In the past week, two high-profile black women, the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and the Oscar-winning actor Lupita Nyong’o have spoken candidly about not having experienced racism until they arrived in the United States. Like Adichie, Nyong’o didn’t experience discrimination on the basis of her skin colour per se, but on the basis of how dark she was comparatively. She was a victim of one of the last openly accepted “isms”: colourism, the preferential treatment of lighter-skinned individuals compared with their darker-skinned counterparts.
Nyong’o referred to colourism as “the daughter of racism”, explaining that she was once told at an audition that she was “too dark” for television.
Skin-tone-based prejudice used to be a subject only discussed in whispers within minority communities, but slowly, and thankfully, that is changing. In a recent episode of the hit Channel 4 series Black-ish – Black Like Us – two lead characters discover that the lighting used for their daughter’s school photograph didn’t work on dark skin tones, and she has faded into the shadows. Beyoncé’s ode to dark skin on the Lion King soundtrack, Brown Skin Girl, has also helped colourism increase its visibility in the mainstream.
This is a conversation that is still burgeoning – and not always taken seriously. Perhaps that is because colourism is perceived as an intra-community issue for minorities to bicker about among ourselves. After all, the general consensus is that it’s only we who bother with the specificity of shade-based bigotry.
But it bears repeating: colourism is a seed that was planted by white supremacy and watered within our own communities. Its roots still lie very much in the mainstream: the idea that we live on a colour-coded spectrum in which the lighter you are, the whiter (and therefore, better) you are is replicated in wider, whiter society every day.
From the overrepresentation of lighter-skinned actresses in Hollywood to the near-invisibility of dark-skinned female musicians, darker skin is quietly denigrated outside our communities too. It’s no coincidence that several historic “firsts” for the black community were achieved by mixed-raced, fairer individuals: Barack Obama, the first black president of the US; Carole Gist, the first black Miss USA; Lana Ogilvie, the first black woman to become the face of a non-ethnic cosmetics brand; Halle Berry, the first black woman to win the Academy Award for best actress.
Skin tone affects employability rates, the likelihood of marriage and, most harrowingly, rates of suspension at school. With women’s worth so heavily tied to appearance and lighter skin so heavily tied to beauty standards, it is not surprising that it is usually black women who are hit hardest. The word colourism is believed to have been coined in 1982 by the Pulitzer prize-winner Alice Walker, but it has existed as long as racism has. It must be acknowledged, like any other form of discrimination.
• This article was amended on 10 October 2019 because the writer intended to refer to the first black Miss USA, Carole Gist, instead of Vanessa Williams as the first black Miss America.