Colourism Vs Racism

It’s important to understand the difference between the two.

Skin Colour Matters. It is a loaded representation of identity and value.

Humans are a visual species.

We respond to one another based on the way we perceive or “see” others.

Skin colour continues to be a factor in how a person is evaluated and judged in almost every society across the world.

Dark skin is too often demonized, while light skin wins the prize.

This is a direct result of how deeply racist ideals are embedded into our perspectives.

If racism didn’t exist, discussions about different skin colours would simply be a conversation about aesthetics. This privileging of light skin over dark lies at the very root of what we call colorism.

While racism and colourism both seem to come from a place of prejudice against the colour of skin, they are not the same. It’s important to understand the difference between the two, to recognize and stand up against these instances of prejudice.

What is Racism?

Simply put, racism is a belief that groups of humans share certain behavioural traits that correspond to their physical appearance; i.e. the colour of their skin.

That humans of shared physical and behavioural features can be “segmented” based on the idea of one race’s superiority over another.

It is a systematic approach of depriving a specific group of people from equal access to opportunities through discrimination. This discrimination is carried out through laws and other institutions, and through social values that normalize prejudice based on race and/or ethnicity. In its simplest form, racism is carried out by creating a hostile environment toward people because of their racial identity.

To understand racism, it is crucial to recognize that it operates on two fronts: individual and institutional.

Individual racism is the personal belief in the superiority of one race over another. It results in racial prejudice and discriminatory behaviours, which can be an expression of implied and/or outright bias.

Institutionalized racism is the system of assigning value and allocating opportunity based on race. It unfairly privileges some individuals and groups over others and influences social institutions in our legal, educational, and governmental systems. This can be witnessed as inequality in, but not limited to, wealth, income, justice, employment, housing, medicine, education, and voting. Systemic racism can be expressed implicitly or explicitly. It occurs when a certain group is targeted and discriminated against based on race.

Black individuals and communities are perhaps the most prominent victims of racism. A relatively modern concept in human history, “racism” has its roots in European Imperialism and the Atlantic slave trade, which was a major driving force for this ideology.

However, Black people are not exclusive victims of racism. Racist ideologies extend to the oppression and marginalization of any group based on their ethnic identity.

What is Colourism?

Author and activist Alice Walker is the person most often credited with introducing the word colourism. In her book, In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens, Walker defined colourism as “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their colour.”

She named the generational preference for lighter skin in Black communities, marking it as an evil that must be stopped for African Americans to progress as a people.

Privileging lighter skin as “better” is a mentality witnessed in cultures across the world. Colourism is a societal ill felt in many places, including East and Southeast Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa.

In Southeast Asia, it is a common phenomenon where darker skin is considered “shameful” and a deterrent to someone’s prospects and ability to succeed. Colourism is an ingrained predisposition brought into our society through colonization. During the British rule, racist policies were implemented by the colonizer to reinforce discriminatory treatment of locals in Southeast Asia because of our brown skin. While the British left the land, unfortunately, they left behind some of their racist ideologies – most prominent of which is Colourism.

Although we use colour as a way to define people and identify them, colourism is not systemic. Darker-skinned people are not deprived of equal opportunities; they are treated under the same laws and are afforded the same rights.

Colourism is perpetuated on a more personal level. It manifests as remarks about dark skin being ugly, unattractive, or shameful, as the idea that lighter skin somehow heightens your chances for success. That fair skin equates to affluence and better social status.

So what is the difference?

Colourism and racism both perpetuate prejudice against people based on the colour of their skin. They both operated on the belief that some shades of skin colour are superior to others.

Racism is systemic discrimination of people based on their racial identity, a big part of which is defined by their skin colour. Colourism, while based on racist ideas, is not the same form of discrimination. It operates on an individual, societal level.

Understanding this difference allows us to identify and address the types of discrimination correctly. While both are disturbing, it is crucial to accept that colourism does not amount to racism