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Colorism: Shattering the Illusions

By Tyehimba
July 17, 2004

Though many hail Bob Marley as an excellent musician, one of their favorites, and they sing along to his popular songs, many remain ignorant of the finer lessons that can be learned from his life. Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer were a part of the reggae group known as the Wailers. Chris Blackwell, their manager wanted to break them into the American/European markets, so he pushed Marley to the forefront, as he was light-skinned and therefore more appealing to those audiences than the darker hued but equally talented Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh. This was one of the main factors that caused the group to break up. Tosh in later years would recall talking to journalists who refused to believe him when he said that he was the one that taught Marley music.

I also remember my days in secondary school. Once we had a discussion in a GP (General Paper) class, and I raised the issue of people with white/light complexions being preferred over those with darker hues, especially in terms of male/female relationships. It was as if I had raised a jep nest, and the denial of this was fast and furious with some saying that that was a thing of the past, and that it no longer happens today. Nevertheless, throughout my secondary school days, I observed the long list of jokes and insults directed to those of a darker colour. Even though most of it was done in a 'good-natured' manner, and being a brown skin person, it was never directed at me directly, I was aware of it being a symptom of something deeper, and it hurt me.

The white/light skin privilege, also known as colorism, is so much a part of our society that it is accepted as being normal, and many are unaware of its existence. People who are white/light skinned are automatically associated with a whole range of positive characteristics such as beauty, intelligence, honesty, competence, leadership, confidence, and wealth, while those that are dark hued are associated with dishonesty, stupidity poverty, criminal tendencies, incompetence, subservience, laziness and ugliness. Because white/light skinned people are so accustomed to receiving automatic privileges, they take this for granted, and are not aware of the harsh reality that darker people face on a day-to-day basis. This can often translate into superiority complexes and arrogance, as they expect those who they interact with to continue according them high status and preference based upon how they look. colorism may affect males and females a little differently- given that females are viewed as (sex) objects to be possessed by males, there is more pressure for the female to look a certain way (the lighter the better), to be seen as acceptable and attractive to male suitors. Colour plays a major part for instance, in which females a male will notice in a room of people; generally he will take greater note of those who are of a lighter shade.

Dark Blacks themselves have internalized notions of Black inferiority. Sigmund Freud, the famous psychiatrist, coined the word 'introjection' to explain how external threats (such as stereotypes, derogatory language and oppression) can be internalized by a target group, who then use it as a defence mechanism to deal with their feelings of inferiority. As a result, many have deep feelings of insecurity and inadequacy that can manifest in their acting out the same discrimination and abuse that is directed at them. For instance, I have witnessed Black persons in an effort to disassociate themselves from their own dark complexion make disparaging comments about the colour of individuals who are just as dark as them.

This reality and the causes of race/colour discrimination are rarely ever discussed, as we have been conditioned to not discuss them. How people think, who they are attracted to, and the things they value is largely a result of social conditioning via the family, education system, religions, media and peer groups. These values, norms, and institutional processes and structures have in turn been largely shaped by our colonial experience. The colonial societal structure was one of white over brown over black. The Syrians, Chinese, Lebanese, as well as East Indians and Africans who aspired to be among the powerful rich ruling elite could only do so by imitating and becoming as close to the elite way of life as possible. Thus, they distanced themselves as far away as possible from the 'lowly Blacks', which usually meant treating them with at least as much contempt as the ruling white elite did.

Because the many colonial assumptions and biases still remain unchallenged in the core of society, people remain trapped by their fears and insecurities, that severely retard the socio-economic development of Trinidad and Tobago. The issue of colorism remains unadddressed in the mainstream, and many remain in denial, inevitably, as social institutions all reinforce the sleep of the masses. Unless there is both collective and individual examination of the colonial legacy, and how that has impacted upon how people think and see themselves, there cannot be any real equitable development of Trinidad and Tobago.

We can see how colorism is maintained, by children being given solely white, blonde haired dolls to play with, by TV broadcasting that mainly show white, and light-skinned people as beautiful and desirable, by TV Ads and billboards that promote the beauty of the light hued person. The winners and participants of beauty pageants are usually white or light skinned. Girls are told that 'if you not red, you dead'. Light-skinned females are generally preferred by males and regarded as more beautiful than their darker hued counterparts. Light children are often preferred and given more attention than darker children. Dark children still get teased, taunted and often are viewed as ugly or unattractive. People are told to accept a lily white, blonde, blue eyed Jesus as their lord and saviour or else be doomed to hell. Given these patterns, it is no wonder that many risk their health by using carcinogenic lightening cream to lighten their skin, in an effort to become as 'good' and as 'beautiful' as the white/light skin images that they are constantly bombarded with.

Furthermore, there is the illusion of 'national unity' or 'we are all one' that masks racism and colorism, and contributes to the covert, subtle form of discrimination and abuse that is harder for people to detect. It normalizes and validates the present social inequalities, thus ignoring the inevitable differences of peoples as well as the rampant racism and colorism that exist. Those who have advocated that we should be colourblind are really blind as the factors that give rise to race/colour discrimination are too deep and psychological to simply wish away. Through these illusions that people can be colourblind, the issues of race and colour are not addressed, and thus the many stories of torment, abuse and shame remain untold, leaving the many bogus ideas people have about themselves and society unchallenged. It is a reality that people's experiences are shaped by how they look, with the worst being directed at those who are the darkest. Of course, there are other factors such as gender, class, geography and even weight that also influence how people are perceived and treated. As George Orwell put sarcastically forth in his classic book Animal Farm, 'all are equal, but some are more equal than others'.

The solution to any problem must start with the definition of the problem. Because many people are apt to think that they are fair, just, and non-racial, they fail to understand how they (despite good intentions) contribute to discrimination along the lines of race, colour, gender, class, and geography. People need to move away from the false notion that racism/colorism is perpetrated only by those who hurl abusive slurs, are aggressive, and who vow death and destruction to certain groups. Such people are in fact less dangerous as people can spot them easily. Those that speak of 'one love', 'unity', and 'colourblindness' without addressing the fundamental abuse that exists in our society cause more damage, even though their intentions may be 'good'. The best of intentions does not negate ignorance, and so we would all do well to check our actions and realize how often we accord preference, status and positive characteristics to persons based on things other than the quality of character.

As a brown-skinned African, it is clear to me that many would prefer to accept me, than accept someone who is much darker. It is part of the false values that plague this society, that must be dealt with if people are to free themselves from the many layers of illusions that keep them from realizing their potential.

White/light skin privilege is a false standard, one of the many plaguing our society because it judges persons on the basis of complexion rather than the quality of character. Every false standard is a poison, and it not only means abuse to the receiver, but it also means that the perpetrator limits him/herself as they accept lesser (physical traits) over greater (quality of character). Thus, addressing these false privileges is beneficial for everyone. A wise man once pointed out to me that slavery not only enslaves the slave, but also the slavemaster.

People should be comfortable with themselves, whatever their appearance, race or ethnicity. The problems of colorism and racism point to the need for these issues to be discussed in the mainstream. Not talking about it, or pretending that it does not exist simply exacerbates the situation. Given the history of our society where people have been exposed to a very narrow interpretation of themselves, it is not surprising that raising such issues causes tension, but change can happen no other way. Some Blacks moreso light-skined Blacks have contributed to the scourge of colorism by advocating that it is divisive to talk about such issues. To those that are in denial about this pattern, they could observe the persons preferred to read news, the persons preferred for ads, the persons preferred to be receptionists, the persons who are deemed beautiful, or better yet, talk to a dark-skinned person about their experiences.

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