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Updated: Jun 21, 2020

Why a lighter complexion is considered to be more beautiful or valuable than someone with dark skin? Why skin colour signifies identity and value? What is colourism, its history and its relationship with racism?

We are a visual species and we respond to one another based on the way we physically present. A person’s skin colour is an irrefutable visual fact that is impossible to hide. Skin colour continues to serve as the most obvious criterion in determining how a person will be evaluated and judged.

Why is that in the global village of the 21st century, the Western world becomes less white and a multi-racial community, formed by interracial marriages and immigration, continues to expand, the issue of colour of the skin is becoming even more significant than race in both public and private interactions.

The privileges of light skin over dark is at the root of an ill known as colourism. Black Americans are not the only people obsessed with how light or dark a person’s skin is. Colourism is a societal ill felt in many places all around the world, including Latin America, India, the Caribbean and Africa.


I think the colour prejudice seeped from the nations who were fairer in colour, eg. Greek and Romans. Throughout history, for many cultures and societies, black and white have stood as opposites: white the positive, pure light, black its negative counterpart. From the Greeks, who sat the god of the underworld, Hades, on a black ebony throne to the Romans – death, in Roman poetry, was the hora nigra, or the black hour – black was not a friendly colour. The association with death, with symbolic as well as literal darkness, with funerals and the afterlife is a common theme throughout history, from Nordic legends to European paintings, where the devil was often painted in deep black.


This prejudice went on to be part of the religious books. Historically, religion has been the authority that created social rules, ethics, morals and guidelines. Because of that, religion continues to influence the way we regard black today.

In the Bible, the book of Genesis claims that darkness was present before light, and therefore believers sometimes say that black was the first of all colours. Black has been perceived to have a negative connotation since life as we know it can’t exist in darkness. Black has been regarded as evil and a symbol of darkness, whereas light represents life and something pleasant and good. Black symbolizes sorrow or grief and is commonly used during Easter, as a reminder of Jesus on the cross.

Similarly Quranic depiction of beauty is white colour hooris and black colour is the faces who would be condemned to hellfire. The colour diversity among Arab peoples was due to a history of Arab slavery similar to European slavery in the Atlantic world. Blacks are in Arabia for precisely the same reasons Blacks are in the United States, South America, and the Caribbean Islands—through capture and enslavement.


In Hinduism colour prejudice never existed. According to Vedas, Lord Krishna is a dark-skinned Dravidian god. The lotus-eyed, dark skinned Krishna is the complete and perfect understanding of god. Krishna, the beautiful dark boy with a blakish colour. But under the influence of thousand of years of foreign skinned invasions and the British Raj of late, introduced colour prejudice in India too which is widespread and practised openly across the country. Skin colour determines a person's worth. All virtues are associated with "fair" while anything dark has negative connotations. TV programmes, movies, billboards, advertisements, they all reinforce the idea that "fair is beautiful". ‘Fair & Lovely” bleaching products sells millions.

India's media promote the idea that women with dark complexions should aspire to be fairer. Most dark-skinned women desperately try to look fair. While doing make-up, women prefer a "whitewashed" look rather than embracing their natural skin tone. Skin tone and other racial features play powerful roles in who gets ahead and who does not.


These Arab and European historical and religious biases has moulded a bias against the colour black that one’s health, wealth and opportunity for success is impacted by the colour of one’s skin. Colourism is so deeply ingrained in the fabric of societies that we are all implicated and infected by its presence. And the sad thing is, for many people the lessons of colour bias begin in the home. The grip of a colour hierarchy is so firm in the outside world that it seeps into the household too and becomes part of the implicit and explicit teachings of parenting. I have seen parents worried if one of the daughters is darker in her skin tone.


The solution to solving our colour problem lies in the home, and it is precisely where the conversation should begin. From day one, parents of every colour should begin to celebrate colour differences in the human spectrum instead of praising one over the other or even worse, pretending we’re all the same. Only then, we could have a more public facing dialogue about the global problem of colourism and its necessary demise.





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