Growing up in my East Toronto neighbourhood, I often heard remarks surrounding ‘light-skin girls’ being prettier and having better personalities than dark-skinned girls. In fact, many people assumed that dark-skinned girls were unattractive and loud. Any time these assumptions were challenged, it was often met with remarks such as, “well, it’s just my preference.” Sentiments like these caused girls with dark skin to be insecure about their complexion and feel unattractive, while girls with lighter skin internalized these supposed positive attributes and preferences. Light-skinned girls also started to see themselves as better than; this has especially become evident and reinforced through social media. To this day, if you search “light skin vs dark skin” on social media, you would see a plethora of comments and opinions that divide us. This arbitrary belief in positive and negative attributes based on complexion is a direct result of white supremacy and its internalized effects. This ideology is commonly known as “colourism” or “shadism,” which describes prejudice and discrimination towards dark-skinned people within a single racial or ethnic group. This mentality was strategically crafted and then transported over generations.
As a community, we have been greatly impacted by European ideologies and beauty standards. Eurocentric features such as lighter skin, looser curls and a thinner nose are some of the attributes that heighten one’s supposed proximity to whiteness, and a belief of superiority. These features are often celebrated, desired, and sought-after. Society has conditioned Black people, and the rest of the world, that possessing lighter skin inherently makes someone better.
The toxic origin of colourism emanated during colonial and slavery times, through a variety of practices, namely phrenology – a pseudoscience used to facilitate racist ideologies and an attempt to give racism scientific merit, as well as religion – and anthropology. During slavery, slaves with lighter skin were treated better by their masters due to the erroneous belief that they were smarter and better than their dark-skinned peers; as a result, slave masters granted light-skinned slaves better living conditions and less strenuous work than the other slaves. Over time, this translated to a better life experience for light-skinned people during slavery and their privileges were passed on throughout generations as well. For example, mulattos, a name given to those who were half Black and half white, experienced more success as a direct result of them bearing lighter skin. They often obtained more wealth, were able to engage in business, and were more likely to be declared free during slavery. Unfortunately, white people, who concocted and vivified this false sense of value and continue to perpetuate it years after slavery was abolished, continue to make Black folk suffer through these ridiculous beliefs. Therefore, when people claim that favouring light-skinned or “mixed” folk is just a preference, it is imperative to acknowledge where that thought process stems from. The beliefs of scientists, politicians, and slave masters alike promoted anti-Black sentiments, and helped plant the seeds to create a society which too, is anti-Black.
During an interview with Dr. Monica Williams, a professor at the University of Ottawa’s School of Psychology said, “There is absolutely nothing wrong with having a preference, but these same people need to ask themselves why they have these preferences? Are these preferences rooted in internalized anti-Blackness or is it truthfully based on innate ideas of who/what is attractive?” Dr. Williams continues, “People wanted their children to marry lighter-skinned people because their children would be treated better.” The reason for this thought process is that assimilating to whiteness, and by moving closer to whiteness, one can alleviate all that comes with being fully Black. What some may see as just a preference, is actually rooted in a long history of colourism.
Rather than comparing this thought to other preferences such as height and even race, it’s important to understand that they are not the same. Deciding whether or not to date a person because of their complexion is not a preference we haphazardly decided on, rather it is a learned behavior that scientists, historians, slave masters, and other institutions exerted onto Black people through anti-Black racism and the institution of slavery. It is important to examine how our community uses these harmful beliefs to perpetuate colourism, which is rooted in the same stereotypes our oppressors have used to divide us. We consistently examine our beliefs and challenge anti-Black ideologies. At the same time, we must also promote a pro-Black sentiment, rejecting colourism and embracing the fullness of our Blackness. It is now in our hands to ensure that we, and future generations, admire and embrace our differences instead of using it as a way to separate us from each other.