Our experiences as humans—positive, negative, or otherwise—are affected by the color of our skin. Prejudices can occur at any time, oftentimes occurring in homes, with friends, and even random strangers. While racism has been a huge topic and is widely talked about, many people haven’t even heard of colorism. It's a subject that often isn’t discussed or even correctly defined.
There are important distinctions between colorism and racism: Colorism is defined by the prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory acts against people based on the color of their skin, while racism is the prejudiced attitude and discrimination against people based on their actual, or sometimes perceived racial status.
There are people of different races that may have the same skin color, while there are people of the same race that may have different skin colors.
“Both of my parents are immigrants; my dad is from the Ivory Coast, and my mother is from Jamaica,” explains Brian Kouassi, MCAS '17. “Colorism is a huge problem in my parents' native countries; people will go to any length to lighten their skin. Skin-whitening and bleaching products hold such a large market in countries around the world.”
With cases of racism, two people of different races but identical skin colors are treated differently. For example, during the era of plantation slavery, lighter colored slaves would receive preferential treatment and get placed working in the mansions, the “preferred” position of slaves and the lesser of two evils.
Boston College sophomore Gianina Chua, MCAS '18, explains that she has grown up in a society of colorism. An immigrant from the Philippines, Chua grew up in a society that was greatly influenced by perceived Western beauty. The Philippines were colonized by Spain for over 300 years.
There can also be colorism among people of the same race, considered a form of internalized racism. Because people of color were forced for centuries to view the white Europeans as superior and forced to view their own race and culture as inferior, many people began believing this cultural lie and acted accordingly.
“When people see a darker Filipino, or anyone of a darker color, they always relate that back to the colonization,” explains Chua. She explained that Filipinos associate darker skin with people who worked in the farms. “They relate it to socio-economic status, and they relate to your status in society.”
Societies with widespread issues of colorism usually are associated with long histories of colonization and European influences. Within these societies, European features such as white skin, straight hair, and light colored eyes were seen as the standard of civilized living. These features were associated with intelligence, beauty, wealth, and power.
Status, a societal construct, forces people to judge others, especially those in their own race. Chua experienced this growing up, right in her own home. Chua explains that her nanny would make comments to her specifically about her skin tone. “My nanny one time told me, ‘You don’t want to stay out too long in the sun because you don’t want to look like me.’” Chua says, “Being a nanny or a maid in the Philippines is of a lower status. So she was telling me if I looked dark I would look of a lower status.”
Growing up, Chua was encouraged by family members to cosmetically keep her skin lighter. She recalls putting on lighter powder and foundation on her face when going out. Chua also recalls being encouraged to get a perm for her hair so it didn’t look so kinky.
Chua experienced overt colorism in middle school, while on Yahoo messenger: “Back in middle school when Yahoo messenger was popular, one of the girls from my school actually said, out of nowhere ... ‘You’re ugly because you’re brown.’ The follow up thing that she said was ‘Are you poor?’”
Kouassi explains race as “a social construct created to put other people into groups because of supposed shared biological and social traits.” He goes on to explain, “Many people assume that if you're black, you have to be darker, but so many people who identify as black range from many different skin colors.”
Here at BC, a community of students is working to bring colorism into the campus conversation. FACES is a BC organization that is committed to “educating the Boston College community on the issues of race and systems of power and privilege." The mission statement of FACES explains that, “Through discussions, social interactions, and academic forums, Faces stimulates dialogue and facilitates the elimination of racial polarization. These conversations and experiences will challenge individuals to address their own preconceived notions, and those within and beyond Boston College.”
Chua explains that she appreciates that FACES is attempting to combat colorism with open discussions and panels. For her, finding a community at BC has been the key to loving and accepting herself. “Seeing a lot more people like Asian-Americans, Filipino-Americans or Filipinos or Asians loving themselves and accepting who they are pushed me to love myself.”
This coming week, April 4-8th, FACES will host Embrace Week. This is their first ever week dedicated to racial awareness here at BC. Embrace Week will bring together the BC community to celebrate the strength in diversity. Embrace Week's events this year are dedicated to service, love, faith, and expression. While addressing issues of colorism, this week will not only bring awareness to pressing issues associated with it, but also celebrate the diversity present at BC.
Colorism runs rampant through not only America, but around the world, intersecting deep-rooted historical events with status and perceived beauty. Colorism and profane comments can become ingrained in a culture, and people begin to internalize these stereotypes. One way to combat this injustice is to be educated and informed so that our future generations will not have to deal with the pains that have been experienced for many centuries.