The damaging hierarchies we place on skin shades

There is growing frustration with the tendency for light skin to be privileged over darker skin shades in Hollywood and the media

Aisha Phoeni
Tuesday 10 December 2013 13:33

The Hollywood actress Zoe Saldana has responded to criticism that she is too light-skinned to play the African American singer-songwriter Nina Simone, commenting: ‘I can’t stop to think about who thinks me to be black enough or not black enough.’ The actress, whose mother is of Puerto Rican descent and whose father was from the Dominican Republic, discussed the controversy surrounding her casting in the film Nina in this month’s Ocean Drive magazine.

The casting choice has elicited considerable anger because while Zoe Saldana’s skin shade should not matter, prejudice on the basis of skin shade known as colourism or shadeism, means that it does. There is growing frustration with the tendency for light skin to be privileged over darker skin shades in Hollywood and the media, with the implication that light skin is more attractive and more palatable than darker skin shades. Given the obstacles Nina Simone faced because of the shade of her skin and what she then represented for other black women who faced similar oppression, the casting selection is emotive. Nina Simone’s daughter, Simone Kelly, told the International New York Times that in terms of appearance it was not the best choice because her mother was told that ‘her nose was too wide, her skin was too dark.’

Colourism continues to affect people of colour, and particularly women, all over the world, helping to perpetuate hierarchies based on skin shade. Its consequences can be seen in the UK, where skin lightening creams are routinely sold in many black and Asian hair and beauty shops. Coupled with the racism from which it stems, colourism has contributed to the growth of skin lightening into an industry expected to be worth $19.8 billion globally by 2018, according to Companies and Markets.

When I first spoke out against colourism I used to feel that mine was a minority voice, but now it is a hot topic of discussion among people of colour following the UK premiere of Dark Girls, a documentary on the subject, and the rise of a ‘Dark Is Beautiful’ campaign in India. Dark Girls, produced by D. Channsin Berry and Bill Duke, discusses the damaging effect of colourism on African Americans and people of colour more generally.

The reasons for the prevalence and continuation of colourism are complex. It has its roots in slavery and colonialism. During slavery slave masters would rape slaves who then had children with lighter skin who were accorded a higher status than their counterparts with darker skin. Similarly, during colonial rule people of colour were taught that colonisers were superior and many aspired to the higher status associated with lighter skin. This historical legacy has been exacerbated by institutional racism, the ways in which institutional processes discriminate against and disadvantage people of colour, and the privileging of white and light skin over dark skin in the global beauty market.

Colourism does not just affect people with dark skin, however. People with light skin can be accused of not being dark enough or of acting superior to those with darker skin shades. Its effects are divisive, pitting people of different shades against one another. It distracts from much-needed efforts to tackle the very real enduring problem of racism, which is never far from the headlines. Colourism is insidious and damaging. It needs to be addressed and now is the time to do it.

Aisha Phoenix has started a campaign with Dr Jude Smith Rachele, co-founder and CEO of Abundant Sun, the cultural transformation agency that screened the Dark Girls documentary in the UK. Please visit and follow @EndColourism on Twitter for more information

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