When Barack Obama was running for president of the US for the first time, then Senator Harry Reid is said to have said that “he believes that the country is ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama — a ‘light-skinned’ African American ‘with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”

Harry Reid got into a lot of trouble for what he said. However, truth be told, what he said was reflective of the worldwide issue of colourism i.e. discrimination against people not so much on skin colour i.e. being black, white or brown, but on the basis of skin shade i.e. being light or dark skinned.

The US is a good place to start to understand colourism due to the starkness of its origin. In the US, colourism is rooted in slavery where slave owners typically gave preferential treatment to the lighter skinned enslaved people.  Dark skinned people were made to toil outside, while some light skinned people were given the less arduous work, inside the master’s house.  The preferential treatment of light skinned people was related to the fact that a number of them came about as a result of slave masters (forcibly) sleeping with enslaved women and having light skinned children with them. Even though they weren’t normally acknowledged as children of the masters who were normally married with their own wife and children, they were treated better done other enslave people.

Outside of the US, most especially in areas affected by colonialism and the view that lighter skinned people were more relatable and of a great appeal to Caucasians.  It does, however, date further back and be connected to social class.  Historically, working class people and peasants were more likely to work outside In the sun leading to darker skin; whilst middle and upper class people were more likely to spend time indoors away from the sun.

It would have been nice if colourism had come to an end, post slavery and colonialism; it, however, remains deeply embedded in the psychic of  mankind – and that is as much with people of colour as white people; evolving into the point of view that light skinned people are more beautiful and attractive than dark skinned people. This is so much so that in some organisations and bodies in the US, a brown paper bag test is used to determine whether a person can be accepted i.e. a person is only accepted if they are lighter than a brown paper bag.

Perhaps is even worse is when people feel the need to bleach their skin to make themselves a lighter shade in order to feel acceptable.  Mutsa Chikwana, a model from Coventry spoke of how she saw images of herself in which some of her features were altered and her skin was made to appear lighter. This led her as many others who are left feeling inferior to use (chemically based) beauty products to lighten her skin colour. at a risk to her health, in a bid to be more acceptable.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are dark skinned people pushing back, expressing pride in their dark skin and the view that their dark skin is actually preferable.

I look forward to the day when we no longer judge people, not just by the colour of our skin, but also by its shade – instead, focusing on the inner beauty and character of each and every one.


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Susan Popoola

Mosaic Fusions

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Author: Consequences: Diverse to Mosaic Britain

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