Colorism and Its Effects on Our Society Today
Growing up, she and I were twins! Her three pigtails mirrored mine even down to the small bow-shaped clips that held them in place. She was witty, intelligent and, to top it all off, she looked like me, and my mom, and my aunts. We were like long-lost sisters despite her being a cartoon character from the Rugrats. Susie Carmichael was an influential character for me because she portrayed something I didn’t see a lot of -- an average little girl of color. According to Heart of Leadership, More than 90 percent of girls – 15 to 17 years – want to change at least one aspect of their physical appearance, with body weight ranking the highest. Colorism is discrimination against an individual's based on their darker skin complexion. However, it is not limited to skin but can expand to other phenotypical features like hair, nose, eye color, lip size, etc. Colorism can be found between people of different races but is usually practiced among people of the same ethnic or racial group. It is important for writers to combat colorism in their work because it not only engages a broader audience demographic, but it is also imperative that marginalized groups of people see proper representation of themselves in order to end a legacy of self-shame and discrimination among people who share a part of their identity.
Colorism runs deep across the world. The effects of this phenomenon are evident through similar micro-aggressions and practices like skin lightening or skin bleaching. Skin lightening in Caribbean countries has become a dominant epidemic among women. For example, in Jamaica, since some women cannot gain access to safe skin lightening products made by legitimate companies, they purchase substances used for other parts of the body like hair bleach, to apply on their skin and lighten their complexion. These practices are discussed in a short online documentary entitled Skin Bleaching in Jamaica. The long term results, however, can be severe chemical burns, hyperpigmentation on the skin if the person does not stay out of the sun, and skin cancer. Colorism in the Caribbean and other part of the African diaspora can mainly be traced back to the mid 1400s at the beginning of European colonization in African communities and the enslavement of African people. During this time, enslaved Africans with lighter skin, loosely coiled hair, lighter eyes or any phenotypical features that resembled those of a White-European, received more food, better-quality clothing and even favoritism among slave owners.Skin lightening is present some Asian communities. According to BBC News, the skin-lightening business is estimated at £8.5 billion ($13 billion). Pale skin can be equated to success, beauty, intelligence, etc. In their book How to Know Hong Kong and Macau, Robert Ignacio Diaz, Dominic Cheung and Ana Paulina Lee discuss this topic. They write, “The practice of recoloring one’s skin is directly related to the desire to achieve higher social status. Historically, a person's skin color has been a clear indicator of economic and social status. As early as pre-Qin China, there has been an association between one's wealth and one's skin color”(18). The desire for lighter skin in some Asian communities can be traced back to more than 3,000 years ago. Royalty and other members of high society did not have to work outside. Any heavy outdoor work was done by servants and people who were apart of the lower class. These people usually worked as blacksmiths, farmers, carpenters, etc. and meant that these workers would have more exposure to the sun, meaning that their skin would be darker.
The problems brought about by skin lightening, however, are being combatted by countries’ legislators who are actively attempting to create a more diverse and socially equal society. For example, an article by Purvi Thacker entitled “Another African Nation Bans Popular Skin-whitening Creams”, reported that in May of 2015, the Ivory Coast outlawed all skin-lightening agents. But, there’s still more work to be done. The effects of colorism runs deeper than the physical. It runs on a mental level too. The way a specific group of people is represented in media outlets and literature can also affect how they are treated in their community. It is important for writers to combat colorism in their work because it is important that a variety of people depicted in order to end discrimination against people's identity.
Representation in writing isn’t just about portraying a specific group of people realistically; it’s about giving young writers, illustrators and readers inspiration to make creative spaces that invite people of every background. Through this, we will be able to combat controversial topics like sexism, racism, colorism, ableism etc. Mike Mosley’s article “Is America Witnessing a Black Film Renaissance?” in The Grio,argues that portraying more characters of different colors can challenge people’s preconceived ideas about race and gender and create constructive dialogue that leads to a more inclusive society. He writes, “In 2016, shows like “Atlanta,” “Queen Sugar” and “Insecure” have challenged our views on masculinity, homophobia, intersectionality, mental health, black identity, double standards in dating, black ownership, code-switching and white fragility.
They’ve also managed to do this while being unapologetically black. And while the aforementioned shows are being discussed in our newsfeeds daily, we’d be remiss to not mention the prominent rise of black nerd culture, often dubbed “Blerd.” We’ve recently seen a rise of black characters playing historical comic book characters in projects such as Mike Colter in Netflix’s “Luke Cage” and the all-Black cast of Black Panther featuring the likes of Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, and newly added Angela Bassett. Oh, and let’s not forget John Boyega’s amazing job in Star Wars” (1). Writers like Toni Morrison, in her pieces The Bluest Eye and Beloved, tackle racism and spirituality while writers such as Junot Diaz use their skill to discuss sexism, like he did in his short story, Alma -- published in The New Yorker.Writers, whether novelist or screenplay writers, should battle color-ism in their work because doing so invites a larger audience to their creations and makes literature more inclusive of the readers that support it.
Writers usually use past experiences and research to create their works so, it’s not always easy to incorporate a broader demographic in their work. Here is a short list of suggestions:
1. Change your character’s description. If you’re not writing with a historical time period in mind and are just writing something fun, change your main character’s physical traits. For example, instead of having long straight hair, your character could have thick curly or coily hair.
2. Step out of your comfort zone and create spaces where you can ask questions.No one is expected to know everything about all groups of people so asking questions about unclear topics can help.
3. Do some more research. Often time, especially when people are writing historical pieces, they don’t realize that some people have been ignored in historical pieces and so, they don’t write about these people. For example, the blockbuster hit, Hidden Figures, follows the story of three African-American women who helped America win the Space Race. Their story was never told in textbooks so bringing it to light now, encourages young women of color to pursue careers in Mathematics and Engineering.
Writers working against colorism and discrimination are critical to developing as an inclusive society. Marginalized groups of people use positive representation to inspire themselves. Ending self-shame and bigotry can start right now with just a pen and paper.