Colourism probably natural, knowing this could help deal with it

Many people, particularly women, will recognise colourism. It is defined as prejudice and discrimination because of dark skin tone among your own community, even in your family.

Lupita Nyong’o, the award winning actress, has explained how her younger sister, whose skin was lighter, was called "beautiful" and "pretty".


This made he feel “not worthy”, she told BBC recently as she prepared to release her children’s book, Sulwe, about a girl with darker skin than her family.


She explained how she grew up feeling uncomfortable with her skin colour because she felt like the world around me awarded lighter skin.


Preference of women with light skin tone is a social fact. They are perceived as beautiful, with men preferring them for marriage.

There is also what psychologists describe as the “attractiveness halo” effect where beauty is conflated with other characteristics such as intelligence and moral worth, including the light skin swaying hiring decisions by employers.

Facing such bias, would one blame the girl who uses skin lightening cream to even the odds?

Perhaps none would blame her. But, isn’t black beautiful, as the US Black cultural movement of the 1960s used to proclaim?

While this was a political statement, the question lingers about the origin – when and why we began to think light skin tone is more beautiful.

The popular answer to the question points at colonialism, when the whites brainwashed and abused us into aping them, leading us to believe their skin colour was more beautiful.

Lupita summed it nicely, though popular opinion: Colourism, she told BBC, is the daughter of racism.

She was not quite correct in this suggestion, but her articulating it was important. Though colonialism/racism as originator of colourism has long been disproved, her star power on the global media platform served well to highlight the problem.

Colourism did not come with the white man, nor was it inspired by his racist posturing of superiority. History and social science has proven this. (See The Origins of Colourism in the online magazine, Quillette).

First, colourism has been a global phenomenon going back in history among ancient peoples who had had no contact with the Europeans and, therefore, could not have been colonised. Women in ancient Egyptian art, for example, were portrayed with lighter skin than the men. Likewise, Aztec women used cosmetics to attain a lighter skin, depicted in codices unearthed in Central America.

In the Far East, Japan Geisha’s whitened face is quite illustrative. She epitomised perfection and beauty in the country’s culture. In India, Thailand, Cambodia and Singapore had similar ideas and you’ll find light-skinned women on billboards extolling the creams. 

There are many examples all over the world, including among the Maasai, who an explorer in the early 20th Century wrote that some of the “requirements for being regarded as beautiful are an oval face, white teeth, black gums, a skin colour as light as possible.”

Among inhabitants of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana “the generally admired type is a light-skinned girl of somewhat heavy build, with prominent breasts and large, firm buttocks.”

Colourism was and is still pervasive leading some social scientists to suggest that lighter women may be a product of human evolution.

They find that that lighter-skinned women are not only preferred in almost every society, but the women also have lighter skin compared to men in most societies.

Women also tend to have the lightest tone of skin during early adulthood, during the most fertile period of her menstrual cycle, when a woman is most likely to conceive.

This has led the scientists to hypothesise “a linkage not only between pigmentation and sex, but between light pigmentation and fecundability (conceiving on time) in women.”

They then explain that the correlation between lighter skin complexion and fertility led to a genetically programmed learning bias in males, which usually manifests as a cultural preference for lighter skinned females.

They further suggest that, once this colourist discrimination took place, sexual selection caused the further lightning of female skin pigmentation, explaining the lighter pigmentation we now find in females as compared with males.

If this be so, colourism has an evolutionary basis making it part of who were. Knowing this could perhaps lessen the urge to bleach the face with the understanding that light skin could be a vestigial human relic, much like the male nipple that most of us don’t find use for.

And, as we emphasise it is the right of every woman to wear whichever skimp dress she chooses, so we should let the dark toned flaunt their colour as we also let those who choose light skin to wear it.

This right should be affirmed with creams that are clean not to cause health problems.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.

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