Colorism & My Role in It

Living as an afro-asian woman is complicated. As a black woman, I am light skinned, but as a south-east Asian woman, I am dark-skinned. So I am both privileged and targeted for my skin tone, depending on what racial monikers one uses in perceiving my appearance. And my existence within either racial groups is also disengaged from one another, as is how I understand and see myself in the context of wider society.

This phenomenon is colorism, which is the social stratification of people within a racial group based on skin tone, with a specific prejudice and discrimination towards darker-skinned people. Being a person that exists in two racial groups, my place within colorism is wrought with contradictions and complexity. Pertaining to the wider social stratosphere of racial dialogue, colorism has gotten more pervasive and common in discussions of intra-racial dynamics. And it has a historical backing.

Largely, socially empowered elites use divide and conquer methods to control the populace--and skin tone has been weaponized for this express purpose. This traces back into the slave era in the house slave vs field slave dynamics that worked to separate and disunify the black community, giving certain advantages to lighter skinned individuals. And there are misogynoir-fueled implications in the genesis of this issue, as the rape of black slave women by their masters worked to produce lighter skin tones. However, it should be noted that slaves who had the ability to pass as white or be a house slave often worked in tandem with the greater community in undermining white supremacy and inching towards their collective liberation.

Over time, the institution of colorism has sprung various dimensions in the black experience. And I want to talk about my particular place in it. Because I can admit that I have perpetuated this institution that target darker-skinned people. It is in the instant, ugly thoughts that creep up on me in times of anger, insecurity, and anxiety that elevate myself as “better” than my darker-skinned counterparts. And these self-assertive thoughts stemming from toxic, socially ingrained colorism were not limited by skin tone alone. I’d indicate my knowledge and certain intellectual skills of mine, ones I posses through the very privilege of decent schooling that others were not afforded, as grounds for my own superiority. As such, my looks, my hair, and certain career successes and advantages were not exempt. And in these assertions of my own worth, I’d internally degrade those who slighted me in my head.  

These things are relative to colorism because they are also socially imposed stratifications that determine proximity to power and privilege. Beyond all this, the very concept of elating oneself through degrading another is just inherently problematic. That is no way to establish your self-worth, healthily or sustainably.  We all have such biases and thoughts, but it is what we do with them and our intentions to transform into something more than our biases that really matters.

My awareness of this flaw and how it impacts and shapes how I contextualize myself in a grander racial structure as well as how I act is what  really counts. I can admit that I am part of the problem, part of the inequity that it manifests. Having the humility to admit my part in this hierarchy is what empowers me to be more than these biases of mine and  actively challenge them, to transform my behavior into something intentionally positive and for the dismantling of colorism.

I think it’s important we acknowledge our own faultiness and complicity to social power structures. Especially when it comes to how we think about other people and how we construct our own self-worth  relative to these perceptions. We need to challenge our biases and socially ingrained ideals in a way that is not overcome with unproductive shame and self-deprecation, but in a way that is transformative and intentionally positive and working towards a more equitable world.