As Love Your Body Week continued, students gathered with the FACES council for "Skin-Deep: Uncovering Experiences of Colorism," a discussion of how racism and colorism affect beauty standards and women’s sense of identity. Student panelists shared their lived experiences and insights into how perceptions of race shape them and their peers.
The event began with definitions of terms and a brief background, so that everyone in attendance would have a foundational knowledge of the issues at hand. Colorism is comprised of “prejudiced attitudes or prejudiced treatment on the relative lightness or darkness of people’s skin." It is generally directed towards members of the same racial or ethnic group, and is different from racism in that racism is more about power than skin color itself, as the event's presenters saw it.
The phenomenon grew out of slavery and colonial history; lighter-skinned slaves usually had some white ancestry and were more closely tied to privilege than those with darker skin. Today, the whitening of celebrities in the media and the skin-whitening industries in Asia, Africa and Latin America perpetuate the idea that white is synonymous with beauty.
The panelists first discussed how experiences and cultural norms affected the way they viewed skin. Titi Odedele, MCAS ’18, talked about being rejected by a boy as a child due to her skin color.
“He was like, ‘you can’t be cute, you’re too dark,’ and that pretty much stuck with me,” said Odedele. In middle school she was made fun of for her skin color and would subconsciously dress and style herself to “offset” her blackness. “I realized that I let Eurocentrism influence my actions,” she said.
Gianina Chua, MCAS ’18 shared a similar story about being unhappy with her darker skin color. Born and raised in the Philippines, she received plenty of messages growing up that white skin was the ideal.
“I internalized a lot of things and unconsciously made the effort to look western,” Chua said.
Offering an alternative viewpoint, Amirah Orozco, MCAS ’19, discussed her experiences growing up in Mexico and having light skin while identifying as Latina. Colorism was prominent within her community and she struggled to belong.
“I never did identify as a part of my race because of the color of my skin,” Orozco said. On the other hand, her brother had darker skin and was seen by some to have gotten the bad genes. The fact that he would experience the world in an entirely different way just by virtue of his skin color exemplified colorism for her.
Another junior presenter concurred that colorism affects those with light skin too, and talked about being viewed as less black because of her lighter skin color.
"Some black people would think, 'she doesn’t have a right to be here, she doesn’t know what it’s like,'" she said. She talked about the reality of internalized racism and how other black people sometimes judge her based on her skin tone. She recalled a girl once saying to her, “You look like somebody who in the slave days the real black people wouldn’t like."
In turn, the other panelists elaborated recent instances of colorism in their own lives. Chua touched on how her mother still perpetuated the white beauty ideal and would tell her things like, “Your cousins are so light. They are so beautiful." Similarly, Odedele recognized that her friends have said some problematic things without realizing that they were doing anything wrong. Orozco was sometimes labelled a “fake minority” and a “fake Mexican” because she has light skin.
The event ended with a discussion on moving forward in the face of colorism. One suggestion was to stop feeling a need to compare yourself with other people and to find validation within yourself rather than through the approval of others.
“You have to train yourself out of that mindset because it is ingrained in us from such a young age,” said Odedele. “Whenever I see a young black girl, I try to make sure that she’s hearing from me, at least, that she is beautiful and that her skin is beautiful."
Another approach is to be aware of self-internalized colorism and to correct skewed thoughts and views as they arise. Chua discussed how she could actively refuse her mom’s glorification of whiteness and talk about colorism in the Asian community.
Orozco offered language as a solution. Language has great power in shaping people’s perspectives, and changing the language people and the media use to talk about skin could be a step forward. She also recognized that her white skin grants her access to privilege and power, and resolved to use that power to vindicate and help others.
“Non-marginalized people aren’t taking themselves down and marginalized people shouldn’t either,” Orozco said.
At the very end, Odedele addressed the perception that the black movement is hateful and discriminatory. She asserted that the celebration of dark skin is a reaction against colorism and a move for equality.
“Society has taught us to believe that white is the only definition of beautiful," Odedele said. “Saying that black skin is beautiful doesn’t mean white skin is ugly.”