Shadeism and the politics of skin tone

Issue section: 


Lupita Nyong’o has been a victim of airbrushing

Western societies’ beauty standards are underlain with a racism that has its roots in slavery and colonialism

Shadeism, also known as colourism, is the discrimination against an individual based not just on their perceived “race” but on their darker skin tone. Although two people may both be black, one may suffer further discrimination than the other due to being darker in skin tone, which has led to a sub-categorisation of black people as “light-skinned” or “dark-skinned”.

Shadeism is most discussed today in relation to society’s beauty standards. It has been pointed out that of the black female celebrities held up as beauty and fashion icons and generally considered by the industry to be conventionally “attractive”, the majority are “light-skinned”.

Not only this but there are numerous examples of fashion and beauty magazines actively airbrushing photos of black celebrities such as Beyoncé and Lupita Nyong’o to make their skin look lighter.

This filters down into everyday life, often with the implication that it is more attractive to be a “lightie” and people often casually discuss preferences for lighter or darker skinned people.

Of course, this is not just related to racism but to sexist beauty standards as well, which is perhaps why there are more examples of famous “dark-skinned” men deemed attractive by the industry than there are women.

As with racism in general, the roots of shadeism lie in slavery and colonialism. The racial hierarchy that was created in order to justify slavery meant that people with lighter skin colours were perceived to be better — closer to whites — than those who were darker.

There were many light-skinned children of slave women who had been raped by their white masters, and they were often given positions within the house rather than being forced to work in the fields. However, regardless of skin tone or who their father was, they were still slaves. This idea continued to be prevalent in colonised countries even after the official end of slavery. In the Caribbean this hierarchy of white to light to dark was deeply ingrained in society, and the effects of this can still be seen today.

In Jamaica, for example, people categorised blacks based on their percentage of “whiteness” — those who were “half white” were deemed mulattoes; those who were three quarters white were quadroons; those a quarter white were samboes; right the way through to mestees, who were seven eighths white.

On sight, and without knowing a person’s genealogy, these categorisations were mostly based on skin tone. Those who were lighter were assumed to be the “most white” and therefore better.

It is no wonder then, that with this idea of hierarchy built into society, some people began to desire the lighter skin associated with a higher social status. This was true not only in Jamaica but in other colonised areas, as well as in apartheid South Africa, where lighter skin was the difference between being considered black with no rights and “coloured” with very limited rights.

A 2011 report produced by the World Health Organisation cited that “in Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Togo, 25%, 77%, 27%, 35% and 59% of women, respectively, are reported to use skin lightening products on a regular basis” with dangerous implications for their health.

Shadeism is an effect of the racist hierarchy that the ruling class drew up in order to justify their enslavement of millions. The WHO figures cited above make it clear that the legacy of this hierarchy, and the notion that having lighter skin could afford you a better life, lives on in societies across the world today.

It is important that we recognise that the shadeist ideas prevalent in the entertainment industry can be taken on by others. It is also important that we do not let shadeism become divisive on our side — something that separates black people in the fight against racism.

As with all such categories, there are problems with identifying people as either “light” or “dark” skinned. For one, where does light end and dark begin? And for another it often ends up in a “light” versus “dark” situation where people can end up being marginalised or arguing over who faces more oppression when in reality, as black people, we are all oppressed.

Britain First, the police and the entire system are racist against all non-white people; racists we come across will not differentiate between people with a lighter skin tone or a darker skin tone, but attack us all with the same ferocity.

One should never forget the racist Jim Crow laws in the US that stated “one drop” of black blood makes you black. Shadeism is an effect of racism and to get rid of it we need to remain united with each other and with anyone who is willing to join that fight.