Colorism, A Very Real Issue

Written by: Faria Islam – Grade 10

“Yeah, she’s pretty… but she’s so dark.”

I come from a South Asian background. Growing up, I’ve always seen skin-lightening creams on my mom’s dresser. There were always commercials on TV expressing how “light-skin” is more desired by the majority of people, especially by men, in society. These have influenced me from a young age. According to my mom and several childhood photos, when I was little, I had beautiful-white skin. When we moved to Canada, I would always run around in the sun at school, and this was before we were aware of what “sunscreen” was. As a result, my skin became very tanned.

The last few years, I’ve noticed how my mom would always mention how “light” my skin used to be. My mom, who continues to have naturally lighter skin than me, has always stressed for me to take care of my skin, often by using homemade face masks, which contained very acidic ingredients like lemon juice. Aunts that claim to have known me since I was little comment on how dark my skin is. I hear comments on other people’s, mostly girls, skin colour almost instantly on the topic of beauty at friends & family occasions (sometimes known as “brown parties”). I felt very insecure about my skin because of that. This left me scrubbing my face and skin harder than I would usually.

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We all have preferences on what’s considered beautiful. But why was it that, among the people I share the same identity with, white or “light” skin was the common feature that everyone preferred? Very recently, I noticed the term “colorism” in the interweb. Like you probably are now, I was very confused on what it meant. The legitimate dictionary definition wasn’t enough to satisfy me, but after some more research, I was very glad that I even ran into this word.

Colorism is when “lighter” or “whiter” skin is considered to be what’s beautiful, and it specifically refers to discrimination against people with “darker” skin, from people of their own ethnic or racial background. This is a result due to a long history. Since British colonialism took control of a vast amount of Asian countries, popular ideas of beauty were also spread. Research shows colorism is linked to lower marriage rates, lower incomes, limited job prospects and longer prison sentences for people with darker skin. (1/2/3)

Among the South Asian community, we face a complex problem of degrading people who have “darker” skin than we do. This degradation is done by negative comments on the skin colour, and it has led people to feel like it’s wrong, that their skin is imperfect or unacceptable. I understand now why my own mother would cause me to feel insecure about my skin. It’s rooted in our history thanks to imperialism. A very powerful force caused us to think this way, “white supremacy” or whatever you wanna call it.

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Lighter-skin is fetishized, and darker-skin is degraded. In South Asia, there are number-one transnationals that produce face-whitening creams. “Fair and Lovely” is one I remember very thoroughly. It is a skin-cream brand whose commercials I very much fell for, especially because of its celebrity advocators. “Whiteness” is desired in a grand scale, and we have celebrities themselves endorsing these brands for profit. This is also a problem when it comes to choosing makeup foundation, because of limited choices for people of colour.

Now, tanning salons do exist in the world. Why should an unnatural and often health-risking activity such as tanning be a trend when people with naturally varying skin tones are degraded? I don’t think colorism works the other way around. People who desire to have tanned skin, even as a result of a beach vacation, do not overweigh people who experience discrimination because of their skin tone. People with lighter skin being discriminated by people with darker skin is a hard concept for reality because of how far we’ve come to promoting “whiteness”. It’s not to say you can’t lay on the beach with sunscreen on, but it’s definitely interesting to think about how it affects people who don’t get to choose their skin colour by the seasons.

I believe what I’ve experienced growing up is not foreign to fellow South-Asian students attending Pearson, or a young non-white student in the world. We’re lucky to have such a great school community. Although I haven’t spoken to anyone about this in person, because of my self-consciousness, I think it’s a relatable, but often neglected topic in the South Asian community. I think many people of colour can relate. This issue exists in the African-American community as well, where we have degradation of darker-skinned individuals by lighter-skinned individuals. Again, this is rooted in history. In China, white skin has been a common preference for thousands of years, even before Europeans came around. This affects people all over the world.

(Image Sources)

What we have above are actual posters of the past promoting magical soap bars that can, if you scrub hard enough, make YOU become more white! If you follow the image source, you will find more interesting posters.

To dismantle such a mindset that in its own way promotes racism, it starts with us. There are some things we must learn for ourselves, and this is one of them. I don’t want anyone to feel insecure about their skin, from either internal or external forces.  To South-Asians of Pearson, students, teachers, respected staff, I ask you to simply love the skin you are in, even if you were taught to hate it, and please encourage others to do the same. This can sometimes be very hard to do, but you can definitely start by dancing more often to “Flawless” by Beyoncé. In the words of Beyoncé, “I woke up like this, FLAWLESS” (or is that a bit too much?). Fellow students, it’s true when adults say that we’re the future. This issue I speak of now, will likely be erased because we’re the generation that loves and accepts, while questioning everything. It starts with us.

We’re all different and that makes us beautiful as a species. No one deserves to feel less valued than someone else. Variation in skin colour should be celebrated and embraced. All skin colours are beautiful. Diversity must be valued, and we must demand space for minorities, who are not the superficial ideals of beauty. Let’s be a community.

Today I stand very proud to be in the skin I’m in. I take care of my skin the way I want to, without damaging it and without letting others influence my own preferences on beauty. I love my mom, and I’ll always have the utmost respect and love for her as a person. She’s my inspiration. I love my skin because it reminds me of all the fun I had when I was little, and I think it’s a beautiful colour. I love my South Asian culture because there are so many great aspects to it (including our awesome foods and dishes, butter chicken for the win!). I’m working on talking to my mom about what I’ve been feeling, and knowing her, she will understand. That’s another thing; let’s not silence people who share their struggles dealing with skin-colour discrimination, or any other source of pain, mental or physical. We need these voices for a better future.

I want to strive for a better world that my two-year-old sister can live in, where the darkness or lightness of her natural skin will never affect the value she sees in herself.

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