The Challenge of Writing About Colourism

Colourism, skin shade prejudice involving the preferential treatment of people with light skin within and between ethnic groups, affects the life chances of people of colour around the world and fuels the multi-billion dollar global skin lightening industry. Evelyn Glenn (2008, 289) argues that in India there is an “almost universal” preference for light skin and “in terms of sheer numbers, India and Indian diasporic communities around the world constitute the largest market for skin lighteners.” Focusing on the USA, Margaret Hunter (2007) argues that people with light skin earn more, stay in school longer, live in better areas, and marry people of a higher status than those with darker skin from the same ethnicity or racialised group.

Photo by Adam Jones, Ph.D./Global Photo Archive/Flickr
According to the World Health Organization (n.d.), 77 percent of women in Nigeria, 35 percent of women in South Africa and 59 percent in Togo are reported regularly to use skin lightening products and in 2004, skin lightening was reported by almost 40 percent of “women surveyed in China1…, Malaysia, the Philippines and the Republic of Korea.” Globally, vast numbers of people of colour view the advantages of light skin as so compelling that they buy products to try and lighten their skin, sometimes resorting to toxic creams that are damaging to their health. This, coupled with the fact that colourism affects the life chances of people with darker skin, means that it is important to challenge the prejudice.  
Yet, while recognition of colourism and the effect it has on people of colour around the world is beginning to increase, rendering it visible by writing about it frequently elicits a range of negative comments. Unlike racism, where liberal-minded people are likely at least to pay lip service to the idea of tackling the prejudice, colourism elicits a complex range of responses. 
Challenging colourism is read by some people of colour with light skin as blaming them for benefitting from the skin shade prejudice. Critiquing colourism is framed as divisive, driving a wedge between people of colour rather than unifying them, or as washing one’s dirty linen in public. For people of African heritage with light skin, efforts to tackle colourism are also sometimes read as an attempt to exclude them from blackness. Some critics argue that challenging colourism is a distraction from the main problem of racism, where energies should be focused. The publicising of the notion that colourism differentially affects people of colour is also resisted by those who argue that it gives the pessimistic message to young people with dark skin that their futures are negatively determined unless they resort to skin bleaching. For example, someone commented on a recent colourism piece I wrote (Phoenix 2018) that:

When we begin to give the totally wrong and self-defeatist impression to our children and young people especially in the BAME Community that light–skin opens doors and dark-skin shuts doors, we equip them with the wrong skill and mindset to successfully navigate THEIR WORLD. Perhaps this explains such ‘acceptance strategies’ as skin bleaching, code switching, or ‘acting white’ that we turn round to condemn again in the BAME Community, thus confusing our children and young people even further. Whereas, if we emphasis pursuit of merit or excellence as what opens doors to anyone, anywhere, and anytime to our children and young people, they would know how to open closed-doors for and by themselves. 

Efforts to highlight the issue of colourism can also be used by white people who harbour racist views to legitimise their racism. A few years ago I shared a story I’d written about colourism on social media and a white man commented, “See, they’re racist towards each other”, and then made comments implying that everyone is racist and therefore racism doesn’t matter, or that white people who have racist views don’t need to change. Similarly, comments on colourism pieces I have written have distorted my arguments to enable the conclusion that since colourism operates within minoritised groups, as well as between them, prejudice does not stem from white oppression. In fact, colourism has different histories in different parts of the world, but in countries with a history of European slavery or colonialism, it dates back to, or was exacerbated by, the preferential treatment given to people of colour with light skin by slave owners or colonialists.
            An easy response to all this would be to ignore colourism in order to avoid divisive rifts between minoritised ethnic groups and focus solely on challenging racism. Engaging with the problem of racism is important and urgent, given the rise in racism internationally. For example, there has been a rise in racial discrimination and intolerance in the UK following the Brexit vote (
Gayle 2018), reports of 
increasing casual racism in Germany (Chazan 2018), and a rise in racism and xenophobia across the USA (UN OHCHR, 2017). However, ignoring the issue of colourism does not ensure cohesiveness amongst people of colour, nor does it make the effects of colourism any less damaging. Indeed, ignoring colourism and focusing solely on racism could conversely have the effect of exacerbating colourism because of the ways in which colourism operates.
Since people with light skin are often seen as more acceptable, more employable and more attractive than those with darker skin shades, they can benefit from anti-racist strategies without recognition that those with darker skin continue to be subjected to racism. In efforts to show increased diversity and anti-racist credentials in a global system that still adheres to the white beauty ideal, it is people of colour with light skin who are more likely to be recruited, promoted and given opportunities, as they are closer to the pervasive and ubiquitous image of white acceptability.
The damaging effects of colourism, coupled with the fact that efforts to address racism will not necessarily result in a reduction of colourism, make it imperative that efforts to end skin shade prejudice continue. Given that colourism is a global problem in which people of all colours are implicated, the solution needs to involve all groups. There is no place for prejudice on the basis of skin shade in the 21st century.
Unless the problem of colourism is acknowledged and discussed in a constructive way, nothing is going to change. It is encouraging to see campaigns such as Women of Worth’s “Dark Is Beautiful”, which seeks to end discrimination against people with dark skin. However, much more work and international collaboration is required if we are to see a real reduction in colourism and a shrinking of the lucrative skin lightening industry. Writing, and reading, about colourism and discussing this form of prejudice may be challenging, however, it is a small, but necessary step on the path towards increased social justice.

Aisha Phoenix is the postdoctoral researcher on the Re/presenting Islam on Campus research project based at SOAS, University of London. Her research interests include: colourism, hierarchies of belonging, and Muslim women and the politics of dress. 

Chazan, Guy. 2018. “Twitter campaign highlights stories of everyday discrimination and prejudice,” Financial Times, July 27. 

Gayle, Damien. 2018. “UK has seen 'Brexit-related' growth in racism, says UN representative,” The Guardian, May 11.

Glenn, Evelyn. 2008. “Yearning For Lightness: Transnational Circuits in the Marketing and Consumption of Skin Lighteners,” Gender & Society, 22(3): 281-302 DOI: 10.1177/0891243208316089

Hunter, Margaret. 2007. “The Persistent Problem of Colorism: Skin Tone,
Status, and Inequality,” Sociology Compass, 1 (1): 237–254. DOI: 10.1111/j.1751-9020.2007.00006.x

Phoenix, Aisha. 2018. “Colourism – how shade bias perpetuates prejudice against people with dark skin,” The Conversation, August 17.

United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner. 2017. “US racism on the rise, UN experts warn in wake of Charlottesville violence,” August 16.

World Health Organization. n.d. “Preventing Disease Through Healthy Environments: Mercury In Skin Lightening Products.”<

1 “Province of Taiwan and Hong Kong Special Administrative Region,” (WHO, n.d.).


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