From racism to colorism

Anonymous student post

In today’s society, anti-racist movements have been gaining support, to the extent that in most Western countries racism is punishable by law. Discriminating by race is starting to be acknowledged as a social taboo and discriminative actions such as declining  applicants a job opportunity due to race will not only bring negative image but can even lead to jail time. With such improvements in racial equality, one might expect that we are going towards a world without discrimination. Even though this would be truly wonderful if it were to be true, there still is room for improvement—as even in the most non-racist countries racism is still happening beneath the surface—not to mention the social phenomena (or, in other words, social problems) that are replacing racism.

One of the most widespread occurrences is racism changing to “colorism”. Colorism, is a term originally coined by Alice Walker in her 1983 book “In search of our mothers’ gardens” as she used the term to describe discrimination by color excluding factors such as bloodlines or ancestry. Even though racism also includes skin color, in colorism skin color is the sole factor behind discrimination. Especially present in Latin America, Africa, East and Southeast Asia and India however recent trend among various scholars are studies about how colorism has started to replace racism in most parts of the globe.

One could argue that change to colorism has brought several positive effects. Before it might have been impossible to break out of your “racial class”, for example if you were born to a black parent but had very light skin, you would have been deemed black nevertheless and thus discriminated against because of the bloodline. Even if you would not look that different from people around you, the race alone was enough to justify discrimination. Therefore the withdrawal of racism and change to colorism arguably brought some positive effects, as your birth would no longer decide your position in the social hierarchy.

However, when it comes down to comparing racism and colorism, rather than colorism being the cure, it is more like a “pick your poison” kind of a situation. In the 2009 book Shades of Difference, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and David R. Dietrich depict that colorism causes there to be competition even within the race while there still is competition between different races. For example, in the past blacks have been discriminated against because of their “race”, but now they are being discriminated because of the color of their skin. Not only that, but they also are discriminated among what used to be their “race”, depending on whether their skin color is lighter or darker, not to mention that colorism might take out the vocabulary to describe discrimination (Bonilla-Silva and Dietrich 2009).

So, is colorism the right direction? With colorism replacing racism and racism becoming a widespread social taboo, are we heading towards a less discriminating world? We can see that there is movement towards removing discrimination, as colorism is proof of that; however it is disturbing to see that discrimination still has its place strongly rooted in our everyday lives. It is hard to say if colorism is a proof of improvement, or if it’s just a way to sweep the problem under the mattress. Time will tell, is what I’d like to say, but then again just waiting patiently to see whether the situation gets better or not is a bad excuse not to take action.

References

Walker, Alice. (1983). In search of our mothers’ gardens: womanist prose. San Diego: Harcourt Brave Jovanovich

Glenn, Evelyn Nakano (Ed.). (2009). Shades of difference: why skin color matters. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

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2 thoughts on “From racism to colorism

  1. Interesting in a blog on “JAPANsociology” that you don’t mention all the whitening creams that people here use (and to be honest, I think makes people looks sick”). I should also note, that one of my students was a woman from Akita, who had the famous “Akita skin”, told me of how she wished that she didn’t have it. Despite the beauty of her skin (I’m not talking about the colour, I mean that her skin really glows), she couldn’t go out in the daytime for fear of getting sunburnt, and said that one particularly hot days she would even get sunburnt inside the house. Her skin was that fragile. But, I guess it goes back to the historical idea that her skin colour meant that she didn’t have to go outside and work, and she lead a life of luxury inside.

    Anyway, thanks for highlighting the issue. I think “colourism” is a huge issue, but is largely kept under wraps. Unless you are in India, where the advertising of “fairness” creams are quite blatant.

    • Thanks for the post. Our class is getting to skin lightening creams later in the semester, as we look at the global market in the creams, and their use in countries around the world.

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