Phenotype is a fancy word for how a person looks. It refers to all of a person’s physical traits that can be seen with the naked eye, such as hair, eyes, nose, lips, and skin color.

In the video Wide Angle: Brazil in Black and White, a secret panel evaluates pictures of potential students and classifies them into racial categories (black or white) based on how they look. This is to determine who qualifies to apply to the University of Brasilia through the new quota system (black) and which students had to apply as part of the general population (white). This is obviously a slippery slope, as proven by the fact that identical twins were placed in different racial categories. One twin was deemed black. The other twin was deemed white.

The relationship to phenotype and race and colorism is a very important one. Associating phenotype with race in societies where class, social status, power, and privilege correspond to race, means that people may gain more opportunities, status, power, and privilege based on how look, regardless of their actual lineage. It’s in those societies where colorism really takes root.

In the U.S. this is most acute in the practice of passing, which is when a person of one race chooses to live in the world as a person of another race. Historically these people have mostly been documented as blacks who pass for white based on their phenotype. The most commercially famous study of this phenomenon are the two versions of Imitation of Life, a film in which a young black woman essentially disowns her black mother, moves away, and lives life as a white woman.

What the film also reveals about passing in the United States, especially historically, is the constant fear of being found out, because in the U.S. phenotype does NOT determine race, at least not on paper. No matter how much people may look white, if it’s known that they have black ancestry, then they are treated like black people. That’s why the character in Imitation of Life and the countless people in the real world were forced to disown their families and everyone who knew them in the past out of the need to hide their racial ancestry.

The case of the twins in Brasilia and passing in the U.S. prove that it’s nearly impossible to rely on phenotype to determine race.

But the reason for talking about passing is to show how people believe that lighter skin, lighter eyes, straighter hair, and more European facial features is the ticket to a better life, and in many cases they have been right (depending on how one defines “better life.”) This belief is the historical root of colorism in many cultures. Colorism isn’t arbitrary.

In other countries with historically less rigid classifications of race, such as Brazil, the balance of power is still based on a hierarchy of phenotypes. Many have reported the persistent discrimination against darker skinned people in Central and South America. The University of Brasilia (and other businesses and institutions) began using a quota system because activists protested about disparities in the enrollment of such institutions. Prior to the quota system, the student body at the University of Brasilia had been up to 98% white (phenotype not necessarily race). In the case of this particular quota system, a “black” phenotype might actually open the gate to opportunity for some students, a reversal of what’s typically and historically the case.

This post isn’t to argue for or against the use of quotas. I simply use the film as a great example of how, even without rigid racial classification, even with a long history of racial mixing, colorism prevails. The skin bleaching and marriage preferences in more racially homogeneous countries is further proof. As long as the balance of opportunity, wealth, power, and privilege is decidedly tipped in favor of one race or one shade, colorism will continue to exist, and people will continue to see phenotype as their ticket to a better life.

One of my favorite speeches by Malcolm X explains that people come to hate their phenotype because of how others react to it. There’s nothing inherently wrong with how anyone looks. If we’re unhappy with how we look, it’s because of the way people have historically used our physical appearance to decide if we’re slave or free,  rejected or admitted, turned away or offered service, profiled or let off the hook, guilty or innocent, ignorant or intelligent, ugly or beautiful, dangerous or safe, and on and on and on.

Perhaps this would not be the case if everyone merely had their “preferences.” But it’s more than that. There’s a national, even global system in place that takes the notion of preference out of the equation by conditioning our “preferences” through propaganda and social norms and in many cases predetermining our “preferences” through laws. In fact, this structure is so ingrained and so ubiquitous that it’s invisible to most people in most situations. When we do see the structure, we also become aware of how difficult the structure is to dismantle, like trying to extract the flour from a loaf of bread that’s already been baked.

Thus, many people prefer to change themselves rather than change the system. Many people find it easier to demand something else of themselves rather than of the system. Many people decide that if they can’t fight the system, they have to find a way to survive within it. Colorism.

If you’re reading this, I hope that you reject the notion that we as people are flawed and recognize that it’s the system that’s deficient and needs changing. In the current structure of many societies today, phenotype IS a ticket to a “better life,” but with continued work, we can see to it that everyone can own such a ticket regardless of how they look.

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