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Colorism: Perception, Reality and Deliberate Intent

Updated: Feb 21


Let’s face it. There is no way Black people can be Black and escape being “colorized” each and every day of our lives. It is an unspoken demand in a white supremacist society where privilege is skin-based and white skin has been intentionally placed at the top. The purpose of this essay, however, is not to simply discuss the fact that it is faced, or even that among Black people colorism has become the “Black on Black crime” version of Racism in this country, although I will touch on both. The purpose of this essay is to discuss what its title suggests: The Perception of Colorism, the Reality of Colorism and the deliberate intent of white supremacy to divide Black people within and among themselves based on the concentrations of skin lightness or darkness.


It is important when discussing words with impacts as egregious as Colorism, to break them down first for a better understanding of the words themselves. By virtue of the suffix, ism, Colorism, like Racism, is a thing. We learned in elementary school that a noun is a person, a place or a thing, therefore these are “things” because of their structure as nouns. But what does the suffix, ism mean? Merriam Webster defines the suffix ism as: a distinctive doctrine, cause, or theory, or an oppressive and especially discriminatory attitude or belief[1]. Taken together with the root word, “color,” which is in itself, benign, and means, a visual perception that enables one to differentiate otherwise identical objects[2], we get the following definition of Colorism:


A visual perception that enables one to differentiate otherwise identical objects, through a distinctive doctrine, cause or theory, or an oppressive and especially discriminatory attitude or belief.

Now in this world, there are both tangible and intangible things, things you can put your finger on, perceived through touch and things that are outside of the physical realm. Objects are considered tangible. Human beings can even be considered tangible objects. Intangible things, however, are more abstract, have no physical presence, and therefore have no ability to be touched; in some cases, living only in the mind of the beholder. Thoughts are intangible. Perceptions start out as thoughts, so perceptions are also intangible. Colorism is a perception and therefore intangible. Ideologies are formed from intangible perceptions. In short, Colorism is a perception promulgated by the fallacious ideology of white supremacy that creates a paradox: a tangible perception of that which is based on an intangible and erroneous perception turned ideology.


Complicated. Yes, but quite simply it means taking something that doesn’t exist physically in this world and making it exist based solely on one’s created thought turned into perception and then ideology. Does that make Colorism a reality? It does, but only as long as the ideology of white supremacy exists to support and perpetuate it.



We know already that Race is a social construct created by Europeans; race itself being a perception of humanity that created the thought processes necessary for the ideology of white supremacy to exist. The reality of Racism only exists because the ideology of white supremacy exists and is the same for all Black people, in that it doesn't matter to white people how much money you have when you are stopped and frisked. It doesn't matter how light your skin color -- if you are Black in the U.S. Colorism is used within the system of Racism when white people must then differentiate from black skin what they will consider “acceptable,” because the law says they can no longer openly discriminate against Black people in general.



Historically, most Black people will attest to the fact Colorism was used by the wealthy landowners to create division among poor white people and the enslaved Black people based on their color, to foster the belief that having white skin meant they were superior to the lowly slave, even if they were piss poor, and to keep them from each other. This became doctrine, forming a discriminatory attitude or belief, knowing there was no other significance to draw from as a differentiation among “identical” human beings.



Since the white slave owners were routinely raping Black enslaved women, when offspring were the result, sometimes the skins of the offspring were as light as what was considered “white,” and certainly lighter than the melanin-enriched original Africans who were enslaved. Lighter-skinned Black women were especially coveted by slave masters because they could yield higher prices as “fancies,” and because lighter skin was considered more acceptable to white people in general, the lighter-skinned workers tended to work indoors in the main house then the outside in the fields. The advent of the Post Racial Colorblind era of the mid to late 20th century up to nearly the end of the second decade of the 21st, only added additional fuel to internal colorization issues between lighter and darker Black people, who still saw color – their own, all the while being told character, not color, merit not skin, was the determining factor in success.


Colorization authorizes "Blacks can be racist" and other notions by imposing the same scale of *whiteness* and its resulting preferential treatment onto lighter skinned and darker skinned Black people and contributes to rehashing the generations-old concepts of privilege from the Enslavement. Today, privileges and preferences in employment, criminal justice, education, and every other aspect of human activity in this country is still leveraged by skin color. Then as now, inevitable resentment and bias by and among Black people is the intended result.


Today, the negative behaviors stoked by and among Black people with regard to color create the chicken-egg, circular arguments with no end. That means, arguments surrounding colorism between Black people will always circle back to the behavior itself, personal anecdotes, and “proofs of fact,” but never an acknowledgement colorization’s roots or beginning, even as white people have and continue to encourage resentment and anger among Black people on account of color. Such anger, resentment and loathing are all maintained and propped up by the same racist, white, supremacist institutions of media and the arts, as well as in employment and education, where lighter skinned Black people are portrayed as the acceptable "look."



For some light skinned people, the reality of preference exists in much the same way as the poor whites of generations past, when “granted” more “privileges because of their skin. It is just as inevitable today as it was back then, to feel a sense of skin-based superiority as a result. How else could white people have bought into something so intangible and insane as what changed from a thought into an entire ideology? Over the generations, many light-skinned Black people not only saw the benefits, however limited, but in many cases took advantage of them. Some left their Blackness behind altogether by passing for white. While true that light-skinned Black people benefit from the "lighter the better" mentality, many light and dark-skinned people don’t stop to consider the deeper reasons for the divisive preferences. Many do not consider the reasons which are part and parcel of the same controlling mechanisms used during the Enslavement to create inner turmoil and division among the enslaved in much the same way poor whites were placed into their "superior" roles.


How many will attest to the same white supremacist ideology during the Enslavement as the primary reason colorized behavior among Black people exist today? For Black people who either overtly or inadvertently attempt to lessen the impact of the Enslavement on themselves, attributing colorism to anything but a general hatred of Black against Black is next to impossible because the ideology is too deeply ingrained from centuries ago, and the self-loathing passed down through the centuries still endures. What emerges is a “what came first, the chicken or the egg” dichotomy. The argument has gone on so long without a reason that no one actually knows how it started. Among Black people who were and still are themselves affected by these colorized perceptions, generations of stories of envy, jealousy, anger and mistreatment are also close to impossible to repudiate, because the lure of self-hatred, blame and shame is too intense, and the hidden origins too powerful to disengage, rendering as insignificant, the true reality of all light and dark-skinned people within white spaces, and offering little sympathy among each other.



The objective of Colorism anticipates that Black people will blame and shame themselves for being born lighter or darker, and it encourages applying their own brand of preferences: dating and marriage choices, etc., as the case may be, without deeper, critical thought into the why of the behavior. In treating colorism among and between Black people as “our own racism,” it continues to prolong and validates the same ideology of white supremacy that as a collective we can’t escape.


We must begin to caution ourselves not to slip into the generations-old self-loathing, blame and shame that comes from the deliberately designed behavior of the oppressor, behavior which caused skin-based divisions during the Enslavement. That includes breaking the cycle, the circular arguments and the behavior that causes the arguments in the first place. It is incumbent upon all Black people who are affected by the perception-turned-reality behavior of Colorism and the self-loathing associated with it, to see it for what it was really designed to accomplish. Gaining a better understanding of how and why colorization accomplished its goal of centuries of trauma, we will have taken a huge first step in healing ourselves from centuries of misguided and fallacious, intangible perceptions of our own humanity.











Sources:

[1] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ism

[2] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/color

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Copyright 2020 Cynthia Alease Smith, Ed.D.