Ending Colourism

Colourism affects people of all shades and ethnicities; it is a form of racism where people are discriminated against on the basis of the shade of their skin, and is sometimes referred to as shadeism. The ‘End Colourism’ campaign was started to address the issues surrounding these prejudices, and the organisation campaigns for an end to the problem.

Here the founder of ‘The Lifting the Veil Project’ interviews the founders of the organisation about the problem of colourism, and the work that they do to combat it.


You run the ‘End Colourism‘ campaign which draws attention to the problem of shadeism or colourism within society. For those who are unfamiliar, please could you briefly explain what colourism is, and why you started your campaign?

Colourism is inter- and intra-ethnic prejudice on the basis of skin shade, which is often manifested as light skin being privileged over darker shades.

The End Colourism’ campaign was started by Aisha Phoenix and Dr Jude Smith Rachele; it was borne out of a discussion that started after a screening of the documentary on colourism Dark Girls by Dr Rachele’s consultancy Abundant Sun. We both felt that concerted effort was needed if the problems of colourism and racism were to be addressed and so founded ‘End Colourism’.

Dr Rachele has been working internationally as a management consultant in the area of diversity and inclusion for just over 20 years. There is a popular sentiment that we are living in a post-racial society; however, she was deeply concerned that structural racism is still unrelentingly prevalent. Strategically, if we could share the stories of minority ethnic communities’ struggles with colourism, and the racism that members of the same group express towards one another on the basis of skin shade, then we would be able to have a much more fluid and honest conversation about the predominance of European ideals in contemporary society, and how this affects not just people of colour, but society as a whole.

How endemic is the problem of colourism among people of colour, and how young does the awareness of skin shade begin?

Colourism has prevailed for centuries, and is so entrenched among people of colour that the global skin lightening industry is expected to be worth $19.8 billion by 2018 as people with dark skin shades seek to access the privileges associated with lighter skin. Unfortunately awareness of the skin shade hierarchy starts very early, with some children of colour as young as three years of age associating light skin with positive attributes and dark skin with negative ones. For an example, see Kiri Davis’s 2005 documentary A Girl Like Me, which replicated the Kenneth and Mammy Clark 1940s dolls test.

The problem of colourism is often treated like one which is a problem within communities. However, there is a lot of evidence, including this recent study (http://www.sentencingproject.org/detail/news.cfm?news_id=1136: also discussed here: http://www.nasw.org/users/mslong/2011/2011_05/Prison.htm and http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2011/07/05/study-confirms-dark-skinned-women-get-longer-prison-sentences/) which found that darker skinned black women are much more likely to receive harsher jail sentences than lighter skinned counterparts. Is there a lot of denial about the problem of colourism in white communities?

It is not so much that the problem of colourism is denied, but rather the hegemonic discourses that privilege lightness and white beauty ideals that help sustain colourism are not acknowledged. Consequently, the processes that result in people of darker skin being discriminated against in the judicial system or job market, for example, are rendered invisible. As a result, colourism is simply not recognised.

Dr Rachele does a lot of work in the area of unconscious bias, which is really important here, as most white people who hold power over, and make decisions about, minority ethnic individuals and groups, have little or no awareness of the existence of colourism, or of the role they may be playing in the social, economic and psychological engineering of colourism.

Lighter skin tone is often thought of as being integral to success within minority ethnic communities, and they often go to extreme lengths to achieve this, including the use of skin bleaching creams, which are a multi-billion dollar industry. What are your thoughts on those who argue that skin bleaching is merely aesthetic and that it is comparable to applying fake tan?

Skin bleaching is political and not merely aesthetic because decisions to lighten skin are made in the context of a global hierarchy that favours lightness. If we lived in a society where all shades of skin were considered equal, then an argument could be made about skin bleaching being comparable to cosmetic skin tanning, albeit with different health implications. However, if we lived in such a society there would not be a multi-billion dollar skin bleaching industry because the majority of the people who bleach their skin currently, some using harmful, toxic products, would feel no desire to do so.

We must address the power relationships that exist here. Light-skinned or white people who seek to darken their skin carry a social privilege. Not only is their choice to darken their skin not going to reduce their relative privilege and power, it may even enhance them. Tanning may be read as a signal that they have enough disposable income to afford expensive tanning products or holidays where they can luxuriate and lounge in the sunshine. So, the choice to darken their skin sits within a completely different context from that of someone who seeks to lighten their skin shade.

Is the pressure to have lighter skin tones equivalentor different between men and women?

There is more pressure on women of colour to have lighter skin than men of colour because light skin is favoured in the global beauty hierarchy and patriarchal patterns of desire mean that women are judged more on their looks than are men. Furthermore, in some popular discourses the ideal man is ‘tall, dark and handsome’, whereas the woman’s equivalent is often ‘fair’. Nonetheless, it is important to recognise that, just as a minority of men (of all colours) are beginning to have cosmetic surgery and to become anorectic, so some black and minority ethnic men are beginning to bleach their skin.

How much of a role has media representation played in persistent colourist attitudes?

The media reinforces colourism by privileging people with light skin in the majority of the instances when people of colour are represented. One controversial example of this was the casting of the actress Zoe Saldana to play Nina Simone in the biopic about the singer’s life – Saldana has much lighter skin than the late Nina Simone and her features are more in conformity with European beauty ideals. The media also perpetuates colourism by sending the message that celebrities of colour are too dark to appear on the cover of magazines without digital lightening or lighting that makes them look lighter. An example of this is the recent controversy over the picture of Lupita Nyong’o on the cover of Vanity Fair in which the actress’s skin looks much lighter than it actually is.


In India, there is evidence that colourism predates colonialism, but that the effects of it were exacerbated by the Empire. In general, how much of colourism has roots in white supremacist ideology and European colonialism?

While in some countries colourism predated European colonialism, the effect of colonialism has been to entrench colourist attitudes. European colonisers also brought colourism to many countries without a history of racialised prejudice. In the transatlantic slave trade there was a hierarchy of skin shades with those closest in colour to the slave masters (often as a result of the rape of enslaved women by slave masters) accorded the highest status and treated most favourably.

In a recent Twitter chat by “The Lifting the Veil Project” a contributor tweeted in to say that lighter-skinned people of colour have a responsibility to call out colourism when they see it. Would this be an important step forward in challenging the practice? What other steps would need to be taken to overcome prejudice against skin shade?

It is certainly important that people of colour of all shades speak out against colourism and avoid reproducing it. However, it is also important that white people do the same. In order to address the problem of colourism it is important to raise awareness of how it functions and its history as well as to challenge those who exploit it for financial gain, as in the skin lightening industry. It is, however, important that putting colourism on the agenda is not done in ways that divide lighter and darker people of colour since this would simply reproduce the ‘divide and rule’ tactics used since enslavement without troubling and disrupting racisms.

What has been the general reaction to your website, and has it differed between men and women, or between different communities?

People are enthusiastic and excited about our campaign, and are looking for ways in which they can make a contribution locally and globally. In particular, we’ve made great links with a movement in Australia driven by Sasha Sarango, founder of Ascension Magazine, who is from an Aboriginal background.

In terms of our online presence, ‘End Colourism’ is most active on Twitter. Our followers share and comment on the articles we post and engage with the issues raised. We have both female and male followers from a variety of countries and ethnicities. However, thus far women of colour are most likely to favourite or share our tweets. End Colourism’s Dr Rachele has participated in panel discussions on colourism and we plan to engage actively in everyday life with our community of followers by organising events and workshops, among other kinds of social and educational gatherings.

Are different approaches needed for different communities?

Yes, definitely. Given that colourism affects people of colour of different ethnicities in different geographical locations in contrasting ways, it is important to tailor the campaign against colourism accordingly. However, there are also aspects of the campaign that need to be global; an important example would be to challenge the exploitation of colourist and racist attitudes by the skin bleaching industry for massive financial gain.

As mentioned earlier, there is a real and immediate need to share this subject and to openly discuss it with people of colour and white people alike. Those who have attended our events and talks have gained insights into the problem of colourism and an appreciation of the need to end it.

Is colourism an issue that mainstream feminism has struggled to address to date?

Colourism has not been a focus of mainstream feminism as it is often seen as a problem for people of colour, rather than a feminist issue. However, colourism affects women of colour as a result of the intersection of racism and sexism, or what Jarune Uwujaren terms ‘racialised sexism. There are also numerous women who are affected by colourism. It should, therefore, be seen as a feminist issue.

Dr. Rachele is focused on creating more dialogue and discourse around the intersectionality of race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, etc. Our identities are complex and this complexity needs to be acknowledged more fully in order to address the many forms that colourism takes, and the impact it has on different people within different communities.

Is the rising support for intersectional feminism a potential, and critical, way forward in dealing with the problem of colourism?

Intersectional feminism can make a significant contribution to addressing the problem of colourism and it is positive that there is increased awareness of the importance of intersectionality. However, at the moment there is a fierce debate about intersectionality and whether or not it has a place in feminism. The problem of colourism is a good example of why an intersectional approach is so important.

What do you hope to achieve through the work that you do?

The ‘End Colourism’ campaign seeks to raise awareness of three sets of issues. First, it aims to publicise the complex problem of colourism, with a view to making it seem increasingly strange for a person of colour to want to make their beautiful skin lighter or for people of colour to judge each other on the basis of their skin shade. Second, it seeks to make it unacceptable for white people to privilege light skin over darker shades and to oppose the racism that is an inextricable part of colourism. Third, it aims to make an ethical intervention, challenging the idea that companies should continue to profit from exploiting a deeply damaging prejudice.

Join the discussion now on Twitter using the hashtag #endclourism; ‘End Colourism’ tweet at @EndColourism

To learn more about ‘End Colourism’, visit their website at: http://endcolourism.org.websitebuilder.prositehosting.co.uk/


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