They hide from the mirror, shielding their eyes from what lies within their reflection. The occasional glance only leads to total dismay alongside with resentment toward the light skinned beauties plastered on billboards.
The beauty that embarks their surface: overlooked. The pigment that they are born with: shamed. They are human, hurt and demoralized as they frown at their image. They are black. They have been both blessed and cursed with dark skin in their societies, sadly seen as less by those around them, and eventually, themselves. The glares and laughs that cut them constantly are not only from those of other races, but from other black people as well. This internalized hatred in the black community is an international issue that has not been questioned nor dealt with to it’s required extent.
Unlike the broad term “racism”, which is known as the discrimination of beings based on race and ethnicity commonly distinguished as one race against another, the problem being addressed is internalized based on skin tone, commonly within one’s own race. This is known as colorism, defined as “a type of skin-color bias that involves systematic discrimination against the darker-skinned members of a particular group” (Jablonski). The ignorance of people-of-color against each other, especially those in the black community, cannot be ignored. How can racism as a whole be diminished or eradicated when hatred is internalized and spread within its own borders? Not only does this affect the African-American community, but black people worldwide, as discrimination, negativity, and unhealthy methods of skin lightening is seen in so many families, neighborhoods, and countries globally. It is because of colorism that internalized hatred both individually and socially has increased in the black community which negatively impacts the black experience.Colorism was not exclusively established as a societal standard by black people, as the concept was romanticized much before the beginning of African enslavement and color mixing.
Skin lightening and the desire for it started much before anyone could remember, as the earliest formulations belonged to concealed traditions of cooking, healing, and beautification that found their way into written records only when they became associated with a famous name” (Jablonski). The infamous Egyptian queen, Cleopatra, was known for her methods of whitening, specifically from a mercury compound used as a whitening cosmetic. The ancient Greeks and Romans used Ceruse, a white lead, for the same reason.
These were people of lighter complexions than Africans, and when dark skin began to be impacted by skin lighteners and cosmetics, the roles were made different. Colorism has thrived for centuries, particularly from the 1400s to the 1900s, when “European colonialism and imperialism exported an ideology of white superiority throughout the world, rationalizing European ascendancy over indigenous, inferior-raced peoples fit for conquest, exploitation, and domination” (“Whitening”). It has been established that the “genesis of a societal preference for light over dark can be explained readily in societies across the Americas, where the racialization process was achieved via European colonialism and the enslavement of African peoples” (“Colorism.” Encyclopedia). Slaves in the New World were brutally discriminated by the color of their skin, making their desire for a change stronger than that of Cleopatra and light skinned privileged civilians of the past.
The value of white skin was enhanced due to the growth of imported slaves from European countries and colonies, affecting black people in a more complex, systematic way than those of Asia and Western Europe who also struggle from colorism. According to Nina G. Jablonski’s informational book, Living Color: The Biological and Social Meaning of Skin Color, the rise of colorism was “primarily a product of the skin-color hierarchy that became entrenched and institutionalized with the transatlantic slave trade, and it has been collectively reinforced ever since” (Jablonski). It is known that white slave owners would often sleep with their black slave woman, who would give birth to light-complexioned children who would grow up to be the slave for their own father. To these slaves, light skin was their most precious possession, and they enjoyed the advantages that came with it. This set the precedent for favoritism of light-skinned black people, as they were given “preferential treatment, including greater access to education and assignment to housework, while darker-skinned blacks were typically relegated to outdoor or hard-labor tasks” (“Colorism. Encyclopedia”) Slavery in the United States established bias for mulattos, which allowed slaveholders to instigate “tension between lighter- and darker-skinned blacks through colorism, differentiating among blacks to prevent their alliance in potential revolts” (“Whitening”).
The abolition of slavery did not alter the role of skin shade in the acquisition of social status for black Americans. The rise of a mulatto elite in the United States, both in white and black communities, prospered socially and systematically between the late 1800s and early 1900s. After the Civil War, mulatto men prospered in high-status positions and positions of great social influence, enjoying better educational opportunities.
Even the historic black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, established in the late 19th century prefered light-skinned students “because some school administrators considered it a waste of time to educate dark-skinned men and women for career paths that would be closed to them” (Jablonski). Similarly, the historic black Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority would perform what is known as the Brown Paper Bag Tests on potential recruits, rejecting those that were darker than the color of a paper bag. By the turn of the twentieth century, organizations like the Blue Vein Societies were an effect of light-skin advantages, “where membership prerequisites included skin shade lighter than a ‘paper bag’ or light enough to see ‘blue veins'” (“Colorism.” Encyclopedia). Some individuals could “pass as white”, allowing them immense social advantages and sparing them from segregation and the shame of being black in the twentieth century.
It became so common that some Washington, DC, establishments hired black doormen to deny intruders who had racial origins that white people could not detect. African-Americans themselves increasingly referenced light skin tones over time, stigmatizing their own darker skin tones. Girls were told not to play in the sun in fear of their skin darkening, which was believed to reduce their chances of attracting a light-skinned husband to make light-skinned children. These are standards that have been enforced on black children for centuries, establishing that the lighter one’s skin, the more prospects for education, employment, social mobility, and marriage they would have.
Many black people aspire to lightness, and these aspirations are part of the problem that allowed westernized beauty standards to reign supreme in all communities. Skin color has been a huge benefactor in modern day society, along with other caucasian beauty qualities that are seen as superior worldwide. On a psychological standpoint, research was conducted on basic color preference that reported that the color “black … has contrary associations with witches and criminals” (“Preference, Color”). There are often negative connotations with black people and physical characteristics, and this is what pressures black people to aspire to lightness and prioritize western beauty standards in their own communities as well as in the media.
Light skin is seen as social capital, favored and profitable in all communities. There is a societal phenomenon with light-skin, and the preferences are not innate. For women in particular, the connection between desirability and attractiveness and skin tone is crucial, pressuring black women all over the world to see dark skin as inferior and to stay as light as they can. It is painful to try and suppress a quality that cannot be controlled, especially when one is born with it, such as dark skin. It is difficult to fit into societal standards that most black people cannot conform to, for “in many societies around the world, idealized beauty and femininity are constructed to incorporate white or light skin, long hair, thin bodies, and European facial features” (“Phenotype”), features that many black women do not naturally have. For decades, American society has established that “darker-skinned individuals are viewed as less intelligent, trustworthy, and attractive” (“Beauty Standards”).
Black women have constantly been reminded that the word “dark” “has consequently acquired the loaded meanings of lower class, ugly, and unimportant” (Jablonski). Men are partial to lighter-skin women, causing dark-skinned women to desire to be light and and become obsessed with skin color. It is too common that dark people of color desire to marry a lighter counterpart. As an Afro-Latina, Marta Cruz Janzen’s light-skinned Puerto-Rican mother married a black man, and for this she had supposedly “‘disgraced her family by marrying a black man,’ while her ”father had elevated himself and his family by marrying a white woman”’ (“Beauty Standards”). Colorism has the highest consequences for black females, even those at a very young age, negatively impacting the self-esteem and academic performance of teenagers. The media has let these standards grow and form in communities across the globe, for “the problems of colorism and skin lightening are conjoined: they have spread and been magnified by the rapid dissemination of electronic images and the advertising power of multinational companies” (“Beauty Standards”). Social media as well as magazines, newspapers, advertisements, television, and communications alike have created a vicious cycle of unattainable ideals and aspirations through their display of messages that emphasize the success and beauty associated with light skin. White skin and lighter brown skin have been glorified, even in forms of media directed toward the black community, such as Ebony magazine, who drew controversy by printing an article titled ”Are Negro Girls Getting Prettier?” with pictures of light-skinned black women underneath.
Black celebrities, both in the past and in modern day society, have often been photoshopped to appear lighter than they are in pictures and videos for mainstream media covers and advertisements. Art forms such as books, films, and music have both glorified and condemned colorism. Vybz Kartel, a Jamaican dancehall music artist, promotes skin bleaching in his music. He sings lyrics about how skin bleaching elicits envy from males and lust from women, and argues “that skin is bleached for aesthetic reasons, that the act is a form of ”style” or ”fashion” for today’s dancehall and youth culture” (“Colorism.” Encyclopedia).
Spike Lee produced films like Jungle Fever and School Daze that covered overt themes of colorism in the black community. Toni Morrison’s novel, The Bluest Eye, beautifully captures the story with a colorism as its central theme. Pecola, the dark-skinned main character, is constantly called ugly, treated poorly, and made to feel undesirable, while the light-skinned character, Maureen, benefits from favoritism and is depicted as beautiful.
In the novel, Pecola prayed for blue eyes, which brings reality to fiction and represents the truth of how some black men and women feel about their physical features as they are bashed in their own communities. This toxic self-hatred causes men and women to fall into the addictive trap of skin lightening, a practice that is used worldwide as an attempt to lighten ones skin and commercialize colorism through cosmetic use. Many black American, the Caribbean, and African communities contain individuals who have such a desire for lighter skin that they resort to skin bleaching agents that decrease the production of pigment in the skin. Lye and Other harsh cleaning products were used by enslaved African Americans, as well as other household concoctions such as bleach, lemon juice, and even urine.
The post-Reconstruction era was the beginning of the official commercialized development, production, and marketing of skin bleaching products. Jim Crow laws were restricting black Americans, so when “American culture was suffused with caricatures of African American With dark skin, ‘vicious’ and kinky hair, and apelike features, these new cosmetic preparations promised relief from discrimination along with social advancement” (Jablonski). This was an ideal solution for those with low self esteem due to the shade of their skin and their yearning desire for the privilege that lighter skin allowed in their communities. Modern medicine advanced overtime to allow my professional methods of skin lightening to ravage the market, and by the early twentieth century, hundreds of unique brands catered to individuals in many countries. These companies used strategic rhetoric to appeal to its audience, displaying encouraging quotes and images of exotic beauties and mythical women to persuade the consumer to pursue this cosmetic ideal.
For example, “The Madam CJ Walker company encouraged buyers with its invocations to ‘add beauty to brains for success,’ while Palmer’s Skin Success cream promised that its users would experience ‘a whole new world'” (Jablonski), and the Kashmir Chemical company used sensual imagery of Cleopatra to sell the skin and hair products. These advertising messages and the iconography of light skin dominated in the 1920s and 1930s, holding a strong hold on African American culture known as the “bleaching syndrome”. The Black is Beautiful movement slowed down the bleaching market in the 1960s and 1970s, along with the 1973 ban on sales in mercury-containing skin bleaching creams due to toxicity, but the sales never came to a halt. New materials and bleaching agents were developed and mainstream beauty companies bought out skin bleaches and hair straighteners. It became “a global, multibillion-dollar industry that includes major cosmetics corporations, including … Maybelline New York, … Lancôme Paris” (“Whitening”) and L’Oreal, who alone made $14 billion on skin lightening products in 2003. There was a new, more positive and less intimidating sales pitch for the target audience, emphasizing “brightening” and the creation of a “glowing complexion”. The market also grew due to the popularity of light-skinned African Americans with widely admirable complexions.
In Africa, demand for skin lighteners was high in countries such as Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and Tanzania, who desired to upgrade their social statuses, especially during the prime of the apartheid. Advertising targeted young women at the respectable age of marriage, causing them to cave into the pressure of being the light-skinned women that all of the men would lust after. Through the use of skin bleaching, dark black women were able to obtain jobs reserved for lighter skinned women, allowing colorism to grow more and more in Africa as many people surrendered to the standards through lightening rather than standing up against them. In many black communities, some women couldn’t afford the “safe” skin bleaches, causing them to “buy illegally imported hydroquinone-based products or resort to under-the-counter, locally manufactured mercury-based preparations, often with disastrous effect” (Jablonski). Skin bleaching, despite what consumers and manufacturers may say, is unhealthy and can result in unwanted and damaging side effects. In order to regularly stay as “fair and lovely” as those that bleach desire, lightening creams are applied often.
Repetition removes the skin’s melanin pigment and results in brittle, thin, easily bruised skin that is vulnerable to skin cancers and sunburn. Discoloration and rashes can result as well, “leading to what Ugandans call the Pepsi-Mirinda effect, where part of the body is a fiery orange (like a Mirinda soda) and part of it (typically in the area of joints) is dark black-green in hue (like Pepsi)” (“Colorism.” Encyclopedia).
Skin lighteners, such as soaps, ointments, and creams, contain “mercury, topical corticosteroids, or hydroquinone, each of which disrupts melanin production in the skin” (“Whitening”). These are harsh chemicals that can cause reactions on one’s body. As desirable as light skin may be, users of skin bleaches can experience side effects ranging from permanent spots and splotchiness to poisoning and disfigurement. Products are often imported both illegally and legally from third world countries to be sold on Internet domains to avoid critical resistance and regulations. Some may ask themselves why anyone would risk their naturally beautiful skin just to become lighter. This is because of the social effects of colorism systematically, especially in the United States, that has made black communities to conform to the use of privileges that light skin entails. Skin tone has been proven to affect personal income and social position in the black community, both from a white and black perspective. Although race relations in the United States have improved within the past two centuries, the modern twenty-first century has unacceptable weaknesses and biases built into the American system and ideologies based on skin tone.
According to research recorded in the Encyclopedia of Race and Racism, “a consensus is building that individuals and institutions grant favorable treatment, opportunities, and rewards to African Americans based on how closely their appearance approximates that of Eurocentric standards” and ” there is ample evidence that greater social status is ascribed to blacks and Latinos with lighter skin shade in the United States” (“Colorism.” Encyclopedia). Skin and hair take rolls in the professional world, as many black men and women feel the need to “tame” their hair in the workplace in order to be seen as professional. Black hair is often relaxed, straightened, and manipulated because “Professional hair is seen as short and straight, and these standards are often at odds with the hair that many women of color have” (“Beauty Standards”). The International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences collected research from numerous professionals that delve into the systematic issue of colorism in African American communities, whether it be in classroom settings, patterns in sentencing, or hiring decisions. It has been shown that higher education levels and workforce status is attained by lighter-skinned minorities than their darker counterparts.
Researchers William Darity, Arthur Goldsmith, and Darrick Hamilton found that employers tend to prefer light-skinned black employees over dark-skinned black employees. Lighter-skinned African AMerican men also ted to earn higher wages compared to darker-skinned African American men. A study by Trina Jones demonstrates that “demonstrates that darker-skinned blacks receive longer sentences than lighter-skinned blacks for crimes against whites, despite similarities in criminal records”, and further, Shari Lynn Johnson and Valerie Purdie-Vaughn demonstrate that “‘”blacker-looking’ African American males are more likely to receive the death penalty compared to their lighter-skinned counterparts for comparable capital crimes. Their findings remain significant even after controlling for defendant attractiveness and other nonracial factors that are typically known to influence sentencing, such as murder severity or victim’s socioeconomic status” (“Colorism.” International). Black men, especially those of the darker complexion, have been demonized in the media and in their own communities, allowing systemic racism and colorism to determine not only the wages and jobs they may receive, but how long they will be able to live and breath freely in the United States of America and on this earth. The privilege that is given to black people of a lighter complexion should be given to all black people.
The black community must ask for social equality within itself before asking for racial equality on all levels. There is no hope if communities do not stand united, because “while there needs to be acknowledgement of the privilege light-skinned folks carry, this division amongst Black folks makes us less effective in the work towards eradicating racism. In the words of Audre Lorde, ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (Jones).
There is so much that must be done to negate all of the odds that put black people against each other in order for peace to be established. The American system pits black people against each other, from the tension on the plantations and the slave homes to the cycle of violence on the streets. As a planet, standards need to be widened past the eurocentric example set for every man, woman and child. Solutions can start with simply supporting black businesses and businesses that cater to black people and skin tones equally.
Black people must stop conforming to the things that are set in place by breaking barriers and forming their own standards and fixing what restricts them, whether that be a lack of foundation shade range or the quality of public schools that black communities are given. Light-skin black people must not stand in silence as they see their darker brothers and sister struggle behind them because of the lack of systematic privilege. Skin bleaching must no longer be seen as aesthetic, for no one should feel the need or desire to change the amount of melanin their body produces in order to get a job, a property, or a relationship. This no longer the nineteenth century, where the mulatto slaves were given better treatment with little question. It is time for the black community to come together, dismissing the #TeamDarkSkin and #TeamLightSkin hashtags and cliques, to get closer to the destination of global equality, for that is the only way to reach that dream. There it is a lot of work to do. Skin-color bias should not ruin the potential that society has moving forward.