prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group.
“colorism within the black community has been a serious emotional and psychological battle”
Colorism can best be defined as the internalized racism unknowingly fueled by white supremacy within the black community, and other communities of color.
We are bound – sharing ancestral torments of slavery, separated kin, sexual and psychological assault – we are bound. Tantamount to this, we are damaged. Yet we still walk, and just as anyone who is wounded that endures, we continue to injure ourselves more and more with every passing day.
The simplest way trace colorism’s roots, is to date its significance back to American Slavery. Slave owners typically displayed partisan treatment to slaves with lighter complexions. While dark-skinned blacks struggled in the fields, their light-skinned counterparts typically worked the less grueling tasks inside the house. Slave-owners were often partial to light-skinned slaves because more often than not, they were related. Slave-owners frequently engaged in sexual intercourse with slave women, and light offspring were the signs of their coalition. Although mixed slaves were still forced to endure the horrors of the eugenics movement, abuse, and rape just as their darker-skinned brothers and sisters, they were often allowed some form of an education and were occasionally granted freedom. Light skin became an asset among the black community and centuries of this conduct deeply instilled the belief that light was more desirable than dark.
While most are unsure of exactly why there is such a vast division between black people, the stumbling upon concept of colorism was no accident. The psychological war between African-Americans was the malevolent creation of William Lynch in 1712. Slaves only had the family they were left with and the families they shaped, but their union was strong – almost resilient enough to never be shattered. Lynch spoke of ways to break apart the unified Black man and woman, because their strength lied in each other. Lynch concocted a strategy that he believed would control the slaves physically and mentally for centuries if implemented properly. The following is what many believe to have been William Lynch’s theory:
“Crossbreeding Niggers mean taking so many drops of good white blood and putting them into as many nigger women as possible, varying the drops by the various tone that you want, and then letting them breed with each other until another circle of color appears as you desire. What this means is this; Put the niggers and the horse in breeding pot, mix some asses and some good white blood and what do you get? You got multiple of colors of ass backward, unusual niggers, running, tied to backward ass long-headed mules, the one productive of itself, the other sterile, (The one Constant, the other dying, we keep the nigger constant for we may replace the mules for another tool) both mule and nigger tied to each other, neither knowing where the other came from and neither productive for itself, nor without each other.”
Most propose that his efforts did not cease there. It is theorized that Lynch suggested destroying the mother language of the black people and limiting their understanding of the English language to render them voiceless. He figured that by making African-Americans imprudent, minuscule differences, like the shade of their skin, would break the black people’s unparalleled alliance. Consequently the conception of light versus dark skin was achieved. Lynch was suspected to have fed off of the fear of the black people by forcing women and children to watch as he tortured the strongest black male on the plantation until near death. The goal was to break the black man’s emotional tenacity. This new mentality was passed down from the mother to her child, and the strong image of the black male was broken. Male children would be made strong physically, but weak mentally. A slave to the white man, even if he was free.
These same inequalities now manifest in our work places, our criminal justice systems, socioeconomic statuses, and in our education systems. It is disproportionately black individuals who are dehumanized by the police, instead of protected, and this psychological terror impacts the entire race. We live in a world that perceives dark as evil, foreign, threatening, and exotified. One could now assume that William Lynch was successful because we unintentionally sanctioned white ideology to separate us. Because of this, no matter how strong we think we are, a part of us is still weak. A part of us is still enslaved.
Post slavery and throughout the Jim Crow era, the effects of colorism and the actions that went along with it, did not disappear. In black America the favored attitude toward lighter-skinned blacks continued, affecting their darker equivalents. Light skin and privilege were still considered synonymous and fair skin became the sole criteria for acceptance in the black aristocracy.
The Blue Vein Society refers to a historical phenomenon among some African-American communities in which the lighter skinned individuals held more privilege, as to darker skinned blacks, who held lower ranks on the social scale. The term “blue vein” was prominent in the early twentieth century, and was utilized because the test of how light one was, was determined by whether or not their blue veins were prominent beneath their skin. Another benchmark was the “paper bag test”. Many churches, fraternities, sororities, and even clubs, utilized a brown paper bag as an example for the darkest a person could be to be allowed entrance. People at these organizations would hold a paper bag against a person’s skin, and if one were darker than the bag, they would not be allowed entry. The term “fair-skin” was derived from the original meaning of “fair” – which was “beautiful”. “Fair-skinned” is instantly a colorist term because now fair skin means not only light skin, but it also holds the same connotation as, “beautiful skin”. This forms a devastating analogy: fair is to light as ugly is to dark. This is part of the reason why the idea of the brown paper bag test still haunts the black community. Images of lighter skinned blacks dominate the representation of black people, global sales for skin-lightening cream have remained steady for years, and analogously, photoshopped skin lightening techniques are commonplace.
Our Choice Affects Us Now More Than Ever
Colorism within the black community is proof that white supremacy, racists, and William Lynch’s techniques are operating exactly how they were intended to. Our experiences as African-Americans are different across our shades and genders, even if we share some of the same oppression. The disunion amongst us makes our fight against the eradication of racism less effective thus creating a double binding paradox for the entire African-American race. That, in itself, was William Lynch’s ultimate plan all along.
It is now, and has always been, our responsibility to educate ourselves and inform the black youth about our antiquity. Teachings should be reminiscent of the fact that although skin color was utilized as a weapon of mind control, light does not equate to beautiful any more than dark does. Internal bias will deteriorate momentously as the concept of unbiased beauty is understood. The perceptual shackles still imprisoning us from centuries ago will be broken and the discriminations that have manifested because of our ignorance will be less prominent. The black community can progress as a race, allowing us to be just as strong as we were before enslavement—if not stronger.
The history of African-American colorism is interminable, and the ruthlessness of internalized racialism boils down to comprehending why humans began to associate light with virtuous, and dark with corrupt. For those of us who acknowledge colorism and the destruction it has since left in its path, my principal question to you is: Are you going to do something about it?