Kaleidoscope Eyes: A Crazy Little Thing Called Colorism
Posted July 2nd, 2020 by Amina Harper
In the fourth installment of her series on Color Theory, Harper unpacks the concepts of race, color, privilege, and how they have been weaponized.
Well… this is gonna make a lot of people mad...
This is going to be uncomfortable, VERY uncomfortable. But I’m going to be nice to you and ease you into this subject, not because I care about your feelings, but because it took me a long time to construct this article, and I’d like you to give it your time to reflect on what I have to say.
First, let’s start by differentiating the definitions of “race” and “color.”
Race: A human classification of a distinct population that is often based on the geographic location of that population's ancestry and/or that population’s hereditary phenotype.
Color: As it pertains to human skin, color is the specific shade and tone of one’s epidermis… I’ve always wanted to use that word.
Now it’s important to remember that race is a social construct. This in no way diminishes its effects on the lives of human beings around the world. In fact, it makes it even more important as social constructs govern how fluidly we are (or are not) able to move through the world in the name of survival. These colors used as human classifications were treated as science and given a great deal of accolade when, in truth, they were just white supremacy coded as fact.
SIDE NOTE: Race is NOT the same as Ethnicity or Nationality. These three are completely different. Also, one's skin color doesn’t not necessarily determine one's race. I know, it’s confusing; blame white supremacy.
The racial group with the most label variations within the American English language, black people began the conversation regarding which labels were appropriate in the 1950s and 1960s. Civil rights leaders of the time wanted a term that represented their systemically opposing relationship to white people, while also disassociating them from slavery, discrimination, and concepts of second class citizenship. The term ‘black’ is translated from the Spanish and Portuguese word ‘negro,’ which was introduced around 1442. ‘Negro’ is derived from the latin word ‘niger,’ which is likely derived from the Proto-Indo European word ‘nek’ meaning “to be dark,” a word likely derived from the word ‘nok’ meaning “night.”
German pseudoscientist Johann Friedrich Blumenback was the first on record to invent and widely use the term ‘brown,’ the racial classification that includes the largest number of people. The word ‘brown’ in regard to racial classification has often been used as a neutral term to describe a person of color who is not dark-skinned African or light-skinned East Asian, and its usage varies from culture to culture with no fixed definition. The term ‘brown’ gained popularity in the 18th and 19th centuries and included people from Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Pattani, Sumatra, and Taiwan. Polynesians and Melanesians of Pacific Islands, as well as Papuans and Aborigines of Australia were also included. In 1775 the label ‘light brown’ was created to include Southern Europeans, Sicilians, Abyssinians, the Spanish, Persians, Turks, and Laplanders. Tartars, Africans on the Mediterranean, and the Chinese were added to the ‘brown’ label. More, and more, and MORE ethnic groups were added to this category until these theories were scientifically debunked. In the 20th and 21st centuries, ‘brown’ is no longer considered a scientific racial classification and is thought to be biologically invalid (as if they aren’t all invalid in a biological sense), and is mostly used for sociological and interpersonal purposes.
Native Americans and European colonizers didn’t often mention the color of each other’s skins (at least from what surviving histories maintain), so the origins of color terminology used to describe Natives in English is arguably unclear. While skin color labels are thought to have entered everyday speech somewhere around the mid-18th century, it was as early as the 17th century that similar terms were used in anthropological literature. Despite it’s flimsy roots, the term ‘red’ is used derogatorily and regularly in association with many sports team mascots that depict Native imagery.
Swedish zoologist Carl Linnaeus was the first to apply the word ‘yellow’ as a means to specifically label East Asians (who, prior to this, had actually been labeled ‘white’ by Marco Polo). At first, Linnaeus used the Latin adjective ‘fuscus,’ meaning “dark,” to describe the skin color of Asians. But in the tenth edition of his 1758-1759 Systema Naturae, he enhanced his terminology with the latin word ‘luridus,’ meaning “light yellow” or “pale.” ‘Luridus' also means “ghastly” or “horrifying.” Unlike the other color terms, ‘yellow’ is considered a largely outdated racial descriptor and is rarely used anymore.
SIDE NOTE: As I’m writing this, I’m realizing how it might be indicative of light skinned privilege that, of all the racialized color terms used to describe people of color, that ‘yellow’ is the one that is more or less retired due to its offensiveness. But I’m getting ahead of myself...
‘White’ is rooted in the Old English ‘hwit,’ meaning “bright, clear, radiant, and fair” as well as “morally pure.” White, as it pertains to skin color, was first used in 1600, and in 1852 it was used for the first time in connection with white people specifically. The term ‘white’ was used for the first time in 1868 in Dr. John H. Van Evrie’s publication White Supremacy and Negro Subordination to reference both white people and their subjugation of non-white people.
I’m really only giving you these definitions to broaden your thinking on the topic, but also to ease any confusion you might have regarding the history of the connections between race and color language. Because the awareness of these terms and their histories will make the task of following this article's weighted topic a bit easier.
A discriminatory practice based on the color, shade, and tone of someone’s skin, especially within the range of “light to dark.” The term is widely thought to have been coined by Alice Walker in an essay from her 1983 book titled In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens.
Now, before we continue dissecting colorism, there is something you need to know that will affect how I’m going to ask you to think going forward. And that is that whiteness (as it pertains to color, people, culture, and supremacy within the realm of race) is about PURITY… or rather the illusion of it. So much of how colorism functions has to do with how much proximity one’s physical appearance aligns with the standards of whiteness, but being proximate to whiteness is not the same as being white.
And it never will be.
That being said, having white proximity comes with many privileges. People with lighter skin (especially if it is gained via white parentage) often see greater career success, social status, more relationship options, and more access to institutional space and resources than their dark skinned community members. For black people in the states, this has roots that go as far back as slavery, when lighter skinned slaves (who were the result of a slave master raping his female slaves) often got domestic positions working inside the master’s home, whereas darker skinned slaves were forced to work outside. This was due to the fact that slave masters assumed that having darker skin meant you were more suited to hard labor, thereby perpetuating the idea that lightness (especially if attained via white parentage) is more delicate, fragile, intelligent, and worthy of protection. Granted, they were all still slaves owned by white people who would have happily killed or sold them on a whim. This is why it is also important to interrogate the fetishization of interracial relationships and the children who are a product of them. There is an ugly, painful history here, and no amount of biracial deification is going to erase that, it also puts a huge burden on biracial children to “end racism” by way of being born… like, WHAT?!?
SIDE NOTE: Hey white people reading this, just because you married, fucked, or have children with a person of color DOESN’T MEAN YOU CAN’T BE RACIST!!! It’s 2020, get your shit together!
We expect this behavior from white culture, but what we still have yet to truly reckon with is how people of color have internalized these toxic ideas and turned them inward. See, the thing about white supremacy is that it has this way of infecting everything, from systems and institutions, to cultures, communities, and interpersonal relationships. That’s what supremacy is; it’s the dominant culture… and white supremacy IS a culture. For example, in the 20th century, many black churches, greek organizations, and nightclubs would instate the ‘paper bag test’, where members of these groups would literally HOLD A BROWN PAPER BAG UP TO SOMEONE’S SKIN, and the lightness or darkness of their skin in comparison to that paper bag would determine their admittance to elite parts of black society. That is a learned behavior, and white supremacy teaches it even to this day.
Colorism's main goal is to distance people of color from blackness without allowing them to attain the power of whiteness, yet still encouraging them to strive for it. It’s also a means to turn people of color against each other by creating resentment and competition for access to resources (because it’s hard to start the uprising amidst infighting). Even if the people of color in questions aren’t identified as black, colorism is a form of anti-blackness that can be found in every culture. White supremacy frames blackness as its opposite, and that brings us full circle back to the concept of “binary thinking” that has been the core of this entire series.
As I said before, white supremacy and whiteness in general is about purity. It doesn’t give merit to halves and mixtures, it doesn’t honor the nuances of racial identity unless it can market those nuances to propagate itself. This intentionally leaves no room to confront the dark histories of racial mixing and the continued realities of colorism as social capital that serves to protect and benefit white people. This puts all people of color in some precarious situations: if your skin is dark, then colorism marginalizes you; if your skin is light then colorism fetishizes and tokenizes you. Ultimately, white supremacy wins.
Every community is guilty of colorism. EVERY SINGLE ONE. People unspokenly use the paper bag test to determine admittance into friend groups. Lightness and darkness are used to denote masculinity and femininity when depicting women of color on TV and in movies and often determines the women who are considered worthy of romantic affection. And when white people seek to find a token to shield them from accusations of racism in the workplace, they bring in the lightest person of color they can find, knowing that most people aren’t racially literate enough to question their true intentions. Colorism was invented so that white people could center themselves within the communities and narratives of people of color; they see themselves reflected in that lighter skin. It’s another way for white people to make something about them, without taking responsibility for the damage it does to people of color. And while there are plenty of people of color who will lean into this for their own individual benefit, at the end of the day, they will never be white and will be discarded by the system as soon as they are no longer considered useful or if they step out of line.
So, what are the solutions? This can’t be allowed to go on anymore, and it’s a form of racism that often gets overlooked because it is just a tad too nuanced for anyone who doesn’t know anything about it to wrap their heads around. The truly difficult part to overcome is that many people of color engage in colorism and are unwilling to let it go because it gives them power similar to white privilege. But nevertheless, what if it is something you want to combat within yourself and within your community? Listening to the experiences of people with darker skin is a good place to start, but some more proactive moves would be to take a hard look at the racial dynamics within your workplace and interpersonal relationships. If you notice colorism, call it out. If you are a person of color who discovers you are being used as a token for your skin color, call it out and refuse to participate in white supremacist systems that seek to use you and throw you away once they’ve met their diversity quota. If you are being accused of colorism, take a good hard look around you and rebuild the systems in your life, not only to include darker skinned people but to make sure they are safe and comfortable in that environment. It makes no sense to integrate different kinds of people if a system of toxicity is still thriving when they get there. Remember, forms of marginalization, like colorism, affect the most vulnerable people within a community. Women, especially trans women, bear the brunt of colorism in every community of color. Lighter skin is associated with femininity, goodness, and beauty and is seen as something worthy of praise and protection. And as with all forms of binary thinking, the less privileged are met with violence, degradation, and hatred. Hell, if you want to see a contemporary example of this, watch Pose.
Colorism is one of the results of people literally “not seeing color.” And since we are now living in a time where we are contending with the consequences of a racist society, it is time to fully contend with this too. We have a lot of work to do, and if we go too fast without taking time to untangle ourselves from our own white supremacist conditioning, we will build a new world that looks very similar to the old one.
Banner image: Fred Wilson; Grey Area (Brown version); paint, plaster, & wood; 20 x 84"; 1993. Photo source: Brooklyn Museum.