Colorism exists in many cultures and has permeated society for thousands of years. In fact, in Egypt, there was evidence that many of the statues were defaced and changed to reflect individuals with sharper and more European features versus their African ones. Years of seeing one type of beauty revealed as better in our culture, social media, music videos and reality TV shows has deepened the color divide.
Colorism in Black culture goes back far to times of slavery. When slaves came to America, they were beaten so that they would lose their language, culture and any sense of self-identity. Often, lighter skinned slaves were placed to work in the homes and categorized as House Negroes. On the other hand, darker skinned slaves were forced to work in the fields or in positions that required lots of labor. The Willie Lynch letter addresses colorism and how it would create a divide in Black culture and continue to do so through each generation. As time progressed, post slavery, there was the paper bag test. If you were lighter or the same hue of a paper bag, you were deemed more attractive. Often those who were given opportunities in society had more of a European look or image that resonated more with Caucasians.
It was typical for movies in the 80’s to show light skinned sisters ostracized by darker skinned sisters and vice versa. Darker skinned women were displayed as angry, demanding, uneducated and loud. On the other hand, lighter skinned women were highlighted as being more attractive, educated, rational and easy going.
If you look at TV shows such as “Martin” or many of Spike Lee’s earlier movies as well as rap music videos this theme plays out repeatedly. Often the more attractive woman was depicted as someone who was lighter skinned with more European features. And sadly, this continues to happen today.
Kanye West has openly said he prefers mixed looking women for his music videos. When a casting call was put in place for the Straight Outta Compton movie, they classified more attractive women by color categories putting lighter skinned women in a ‘B’ category and darker skinned women in other or lesser classes.