Photo: Premila D'Sa

In the eyes of the beholder: Shades of colourism

In Communities /

By Kamille Coppin

At nine years old, first-year business technology management student, Hiranniya Yogaratnarajah was always told she was lucky. Not because she had loving and devoted parents or the carefree privileges of being a child—she was considered lucky because she had lighter skin.

Growing up in Sri Lanka, she can remember her family members telling her mother “Keep her inside more often,” out of fear that she would become darker.

“Although our world is rallying towards a more accepting perspective, my culture still holds great value in lighter skin,” said Yogaratnarajah.

Knowing how deep racism runs in racialized communities is important when talking about colourism. Shadeism or colourism is discrimination based on the idea that people of colour who have lighter skin or Eurocentric features should get preferential treatment.

Shadeism through the eyes of Ryerson students. PHOTO: PREMILA D’SA

Shadeism through the eyes of Ryerson students. PHOTO: PREMILA D’SA

While this problematic perspective is buried in the history of western colonial rule, shadeism has passed through generations and still affects the lives of racialized students at Ryerson. This includes being confronted with the notion that European features are more desirable.

“Modern colourism is the more subtle version of traditional colourism. We have transitioned from making it seemingly obvious that we aren’t accepting of a skin colour, to making [colourism] seemingly unintentional,” said Yogaratnarajah.

Ashley Singh, a fourth-year radio and television arts student, was raised in Canada and became exposed to colour biases as a child in her Guyanese household. Because her mother is of a darker complexion than her father, she would hear her family members question her father about marrying a “dark-skinned person.”

“At that age, you are not asking yet ‘Am I beautiful?’ You learn that from your culture and the people around you,” said Singh.

While ideas of beauty differ across cultures, the beauty industry has made it their mission to define a standard for decades. From damaging hair-straightening products to dangerous skin-lightening soaps, the influences of colourism have found their way into the pockets of capitalism and into the living rooms of communities of colour.

Yogaratnarajah said she was constantly exposed to these ideas in Sri Lankan media.

“I cannot stress how much a Fair and Lovely ad on TV, or a magazine article talking about achieving the ideal colour of a certain actress or model, impacted me,” she said.

Yogaratnarajah said she saw many parents buy fairness creams for their children. Some women even ate certain foods during their pregnancy with the assumption that it would cause their child to be born with lighter skin.

A report by Global Industry Analysis in 2009 stated that the skin lightening industry alone is approximately worth $10 billion and is expected to more than double to $23 billion by 2020.

Photo: Premila D’Sa

Skin care companies like Dove and Nivea are well known for supporting positive body image in western societies while selling skin lightening soaps and creams in countries in South and East Asia. Ideals of western beauty have become an unachievable goal that drives the skin bleaching market. Dove has also recently come under fire for ads that were perceived to show that fair skin is more beautiful.

Christina Smith, a third-year professional communication student, said in Jamaica, biases towards skin colour can affect someone’s quality of life so severely that they bleach their skin as a means to survive. Having lived in Jamaica for years, she said skin bleaching is often a way to create opportunities. 

“Everyone is like crabs in a bucket, everyone wants that one thing to create leverage,” she said. “Even if it means thinking ‘at least I am not a dark-skinned Jamaican.’”

While there is little statistical information to back up the realities of colourism, the shared experiences of racialized people have been documented through their personal experiences.

Kelisha May, a coordinator for the Centre for Women and Trans People, a Ryerson Students’ Union equity centre, said she witnessed years of shadeist comments alter her nephew’s self-worth and perception.

“My nephew is a lot darker skinned, he’s now 19 and last year he wanted to buy lemons to bleach his skin,” she said. “I think a lot of the time we forget that our brothers hear what our mothers, fathers and grandparents are saying. Our brothers hear that too and have their own self-esteem problems with shadeism.”

It is possible to unlearn colour bias. In order to promote change, affected communities need to have conversations about the realities of colourism.

Singh said she believes what is missing is safe spaces where people of colour can face their biases without judgement.

She said,“We need to create spaces run off of love so we can reject fear… I think deconstructing colonialism means rejecting the fear that was ingrained in us as oppressed people.”

The Racialized Students’ Collective will be holding a workshop called “The Politics of Shadeist and Colourist” on Nov. 28.

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