to be freed; mixed Black people (classified using the antiquated term “mulatto”) made up 10-15% of the total Black population, but 37% of all free Black people.
Freed Black people during slavery and those were well established after slavery tended to be light-skinned. Paper bag tests were used in Black communities to establish admission to social events, fraternities/sororities, and more, shutting out darker-skinned Black Americans from networking opportunities. Noting that lighter skinned Black people were more likely to successful, sociologist E.B. Reuter (1918) noted that even some “white blood” would “improve” Black people (rather than the obvious fact that lighter skinned Black people were treated better).
White colonizers created caste systems and categorizations deriving from this racist logic, and from it emerged the categories of quadroons, Mestizos, and Mullatoes. In the Southwest United States, Mexicans were more likely to receive United States citizenship if they had lighter skin or passed for white. Colonizers in Africa, the Americas, and Asia treated lighter skinned people with more “European” features better than those with medium or dark skin and indigenous features.
People often try to absolve white people of responsibility for colorism that existed in Asian societies before European colonial contact, but it was not racially-based. The concept of race itself is a European and Western construction. Lighter skin was a class marker just as in European societies - darker skin was linked to laboring in the sun rather than proximity to whiteness. Even when lighter skin color was preferred, indigenous hair and eye color and facial features were previously the standard of beauty.
Effects Today (behind the cut)
When it comes to appearance, colorism is very visible within communities of people of color. Fair and Lovely in the South Asian community and skin whitening creams in Black and Latin@ communities are an example of how colorism has real tangible consequences. The media tends to showcase lighter people of color, which clearly has effects on beauty standards and self-esteem. Life outcomes have also been linked to skin color.
In studies of romantic music videos, the majority of female love interests are lighter than their male partner, and anyone who listens to rap has heard songs praising redbones, yellowbones, and light skin.
Most movie stars in India have lighter complexions and features, and the same can be seen in the United States and Latin America. Brazil has a large population of Black, mixed race, and indigenous people, but if you look at the media and at representations outside of Brazil (such as actresses and beauty queens) you would not know it. A disproportionate amount of beauty queens come from states with higher populations of white Brazilians, and finalists in beauty pageants are disproportionately white.
Beauty is sadly a form of social capital for women; poor outcomes in dating and marriage have historically been a result of perceived beauty. Being attractive is a significant predictor of having a spouse with higher socioeconomic status for all women except for middle to upper class white women (Edwards, Carter-Tellison and Herring). Light skin has a positive effect on the likelihood of marriage for Asian, Black, and Latina women.
Darker skinned Black women are rated as less attractive, though darker-skinned Black men are not (Hill 2002). Unattractive women are perceived as having darker skin than attractive women (regardless of actual skin color), and women with darker skin and “typically Black” features are thought of as less attractive.
Naomi Wolf argues in The Beauty Myth that beauty became just as important as intellect for hiring opportunities for women. Those who are beautiful are also believed to possess other characteristics that are good (Dion, Berscheid, and Walster 1972) – intelligence, kindness, confidence, poise, modesty, and success.
Women of color are clearly disadvantaged in this regard. While all women are subject to sexist beauty standards, women of color face wholesale exclusion from mainstream beauty standards and must focus on ways to get closer to white beauty standards: skin lightening, hair relaxing and straightening, and cosmetic surgery (including nose jobs and double eyelid surgery). Many women of color are well aware of externally-imposed beauty standards, but they also know that they must conform in order to improve their life chances.
Colorism harms the self-esteem of women of color in particular, due to the fact that beauty standards are mostly applied to women and these standards are internalized.
Fifty percent of women in Taiwan and forty percent of women in Malaysia, Hong Kong, South Korea, and the Philippines use a skin-bleaching cream. You can see skin bleaching creams walking down the aisles of any drugstore or supermarket in the United States.
Black women are likely to have lower self-esteem in relation to the darkness of their skin color, while Black men are more likely to belief their own competency is negatively correlated with the darkness of their skin.
In the Black community, those who have lighter skin are more likely to have higher educational attainment, higher income, and better occupational status than those with darker skin. Darker skinned black men are 52% less likely to have a job than their lighter-skinned peers. A similar pattern is seen in the Mexican American community. Those with traditional Native American phenotypical characteristics on average earn significantly less than their counterparts who are lighter and with more typically European characteristics, even when controlling for educational background.
In the Black, Latin@, and Asian communities, those with darker skin colors are more likely to be discriminated against. Darker skinned Asians are far more likely to be discriminated against in a workplace setting than their medium or light-skinned counterparts. Black Americans with dark skin earn 72 cents for every dollar that their light-skinned counterparts earn (which is also less than what their white peers earn.