Colorism, or shadeism, is a form of discrimination or prejudice typically coming from members of the same race. Colorism means a preference for lighter skin in people of color due to the social implications and cultural meanings tied to skin color. In 50 Shades of Melanin, the speaker states that even though all of her female relatives are Black, the darkness of their skin varies. Those who were born with darker skin were subject to criticism and humiliation. An example that the speaker provides in the video is her dark-skinned mother who was bullied at school and called a “Black beast (“50 Shades of Melanin”).”
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Colorism perpetuates constant tension between one race, which helps the White supremacy system is trying to hold Black people down. Instead of lifting each other up, Black people subject each other to unnecessary and cruel judgment, which tears apart Black communities. Multiple speakers throughout the video point out that beauty standards create unhealthy competition. Light-skinned women may grow quiet and ego and think that they are better than others. In some way, their assumptions are not ungrounded: because they are seen as more attractive by society, they often have more opportunities to advance in life.
Colorism is especially tough on Black women since their femininity is already questioned by society promoting White beauty standards. While light-skinned Black women may fit the “mold,” dark-skinned Black women are often left out. They struggle to feel attractive and worthy due to something that they cannot even control. Media is no help: it is a well-observed phenomenon that light-skinned Black women are better represented in music and cinematography (examples: Rhianna, Beyonce). While being light-skinned was not one single factor behind their success, it is difficult to negate its contribution.
The tradition of shadeism and colorism dates all the way back to the days of slavery. Historically, colorism was not confined strictly to communities of color. Europeans have long appraised fair skin and flaxen hair, and some race-specific traits such as blonde hair and blue eyes. When the conquest of North and South Americas started, the conquistadors often judged the indigenous people by their skin color.
Later, with the start of the Transatlantic slave trade, Europeans once again would make a clear discernment regarding the people that they enslaved. It is a well-known fact that slave owners would make dark-skinned slaves work in the field while light-skinned slaves could stay in the house. It is abundantly easy to see how housework was much easier than fieldwork, and staying in the house was a privilege. With time, Black people internalized those messages and started applying them to their own kind.
As of now, colorism has shaped the dating scene and made navigating it trickier for Black women. Light-skinned women or redbone are seen as more desirable by men, and they do not hold back declaring their preferences. For many, dating a light-skinned woman is a status symbol and an accomplishment. Because of the demand that Black communities have artificially created for light-skinned women, starting a relationship with one might actually be hard to achieve.
Partly, these views are imposed by popular culture and music artists who often reference their love for light-skinned women. As a result, Black men pride themselves on their ability to date those who meet beauty standards and do not hesitate to reject those who do not fit. It is easy to see how dark-skinned Black women may struggle to find a match. Even if they enter a relationship, they may still be second-guessing themselves and think that they might not have been the top choice but an approachable option.
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Shadeism does not only include beauty standards regarding skin color. Black women are also discriminated against when they have so-called 4C hair. This type of hair is characterized by extreme shrinkage and zig-zag growth patterns. Sadly, 4C hair is often seen as “nappy,” “kinly,” and unprofessional. From very childhood, Black women are indoctrinated with the idea that their hair is not good enough as is. They rarely see other Black women who are self-confident enough to go natural and reject chemical styling and weaves. These procedures are still in place because they can mimic the structure and the texture of White hair – again, another desirable trait. Admittedly, those Black women who naturally have more “relaxed” hair that lies down are at the top of the attraction hierarchy.
Colorism is now often tied to the notion of cultural appropriation – a societal phenomenon in which a dominating group borrows cultural elements and characteristics of a subjugated group. As Black fashion and music have become mainstream, White people often want to relate and feel part of it without experiencing the burden of actually being a person of color. Cultural appropriation manifests itself in White people trying to copy the looks of their preferred Black celebrities who are more often than not light-skinned. It is not uncommon for social media personalities to demonstrate tan skin and styled hair that give them an ambiguous, mixed look.
“50 Shades of Melanin.” YouTube, uploaded by LAMBB. 2017. Web.