Colorism is a symptom of oppression as well as a system of oppression.

The specific oppression I speak of here is racism or “white supremacy.”

Colorism is both a product and a tool of the umbrella institution of white supremacy.

When I began reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, I did not expect to find so many ideas relevant to colorism and colorism healing. Freire wrote Pedagogy in 1968, and it was translated from Portuguese to English in 1970. The book is based on Freire’s work with poor working people in Brazil. However, that very specific context of oppression has parallels with many others, and lots of people have reapplied Freire’s ideas in different contexts. But as far as I know, no one has applied his ideas to colorism.

I want to share with you some powerful ideas from Freire’s book that I believe reveal a lot about the sources of colorism and possible solutions to colorism. What follows is a small selection, but I hope you are inspired to take up the book and read all that it contains.

Why Colorism Exists

A divided house cannot defend itself

“As the oppressor minority subordinates and dominates the majority, it must divide it and keep it divided in order to remain in power. The minority cannot permit itself the luxury of tolerating the unification of the people, which would undoubtedly signify a serious threat to their own hegemony. Accordingly, the oppressors halt by any method (including violence) any action which in even incipient fashion could awaken the oppressed to the need for unity. Concepts such as unity, organization, and struggle are immediately labeled as dangerous. In fact, of course, these concepts are dangerous—to the oppressors—for their realization is necessary to actions of liberation.” (Freire, p. 122)

“Submerged in reality, the oppressed cannot perceive clearly the ‘order’ which serves the interests of the oppressors whose image they have internalized. Chafing under the restrictions of this order, they often manifest a type of horizontal violence, striking out at their own comrades for the pettiest reasons” (Freire, p. 44).

Freire quotes Fanon to support this. Fanon writes:

“The colonized man will first manifest this aggressiveness which has been deposited in his bones against his own people…. for the last resort of the native is to defend his personality vis-á-vis his brother.” (Fanon as quoted on page 44 of Pedagogy of the Oppressed)

A whole lot of people, especially African Americans, acknowledge that colorism divides the community. Unfortunately, many people mistakenly think that dialogue about colorism is the source of division rather than the colorism itself.

I must say that colorism continues to divide us because we fail to confront it (due to fear, guilt, shame, pain, ignorance, selfishness, etc.). For unity and healing, we need all parties to acknowledge how we are each complicit and responsible. For unity and healing, we need all parties to acknowledge our pain and our privilege.

We’ve internalized white supremacy

“The more they mimic the invaders, the more stable the positon of the latter becomes…. For cultural invasion to succeed, it is essential that those invaded become convinced of their intrinsic inferiority. Since everything has its opposite, if those who are invaded consider themselves inferior, they must necessarily recognize the superiority of the invaders. The value of the latter thereby becomes the pattern for the former. The more invasion is accentuated and those invaded are alienated from the spirit of their own culture and from themselves, the more the latter want to be like the invaders: to walk like them, dress like them, talk like them.” (Freire, p. 134)

“Self-deprecation is another characteristic of the oppressed, which derives from their internalization of the opinion the oppressors hold of them. So often do they hear that they are good for nothing, know nothing, and are incapable of learning anything—that they are sick, lazy, and unproductive—that they become convinced of their own unfitness” (Freire, p. 45).

In colonial societies and in societies where slavery existed, whites used and perpetuated colorism to divide the oppressed people. However, as the two quotes above state, the oppressed people internalized, believed in, and became convinced of their own inferiority and of the superiority of whiteness. Colorism among African Americans and other people of color took hold as we began to hate our blackness, began to strive for whiteness, and began to place a higher value on those people of color who more closely resembled and enacted whiteness.

Even though the era of old colonialism and slavery has long passed, its legacy lives on. Even now, people of color continue to loathe blackness but laud whiteness and those who more closely resemble whiteness.

Today, however, it’s not so black and white. White supremacy is no longer stated in explicitly racial terms. Instead people use rhetoric like, “straight hair just looks more professional.” What’s concealed by such statements is that straight hair looks more professional because straight hair is associated with whiteness, and whiteness has always been associated with professionalism.

So how do these ideas spread?

“All these myths…the internalization of which is essential to the subjugation of the oppressed, are presented to them by well-organized propaganda and slogans, via the mass ‘communications’ media—as if such alienation constituted real communication.” (Freire, p. 121)

Society consciously and most often unconsciously maintains white supremacy on a grand scale through mass communications and propaganda in all of its various forms throughout history. This includes, but is not limited to: books, literature, music, art, newspapers, movies, television, magazines, billboards, advertisements and commercials, video games, websites, social media, flesh-tone products, stock photography, dress codes that regulate hairstyles, jeans that fail to accommodate a curvier body, fairytales like Rapunzel, music videos (including ones starring artists of color), dolls and other toys, and… Well, you get the picture.

Why Some People Deny Colorism and White Supremacy

There is no critical intervention when intervention “would contradict the class interests of the perceiver…. The fact exists; but both the fact and what may result from it may be prejudicial to the person. Thus it becomes necessary, not precisely to deny the fact, but to ‘see it differently.’ This rationalization as a defense mechanism coincides in the end with subjectivism” (Freire, p. 34).

What Freire says here relates to colorism and white supremacy because certain people benefit from these forms of oppression. Those who benefit might not want to lose their benefits, and they often do not even acknowledge that they receive any benefits. They therefore try to dismiss dialogue or action aimed at undoing these forms of oppression.

When we receive information that somehow portrays us or people we identify with in an unflattering or unfavorable light, we might not deny the facts outright, but we try to justify them or rationalize them. We dismiss the information by saying, “Well, I guess I see it differently.” Even when the information doesn’t explicitly describe us, it might contain facts that incriminate us or those with whom we identify.

I’ve said before that colorism healing takes courage. One of the most courageous things we can do is admit that we are complicit—all of us. We need courage to admit that we have certain privileges because of our outward appearances. We need courage to admit that others have an equally valid story to tell, even if the story implicates us or someone who looks like us.

The Myth of “Reverse Discrimination”

Even when a more equitable situation is established, “the former oppressors do not feel liberated. On the contrary, they genuinely consider themselves to be oppressed. Conditioned by their experience of oppressing others, any situation other than their former seems to them like oppression…. Any restriction on [their former way of life], in the name of the rights of the community, appears to the former oppressors as a profound violation of their individual rights” (Freire, p. 39).

Though Freire is writing primarily about class inequality, I think a similar thing happens when it comes to race. The notion of Affirmative Action as “reverse discrimination” is perhaps the most infamous case of this type of condition.

In many societies around the world, people’s race, skin color, hair texture, facial features, or body size and shape often lead to un-merited advantages (advantages gained through no effort of your own, like an advantage given because of race or skin color). Basically, the loss of an un-merited advantage often feels like a disadvantage (Why am I being punished for who I am?). The reason this feels like a disadvantage is because many of the benefactors of racism are not aware (or in denial) of how they are privileged in that institution. To see things differently would require not relying solely on one’s personal experiences (individualism) and instead acknowledging the larger societal patterns, probabilities, and historical legacy.

When individuals or whole societies make conscious and direct attempts to rectify/compensate for society-wide disparities, rather than understanding it as a more equitable share of pie for everyone, many of the previously privileged view such efforts as merely a smaller slice of pie for them, one that will no longer be served on a silver platter.

For healing to take place, we have to be brave enough to admit when we’ve had easier access to the pie than our other brothers and sisters. Even when we personally have not had a disproportionately large share of pie, we can at least acknowledge that those who have, tend to look like us rather than the rest of the family.

Taking Action Against Colorism and White Supremacy

Have the courage to be free

“Some, however, confess: Why deny it? I was afraid of freedom. I am no longer afraid!” (Freire, p. 17)

I must confess: For a long time I was afraid to talk about colorism. I was afraid of what people would think, afraid people would think I’m just jealous or hating, afraid people would think I had low self-esteem and didn’t love myself, afraid people would say I was causing division.

I am no longer afraid!

“the oppressor is ‘housed’ within the people, and their resulting ambiguity makes them fearful of freedom.” (Freire, p. 144)

Not everyone wants to be healed. I sometimes observe that people seem completely content with colorism. In some cases this is because they’ve enjoyed the benefits of colorism and don’t care to lose those. In other cases they’ve so fully subscribed to colorism that they believe it’s the natural order of things. It almost becomes an enjoyable pastime, like the memes and hashtags on social media suggest. And in other cases they’ve been so complicit in perpetuating colorism that they don’t want to deal with the guilt they might feel if they awaken their consciousness about colorism.

“Fear of freedom, of which the possessor is not necessarily aware, makes him see ghosts. Such an individual is actually taking refuge in an attempt to achieve security, which he or she prefers to the risk of liberty…. Men and women rarely admit their fear of freedom openly, however, tending rather to camouflage it—sometimes unconsciously—by presenting themselves as defenders of freedom. They give their doubts and misgivings an air of profound sobriety as befitting custodians of freedom. But they confuse freedom with the maintenance of the status quo; so that if [consciousness] threatens to place that status quo in question, it thereby seems to constitute a threat to freedom itself.” (Freire, p. 18)

You probably know this story just as well as I do. The guy who proudly proclaims: “I only date light skinned chicks,” then shrugs and says, “That’s just my preference.” Others who support this way of thinking will also shrug and say, “Everyone has a right to their own preference.”

Of course everyone has the right to prefer who and what they want, but…

We might also see this defense of personal preference (like a defense of personal freedom), as really just a cowardly defense of the status quo, a fear of freedom (for reasons stated above).

Rather than questioning the possible reasons for or sources of our preferences, rather than considering the social and historical construction and conditioning of our preferences, it’s easier for some people to believe that preferences are simply a personal, individual, biological, natural, and harmless matter. It’s easier to believe so because true belief in the opposite requires action, which requires courage.

Believe that society can change

“the oppressors attempt to destroy in the oppressed their quality as ‘considerers’ of the world. Since the oppressors cannot totally achieve this destruction, they must mythicize the world. In order to present for the consideration of the oppressed and subjugated a world of deceit designed to increase their alienation and passivity, the oppressors develop a series of methods precluding any presentation of the world as a problem and showing it rather as a fixed entity, as something given—something to which people, as mere spectators, must adapt…. [The oppressors] deposit myths indispensable to the preservation of the status quo.” (Freire, p. 120)

This quote builds on the idea that people hide behind notions of personal freedom because they are too afraid or unwilling to even question, much less resist, the status quo. Even when they express sadness about colorism, too many people respond with resignation and passivity, as if nothing can be done about it.

Well, we have to realize that societies are always changing and that we can and should be active participants in shaping that change. We must believe that we can help change our society for the better. Yes, it’s a huge and overwhelming task. Yes, it takes a ton of effort and risk and courage. But we can do it.

Bear Witness

The first action step for colorism healing is to speak our truths—to bear witness. Here’s what Freire says about bearing witness:

“The essential elements of witness include: consistency between words and actions; boldness which urges the witness to confront existence as a permanent risk; radicalization (not sectarianism) leading both the witnesses and the ones receiving that witness to increasing action; courage to love (which, far from being accommodation to an unjust world, is rather the transformation of that world in behalf of the increasing liberation of humankind); and faith in the people, since it is to them that witness is made.… in dialogical action, daring and loving witness serve the ends of organization.” (157-158)

Let’s bear witness—daring and loving witness.

Understand the Causes of colorism

A second action step for colorism healing is to make sure we understand root causes:

“As long as the oppressed remain unaware of the causes of their condition, they fatalistically ‘accept’ their exploitation. Further, they are apt to react in a passive and alienated manner when confronted with the necessity to struggle for their freedom and self-affirmation.” (Freire, p. 46)

When we remain unaware of the causes of colorism, the problem seems impossible to solve. Understanding colorism’s causes helps us to see possible solutions. The device no longer dumbfounds us when we take it apart and see how it works. Let’s find the power source and unplug it to stop the system of colorism. In most society’s that struggle with colorism, the source is white supremacy.

Have Dialogue about colorism and white supremacy

According to Freire, dialogue requires love, humility, faith, hope, and critical thinking. I add that it requires courage. Once we’ve gathered our courage, come to believe that change is possible, born daring and loving witness, and examined the causes of colorism, we need to continue to have courageous yet humble conversations amongst ourselves.

“Human existence cannot be silent, nor can it be nourished by false words, but only by true words, with which men and women transform the world. To exist, humanly, is to name the world, to change it…. Human beings are not built in silence, but in word, in work, in action-reflection…. No one can say a true word alone—nor can she say it for another, in a prescriptive act which robs others of their words.” (Freire, p. 69)

I am writing this post, using my words, but I can’t be the only one. We need your words too. Whether you’re a writer, singer, tweeter, small-talker, big-talker, lecturer, poet, or any other form of human being, we need your words!

Reflect. Act. Repeat.

“The insistence that the oppressed engage in reflection on their concrete situation is not a call to armchair revolution. On the contrary, reflection—true reflection—leads to action.” (Freire, p. 48)

“‘Cultural Revolution’ takes the total society to be reconstructed, including all human activities, as the object of its remolding action.” (Freire, p. 139)

By reading this, you’re already engaged in the cycle of reflection and action. How will you continue that cycle from here?

Will you talk to someone about your experiences with colorism? Will you listen to someone else share their experiences? Will you give a child a book, movie, or toy that affirms who they are? Will you make a conscious effort to support magazines, movies, and TV programs that promote diversity? Will you give attention to the person everyone else ignores?

Reflect on the actions that feel right to you, then take those actions. Repeat.


  • Contre le racisme systémique

    I really do not understand how Black communities can be aware of white supremacy and when hearing about colorism do and say the exact same things that white are saying. Every defensive words and thinking are exactly what white people say when they object to racism . Black people are sending the message of do what I tell you not what I do . And by the law of attraction it sends a paradoxical message to the universe and gives more tool to white supremacists to oppress us . I know that Colorism is internalized racism but it has to be cured nonetheless beginning with oneself . It is like addiction if you are alcoholic you begging by finding mean to stop drinking -the white supremacist cool aid on beauty features- before fighting the system which sell so easily and promote alcohol. The global problem do not exempt you from working on your own Behaviors, it seems harder for the oppressed but decolonization of the mind is hard but rewarding “at the end”

    • Beautifully stated! I like the analogy of seeing alcoholism as a personal and systemic issue. We have to address both the personal and the systemic.

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