Twitter Exposé Drama: Colourism and Colonialism

On Monday morning, I woke up to various well-known black people here in the UK being ‘exposed’ on Twitter for past tweets and calls for them to be cancelled, lose deals and endorsements and for them to make apologies for these statements. Many of the tweets were from around 2010-2015 and were often jokes/statements based on themes of colourism, misogynoir, sexual violence and racism. There was a lot to unpack in terms of both the tweets themselves, the responses of those being exposed and the reactions to the whole drama.

I pretty much watched the whole thing being played out on twitter throughout the day. I have a lot of opinions on a lot of what happened that day but didn’t really feel like getting involved in much of the discussions happening on the platform. However, I do still want to share my opinions so I’m going to do a mini-blog series touching on some of what has emerged from that fateful day. The first is on sharing my research into colourism.

Back when I was doing my undergrad degree, I took a module called Cultures of Colonialism. We were assigned previously colonised regions with complicated relationships to colonialism to research and come up with our own research topics. I was assigned The Caribbean and this blogpost is adapted from my research (2017) into colourism and its birth due to the legacy of colonialism.

Lyrics such as “Yuh light-skin girlfriend like mi, even though mi black like King Kong” (Stylo G) can be heard in songs of genres such as dancehall, genres that come from communities with colonised past. These lyrics often refer to how skin tone is viewed in popular culture, the media and amongst ethnic communities across the world. These songs highlight an issue known as colourism which Alice Walker defines as “the prejudicial treatment of same-race people based solely on their colour.” Colourism can be found in countries in the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, Latin America, the United States and in diasporic communities worldwide. The widespread presence of colourism is a direct result of pigmentocracy, a term used to describe hierarchical systems associated with skin tone. These pigmentocracies were deeply instilled in the minds of people with a colonial past and it has been a struggle to escape since then. The Caribbean has a unique colonial history. Indigenous peoples existed many years before European contact but did not survive much longer as they struggled to adapt to enslavement and new diseases. European countries led voyages to the area and subsequently, the Transatlantic Slave Trade began, enabling the exploitive extraction of resources. This meant that a large proportion of people in the Caribbean were descendants of enslaved Africans. European control continued after the abolishment of slavery until countries began gaining independence in the 20th century. To investigate why colourism today has a place in Caribbean society, we must investigate the history of race in the Caribbean and its ties to colonial projects there. Due to a lack of research into other countries, much of research into The Caribbean and colourism focuses on Jamaica.

To understand colourism in the Caribbean, we must investigate how race was perceived during colonial rule. During this period, Europeans used the systematic dehumanisation of Africans to deem them as possessions allowing for their enslavement. Europeans needed to exploit those that were understood as different, in terms of Western understanding, to complete the labour-intensive tasks that they could not or did not want to do. It was evident that agriculture was the key to wealth in The Caribbean and Europeans needed to find a low-cost way of accessing that wealth. Leonardo explained that during this time “the white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist subject represent[ed] the standard for human, or the figure of a whole person, and everyone else [was] a fragment”. This thinking allowed colonial spaces, including the Caribbean, to be organised using a racial hierarchy that placed the white colonial rulers as the ideal civilised citizen, which in their eyes, the colonised could never be. In the British ruled countries, the British used the idea that whiteness is superior to justify the enslavement of people of colour. It was believed that black people were “innately inferior” which made them better suited for physical labour (Gabriel). This became incorporated into both social norms and legislature meaning that those of European descent were born into privilege and higher social and economic status. In Jamaica, skin colour dictated your social mobility as being black “represented enforced labour and denial of human rights” and exposure to the sun whilst being white represented “extraordinary wealth and carefree leisure” and limited exposure to the sun (Gabriel). The idea that those with wealth were not exposed to the sun created the belief that skin colour was an indicator of status, marking lighter skin as higher status. This created an environment in which the colour of one’s skin held great importance and dictated what you could do and what you had access to. Laws were put in place to keep these racial hierarchies intact which led to these understandings of race to become embedded in societies.

Colonial projects further blurred the boundaries and social understandings of race. The slave trade saw the creation of a division of slaved based on their complexion.  A new racial group emerged as the result of miscegenation, the sexual relations between two people of different racial backgrounds (Gabriel). This group were known as mulattos and were identified by their lighter skin. They were often given more domestic work as opposed to the field work that darker skinned slaves were subjected to. It was believed that these lighter skinned slaves were “the flower of the slave population” who shouldn’t do field work. This meant they had access to other forms of work, for example the ability to be trained as tradesmen. Those classified as mulattos were sometimes allowed to be educated or even freed. In Jamaica, those who had a white parent could be regarded as English and “‘lightness, valued as a promise of higher status, became valued for itself, and status became equated with lightness”. This saw the beginning of a pigmentocracy as status began to be associated with skin tone. As settlers began to move back to Britain they left behind gaps in social hierarchy and with lighter skin being increasingly associated with higher status, these people filled the gaps that were left behind.

To understand how racial understandings became ingrained in Caribbean societies, we must understand how these understandings were incorporated into the infrastructure of these countries. The slave trade and other colonial projects were characterised by the process of ‘othering’ and other divisive methods which made differences glaringly obvious and caused people to believe that these external differences had intrinsic value. The demonization of Africa found its way into the education system of the Caribbean over the 500 years of slavery and colonialization which has left behind a legacy of colourism and an unwillingness for some to identify as or attach themselves to their African ancestry. A scientific approach was taken to the study of man resulting in the use of science to explain the existence of race and the differences between them. Europeans found that differences in physical attributes could divide populations and justify linking ethnic groups to social standings, in this case restricting black people to slavery. Physical attributes, including head shapes, were used to justify behaviour which was then applied to the entire race using pseudo-scientific racism. Racial science also saw the creation of race as we know it today. Europeans had assigned negative connotations, both aesthetics and moral, to the word black as early as the third century. However, at this point it was not connected to skin. The term ‘white’ dates back to the 17th century when Europeans were viewed as one, leading to laws against marriage between Europeans and non-Europeans.

Physical features were now also indicators of this hierarchical social system. Colonialism caused the spread of ideas about this hierarchical racial system across colonial networks. These systems caused racial divisions resulting in pseudo-scientific justifications of them. The use of scientific research became reasoning for “the cultural and religious assimilation of peoples deemed backward” and “their subjection to labour in the interests of British emigrants, or their outright extermination” (Lester). This scientific approach attempted to associate behavioural patterns with race meaning that colonisers believed that black people were savages, barbarians and inherently evil that needed enforced labour to aid civilisation. Pseudo-scientific racism was used to erase the existence of indigenous communities, take over land and kill them. Laws were passed to hinder the social mobility of slaves preventing access to schooling which created a new description of savage. This lack of education became associated with non-white races allowing for them to be labelled unintelligent. This gave rise to the concept of ‘us’ and ‘them’, with negative connotations placed on the ‘others’. The idea that science is fact allowed this racial ideology to become ingrained in society. Despite the abolition of slavery, black people were still inferior due to pseudo-scientific racism understandings continuing which caused stereotypes of them being lazy and loud for example.

The legacies of these colonial ideas of race are still evident today, with some more obvious than others. Alice Walker was the first to use the term colourism, which like other terms including shadism and skin tone bias, is used to describe discrimination based on a person’s skin tone. Although a new term, we cannot ignore the origins of colourism which are rooted in racism particularly that of slavery and colonialization. Racism gave life to colourism. Hunter argues that “white racism is the fundamental building block of colourism”. Colourism can be found in all African diasporas as a by-product of “the imposition of western ideology and white supremacy” during the colonial period (Gabriel). In Jamaica, the same social hierarchy that shaped life as a slave or settler remained even after the emancipation of slaves. Those who were descendants of white people were protected in colonial charters which gave them status and some privileges that darker skinned people did not get. Some inherited property from ancestors. It was easier for them to get jobs after emancipation especially those that were well paid. Illiteracy rates for race groups in Jamaica highlighted the benefits that people of mixed race received, although quite small. 98.6% of black children 7 years and above were illiterate whereas 88.9% of mulatto children, 87.5% of Chinese children and 38.8% of white children were considered illiterate (Gabriel). To speak of people of mixed race as having privilege during this period would erase the oppression they faced, however it must be noted that in some cases they received preferential treatment. Even though division between these two groups had been encouraged, those who were classified as mulatto were not given full citizenship rights after the 1807 Abolition Act and were denied the same rights as darker skinned people.

Class distinction based on skin colour has been hard to erase despite black Jamaicans coming together to fight for their full emancipation in 1838. After Jamaican independence in 1962, power was transferred from the white colonial powers to the black elites. However, economic power was controlled by white settlers and a large percentage of ‘mulattos’ (Gabriel). Marcus Garvey, an advocate for black nationalism in Jamaica, found that “The whites claim superiority, as is done all over the world, and, unlike other parts, the coloured, who ancestrally are the illegitimate off-springs of black and white, claim a positive superiority over the blacks. They train themselves to believe that in the slightest shade the coloured man is above the black man and so it runs right up to white…”. Traces of white supremacy could be found in the Caribbean post-colonialism and resulted in those with lighter skin to understand themselves as superior. Garvey believed that black people in Jamaica were left with a damaged psychology due to slavery and colonialization which left them with a distorted view of themselves. Gabriel notes that “contemporary scholars have observed, like Garvey, that one of the most damaging legacies of slavery was its impact on the psyche of Jamaican people”. Colourism, and the view that lighter skin is superior, is a direct result of colonialism as during colonialism white people regarded lighter skin as superior. This was the way life was operated making it seem, in the minds of Jamaicans that it was natural and not taught, causing a long-lasting legacy of colonialism.

A related point to consider is how gender was affected by race during colonialism and vice versa. This, in turn, shapes how colourism is experienced today. Jones notes that “both whiteness and blackness were stratified along gendered lines in the colonial-era Caribbean. Many of the norms this engendered persist today.” Gender played a major role in the oppression of black people and white superiority. White masculinity symbolised civilisation and culture with white womanhood representing dignity, morality and beauty. By contrast, black womanhood represented ugliness, sexual immorality and indecency, which served as a metaphor for Africa (Jones). New-born children adopted the legal status of their mother, and as it was less likely for female slaves to be freed, it allowed African women to represent oppression and lack of freedom whereas as “white wombs served as the incubators of freedom” (Jones). Black bodies were sexualised and exoticized. This is evident today in the continued fetishization of black bodies in societies and the exoticisation of the Caribbean in tourism. Additionally, gender dictates experiences of discrimination and its effects. Males tend to perceive higher levels of discrimination. A study by Assari and Caldwell investigating the gender differences in the perceived discrimination amongst Black Caribbean youth finds that “skin tone and perceived discrimination were positively correlated in male but not female Caribbean Black youth.” The study shows that darker skin for males is linked to higher perceived discrimination. This may be a result of “racial profiling and threat-based discrimination of black males”. It is argued that this is due to media portrayal of black men who are often depicted as unintelligent and aggressive, for example. This discrimination is exacerbated when a male has darker skin. It is not restricted to interaction with others and includes systematic discrimination such as police brutality and higher arrest rates. The study provides evidence that skin tone may be linked to an increased interaction with discrimination and class which is shaped and in turn shapes ideas of gender. Whiteness still being maintained as a cultural standard has led to the unwavering presence of colonial ideas of race, gender, sexuality and class (Jones). This reiterates the importance of the colonial period in production of social norms and understandings of gender and race.

The production of blackness during colonialism has meant that black skin, in particular darker skin, has continued to be associated with aspects such as unintelligence and lack of social mobility. This along with the demonization of Africans became ingrained in society allowing these views to be persistent today. Hutton believes that people suffer from Acquired Anti-Own Race Syndrome (AAORS) which is “the philosophy and psychology of assumed European world cultural superiority expressed by African peoples in their relations with each other and in perceiving and operating in the world”. It is identified by self-denial and self-negation which are also factors of colourism. Hutton notes that colourism is not restricted to skin colour. Jamaicans speak of a desire for their kids not only to have lighter skin but also to have a certain texture and length of hair. This highlights how the notion of race interlinks with femininity and beauty. The evidence for the effects of colonialism is said to be found in the high amounts of Jamaicans who are bleaching their skin to appear lighter. The idea that lighter is better can be found in so many aspects of Jamaican society. It can be found in the country’s beauty standards, in the media, in dancehall music and in day to day interactions (Charles). McFarlane notes that Jamaicans do not want to be white, however they view lighter skin as a way to gain social mobility and higher income. Darker skin has been known to determine where you could work. Only those with lighter skin could work front-of-house jobs until the 60s (McFarlane). Lighter skin represents the epitome of beauty and status which can be seen in the casting of music videos, TV and film. Gender often reinforces the effects of colourism, with men sometimes refusing to date women of darker complexions. Lyrics of songs such as ‘Yu Zimme’ show the value placed on lighter skin whist highlighting the negative views about darker skin. Despite gaining independence over 50 years ago, whiteness still represents status and capital. This is evident in the larger proportion of wealthy white and lighter skinned people.

Colourism is not restricted to Jamaica and the Caribbean. A Ferguson and Cramer study shows that black societies in North America share the same negative attitude towards darker skin as Jamaicans. They both see white and lighter skin as something of higher value in their cultures. It is also found across all colonial networks. There has been an increased discussion amongst communities on the effects of racial ideas and white superiority ideologies transmitted through colonial networks. India also has a major problem with colourism. Just as in the Caribbean, India also has high levels of bleaching with young girls recalling incidents where they have been pressured by family members to bleach to be more beautiful (BBC Three). The artist, Cardi B, was recently criticised for using the N-word in her music. She argued that there are many Latin-American woman, including herself, that are of African descent (VladTV). Afro-Latinos find that they struggle to find a place from themselves within the Latin community due to their darker skin and African descent. Some recall being told by parents that European features and lighter skin are the most beautiful. Aida Rodriguez notes the “poor” colonisation of Latin America as being the cause of people wanting to “identify with being white so much [to the point that] we look down on dark skin” (Pero Like). The association between economic and cultural capital and white or lighter skin is evident within diasporas in the UK. Matthew finds that black people feel as if they must adopt aspects of ‘being white’ to gain economic and social advancements. He finds that “whenever a black man enters the professions, he per force, thinks from a white and coloured mind”. This shows that colourism has its roots embedded in colonialism. The understanding of skin colour and its link to status still moves around the colonial networks of the past. It is passed down from generation to generation and has become normalised to the point where it is now an aspiration just as higher income is.

Colourism in the Caribbean is a direct result and product of colonialism. This is evident in the persistence of views and values implemented by colonial leaders during that period. During colonialization, Europeans made their cultural standards the benchmark for wealth, cultural capital and social mobility. This indoctrination caused long-lasting effects including distorting the way black people saw themselves and their place in society. Independence from colonisers caused a shift in pigmentocracies, making lighter skin and European features the new benchmark. This idea is reiterated in the media and opportunities for personal development. The gender norms of colonial spaces have ensured that certain members of society face higher levels of discrimination. Ideas that the law and science represent factual truths has meant that racial ideas were often unchallenged and seemed natural. This ‘naturalness’ has led to the existence of AAORS and damaged psyches and the refusal of education maintained this. Similar racialised language and views that shaped colonial projects are still present today highlighting the extent to which colourism is a product of this period. Lighter skin is still associated with higher wealth and status and the need to access this has meant a rejection to the opposite of this higher place in society. Pigmentocracies dictated that darker skin meant lower wealth and status continuing the degradation of darker skin. For West Indians, it is clear to see the problems with idolising the whiteness of the colonial era, yet it is harder to conceptualise how it continues to indirectly shape their daily lives allowing colourism to thrive.


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