The concept of racism is something, sadly, very familiar to most people: Discriminating against a person or group based on their ethnicity or their perceived ethnic background.
But the concept of colorism might not be as widely understood, says Meera Senthilingam, a health editor at CNN International and editor of a new six-month series called “White Lies: Exposing the Dangers of Skin Whitening.”
“Colorism and skin whitening is something that has always been sporadically covered in the media,” she says. “The Black Lives Matter movement kind of did bring attention to it, to the issue of colorism, and reporting hit the mainstream after that. Last year, a range of companies that make whitening products — Loreal, Unilever, Johnson & Johnson — all made announcements that products they make that are essentially lightening or whitening products, they were going to remove the words ‘fair’ and ‘white’ and ‘whitening’ from the names of their products. … The fact that it was starting to get attention, we thought if we bring to light the core issues around that, there’s real potential for impact.”
So what is “colorism,” exactly?
“Colorism affects people in the same ethnic group,” Senthilingam say. “It’s being treated differently because of the ton of your skin color. Darker skinned individuals of a particular ethnic group seeing more prejudice or being discriminated against compared to lighter skinned individuals. There’s a privilege that comes with lighter brown skin, whether you’re Black, Asian, like South Asian, East Asian, from the Caribbean, from the Middle East. It’s something that affects every population of color worldwide, the hierarchy that comes with having lighter skin within the same ethnic group.”
Research suggests that, in some cultures, a person’s skin tone can impact their marriageability, something that’s central to being a successful person in India, for example.
“The opening story of the series looks at marriage culture in India and there’s a lot of pressure on getting married there. Success is seen and related to getting married, and that’s related to you being fairer and more attractive and therefore more likely to get married,” she says. “There’s various research out there that shows that people feel this need and this cultural pressure too. There’s a range of cultural pressures, that people feel the need to be lighter and better. It comes down to colonialism, slavery and also the caste systems in Asia.”
All of these cultures have an ingrained problem with colorism, but they all come to those prejudices differently, Senthilingam says. Some of it stems from labor and people’s concept of a person’s wealth based on the color of their skin. “If you were an outdoor laborer, working the land, you would in the sun more and then had darker skin. People who were wealthy and stayed indoors more, they had lighter skin. That’s one of the reasons. There’s research in slavery that suggests lighter skinned people were able to work indoors while darker skinned slaves had to work outside on the grounds. It all feeds into these pressures. It’s how people see themselves. If they see themselves as lighter, they then see themselves as more successful, which is sad. That’s now how it should be.”
Meera Senthilingam discusses CNN International’s “White Lies: Exposing the Dangers of Skin Whitening,” a series focusing on the problem of skin whitening and colorism across the globe.