Because many people have not heard of colorism and may be unclear about how it relates to racism, I want to explore the particular definitions and the relationship of colorism and racism.

Defining Colorism and Racism

Colorism- prejudiced attitudes and/or discriminatory acts against people based on the color (shade or tone) of their skin

Racism- prejudiced attitudes and/or discriminatory acts against people based on their actual or perceived racial status

I want to highlight the fact that people of different races may have the same skin tone. See the three women below.

 

 

And people of the same race may have different skin tones. See the two women below.

 

 

In cases of racism, two people of different races but identical skin colors will be treated differently. In the movie Pinkyfor example, Pinky is a black woman who looks white. Despite her white skin color, Pinky is still mistreated and discriminated against just like the other blacks in her community.

In cases of colorism, two people of the same race but different skin colors will be treated differently. 

This is how each operates on a fundamental level. Of course there are additional factors that may complicate each case, for example, other group identifications that could trump race or color in specific situations such as family, nationality, gender, occupation, or wealth, etc.

The Relationship Between Colorism and Racism

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The relationship between colorism and racism has been explored by others before. The consensus is usually that colorism is a product or symptom of racism.

Societies with widespread issues of colorism also have long histories of colonization and influence by european countries. In these societies, european features such as white skin, straight hair, and light colored eyes were overtly promoted as the standard of civilized existence, intelligence, beauty, wealth, and power. In these societies, rights and privileges were also restricted to people of european decent. In places like the United States, one’s european bloodline had to be “pure,” meaning not mixed with any other races, in order to retain the rights and privileges reserved strictly for whites.

In contrast, those of other races were often forced into servitude or slavery, denied citizenship and protection under the law, classified as property along with inanimate objects and animals, labeled subhuman (3/5 human in the U.S.), denied education, barred from public places and certain jobs, and abused in any number of ways.

Colorism among people of the same race is also considered a form of internalized racism. After centuries of being conditioned to view white/european as superior and their own race and culture as inferior, many people were broken and eventually believed in and acted according to that dichotomy.

It’s under those conditions that people of varying races came to view european ancestry and european phenotypes as superior to all else and as a means to a better life. People try to acquire more european features and traits and encourage their children to “improve the race” (mejorando la raza) by marrying people who are as light or lighter and producing offspring with increasingly european phenotypes.

Colorism is a manifestation of the idea that even if one isn’t white, her worth may be determined by how close she is to being white.

The woman at the beginning of the video “Negro: Colorism and Mejorando La Raza” makes the controversial yet not uncommon argument that internalized racism is more harmful and thus a more urgent concern than outside racism. Others are outraged at the idea. They call it a case of blaming the victim and insist that we can’t overcome internalized racism until we defeat external racism.

I think the battles are one in the same. If we internalize racism, we lose our will and our ability to fight the external system of racism. If we don’t value, respect, and love ourselves, why would we put up a fight when others don’t either. If we believe that white people are superior, then we won’t bat an eye at the disparities in education and wealth. However, it’s the external system of racism that teaches and enforces white supremacy, and there’s a strong case for arguing that dismantling that system would curb the level of internalized racism.

So what is the difference between colorism and racism? Is one issue more important than the other?

Many disagree, but I say that there is no difference. Internalized racism (colorism) and external racism are so interwoven at this point that we can’t attempt to extract one without addressing the other.

11 Comments

  • Thanks for your excellent article. I’m going to pass it along to folks, particularly my denser “white” friends who haven’t got a clue. I’m certain i’ll eventually get blocked by a few. 🙂 mike

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  • I can honestly say that I didn’t even know of the word colorism before finding this site. Yes I’ve seen how we categorize ourselves into light skinned, dark skinned, and even fair skinned but there was never a name placed. But reading this article along with others have given me more understanding on the situation.This site has ignited a curiosity for me to learn more.

  • Kelsie

    Colorism is also a thing in the white “community”, in quite a few parts of the world.
    Someone of English decent is going to be seen as “more white” and therefore “better” than someone of Mediterranean decent or Indian decent (genetically Caucasian, geographically Asian), because of their dark features, vs light features of Northern Europeans. Same within Asian and Native American communities.
    Sadly, I don’t think racism/colorism/prejudism is ever going to go away, because it’s been ingrained into everyone heads that “the paler, the better”, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

    • I do not agree with you Kelsie. Colorism is NOT a “thing” in the white community. White people do not see other colors of white people. Historically, when white’s have been racist against other whites is was never based on the whiteness of their skin, it was based on their culture. For example, in the early to mid 1800’s the Irish were hated in the United States by white people simply because they were Irish. Your genetic point is not relative as genetic Caucasian people are not all English. Most “white” skinned people are European and some Asian, and do not have one ounce of English in their bloodline. In addition, the color of someone’s skin is not relative to their culture, it is relative to the amount of melatonin in their skin. People from India may have Caucasian genetic roots, but their culture is very different from the English and other European cultures. To equate Caucasion to being white is simply equating apples to oranges.

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