Caste system – is a class structure that is determined by birth, in some societies, if your parents are poor, you are going to be poor as well.
Colorism – prejudice or discrimination against individuals based on skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic group.
An old children’s cadence captures the very essence of colorism: “If you’re black, stay back; if you’re brown, stick around; if you’re yellow, you’re mellow; if you’re white, you’re all right.” Colorism lends advantage to those with lighter skin. Simply stated, colorism is discrimination based on skin color. As painful as it may be within the black community, this is a conversation that we must have. Only through understanding the history can we begin to heal ourselves and move forward.
The Mulatto Caste System
Research shows that colorism is sometimes associated with fewer employment opportunities, lower marriage rates and extended prison sentences for those with darker skin. Colorism can also be defined as a caste system rooted in slavery in the United States. Slave owners, by favoring lighter-skinned slaves, created a mulatto caste system, consequently establishing a buffer or intermediary between themselves and their dark-skinned slaves. In fact, this singular act was instrumental in shaping the foundation of suspicion and distrust between light and dark skin for generations to come.
The Brown Paper Bag Test
After the abolishment of slavery in the United States, colorism proved to be an enduring legacy. Within the black community itself, lighter-skinned blacks experienced employment at rates that were not afforded to darker-skinned blacks. This explains why the families in the upper class of black society were, in large part, lighter-skinned. Light skin and the privileges associated would be indelibly linked within the black community. Social circles of the black upper class would routinely administer the “brown paper bag test” to determine if prospective blacks would be admitted. “The paper bag would be held against the person’s skin, if they were darker than the paper bag, they were not admitted, “explains Marta Golden, author of “Don’t Play in the Sun: One Woman’s Journey Through the Color Complex.” Writer Brent Staples discovered that colorism did not only involve blacks discriminating against other blacks. While mid-twentieth century job advertisements revealed that blacks with lighter skin considered themselves better job candidates, employers would often list light skin as a primary qualification. Lighter skin was considered ahead of actual experience, with business owners believing that their customers would find lighter skin more acceptable. In general, colorism affected every aspect of African Americans’ lives. As we have previously mentioned, colorism influenced dating, marriage, employment, social standing and media print television, and movies. This is most important because it heavily influenced our self-perception.
Media and Entertainment
The effects of colorism in the entertainment industry, until recently was nearly impossible to find women of color in print ads, commercials or movie roles unless the character was being portrayed in a stereotypical aspect; house cleaner, drug addict, prostitute etc, As black women became more visible in the media there was a notable absence of those that were of darker complexion. The same can be said of black men being portrayed as pimps, drug dealers and addicts as well as many other despicable characters. It would appear the darker the skin the more sinister the character. In 1988 supporters of Presidential candidate, George H.W. Bush ran an attack ad featuring Willie Horton, intentionally darkening his image, a convicted felon to deliberately invoke racial fears and stereotypes. This ad is remembered as the most racist political ad in the last 30 years. The majority of music videos and commercials had a tendency to cast those of lighter complexion. Although some improvements can be seen, as Hollywood has become more inclusive and apparent representation of all shades of black women is more frequent, although colorism remains a factor worldwide.
As recently as September of 2019 Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o voiced concern to her 1.6 million twitter followers that “colorism is not just a prejudice reserved for places with a largely white population”. Nyong’o also noted that in her native Kenya there is an explicit preference for people with lighter skin even in an overwhelmingly black skin populated country.
We must tell our own Story!
The Lion has learned to write: Bo Ajala