At a Coachella Music Festival in 2014, Andre 3000 debuted a series of black jumpsuits with poignant questions printed on them. One of those questions was, “Across cultures, darker people suffer the most. Why?”
Communities of color across the globe are faced with this question. Color tone can impact who gets a job, the faces we see in the media and personal interactions. Impacted communities respond in myriad ways. First, they name it.
“Colorism is the discrimination of people or [an individual], based on the color of their skin,” said Paris Tate, a Psychology Major at CSULB. “In most cases, it is the favoritism and/or preference of those with lighter and whiter skin color. It works on an international level, and creates disparate communities of unequal treatment,” Tate added.
Colorism can be just as bad as racism, but they’re not exactly the same. People of the same race can be prejudice towards their darker peers.
This was the case in Tate’s family, whose first bouts with colorism started early in his childhood.
“Back then, my elders would tell my siblings and cousins about how we should date people with lighter or fairer skin colors, so our children would have lighter skin and better prosper in the world,” said brown-skinned Tate.
Colorism is often seen as a family problem, but it is a wider issue. “Turn on the TV and turn on your favorite telenovela… who do you see?” asked associate professor of Sociology at CSULB, Eduardo Laura. There was also the first Latino featured in the ABC hit dating show The Bachelor, who was proudly touted by ABC though he was actually very much phenotypically white, Laura mentioned.
As recently as the 2000s, studies show that light-skinned black people are more likely to secure better employment than dark-skinned black people. For some reason, people with lighter skin are often seen as less threatening than those with darker skin.
The skin tone prejudice is found among many world cultures, many of them in Long Beach.
“I’ve always been told I don’t look Thai enough, even by my own people,” said June Kaewsith, a Long Beach-based Thai-American artist. “I realize it’s because even on TV most of the famous actors are light-skinned Thais embodying more East Asian features, or are biracial (half-white),” she added.
This in mind, Kaewsith forged ahead with her own music expressing her story and that of others in a song about colorism, which she co-wrote with Cambodian youth.
Darker-skinned people have heard it before, “You’re pretty for a dark-skinned person.” The underlying message reveals how many people think about beauty.
In an interview with The Wrap, actress Viola Davis commented on this and the film industry’s colorism problem, noting, “That’s the whole racial aspect of colorism: If you are darker than a paper bag, then you are not sexy, you are not a woman, you shouldn’t be in the realm of anything that men should desire.”
For this reason, grandmas and aunties in families of color have told their youth to stay out of the sun to lower their chances of getting a tan. “[When I was young], I did fall susceptible to the conflict of ‘staying out of the sun in order to keep your skin color,’” said Tate. “These days, it doesn’t mean much to me. I stay out of the sun because it’s hot, not because I’m afraid for my skin to darken.”
Not all people have this view or confidence about their skin color. Bleaching and skin cream companies have made billions of dollars off of people who want fair skin. “Outside of western countries, people are bombarded with bleaching cream commercials,” Kaewsith said, who is featured in a “White On” infomercial satire that premiered at the Los Angeles Asian American Film Festival in 2010.
“Whenever I visit Southeast Asia, it’s so difficult for me to find soap without bleaching agents,” Kaewsith said. These creams and bleaches are available in Long Beach, too, off Anaheim Boulevard in Cambodia Town and other ethnic markets, she mentioned.
At the core, the desire to have lighter skin has a strong connection to early colonialism in the United States and the ensuing prevalence of white beauty standards – having fair skin, straight hair and a thin frame- that persist.
Through the rape of slaves, lighter shades of skin became more prevalent in communities of color. “The term [colorism] itself takes away from the role white supremacy plays in this discriminatory system,” Laura said.
In the black community, there is ongoing #TeamLightskin vs. #TeamDarkskin banter. While people are often joking, the consequences of this back and forth can be harmful. “I think [the dispute] is dumb and brings out so many shortcomings in the black community,” said Tate. “It further divides our communities, even more than what they have already been divided by European colonialism and the Holocaust of Enslavement,” said Tate.
Colorism overall, and the privilege attached to lighter skin, is far from gone. But more and more social media-driven millennials such as Shannon Boodram and Makeba Lindsay are keeping the conversations alive so that one day, people of color can step out into the sun and be proud of their new tan.