"I'm Not Racist" - But Are You A Colourist?

Updated: Mar 12

By Irisa R. and Lamisa H.


When we first started talking about colourism, emotions that we had buried, started resurfacing. We had spent our lives fighting against colour bias, but we realised that it's hard to unlearn what we've spent our whole lives internalising. Especially when, a billion dollar industry is betting on us all to believe that dark skin is undesirable.

Irisa; Did you ever want to be forsha?


Lamisa: Yeah, all the time. Being a darker Bengali amongst our community, I always struggled and felt like the runt. In my predominantly white public school, I would make jokes about how the flies were attracted to me because I looked like a tree. Or how when I returned from a day in the beach I was basically a 'charcoal chicken.’ My friends would laugh, and I would laugh with them. It’s so strange, I wish I could have told my younger self otherwise.


Irisa; Oh god, your friends laughing with you just broke my heart a bit.

Alice Walker first coined the term colourism in her groundbreaking novel In Search Of Our Mother’s Garden. She defined it as discriminating on the basis of skin colour within your own ethnic group, where it manifests in 'prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their colour.'


The problem right now, is that not enough people view this as an issue. It means that Lupita Nyong’o gets rave reviews (and an Oscar!) but her skin is still whitened in magazines. It’s the fact that famous Bollywood actress Kajol felt she needed to whiten her skin to be successful. Or where K- Pop idol Kwon Yuri has her skin constantly lightened in magazines and fan edits.


Image that shows how Lupita Nyong'o was lightened for her Vanity Fair Cover
How Kajol slowly lightened her skin along her thirty year career

Do You Like The Colour Of Our Skin?


Lupita Nyong’o defined colourism as the "daughter of racism" and this encapsulates how interconnected these two structures are. A person’s skin colour is an irrefutable visual fact, and something that just exists whereas race is simply a quasi-scientific construction used to classify and degrade a certain race of people. Whether we like it or not, our skin colour is a loaded signifier of identity. We derive value from it and it affects us both in private and public interactions.

Irisa; Yeah, I remember at the end of year 12, I came back from a holiday where I had allowed myself to tan to my natural colour. I felt really confident with how my skin looked but when I came back to Sydney one of the first things I was told was, 'you have become too Kalo (black)’ and that ‘it doesn't look nice.’ At the time, it really rattled my confidence.

So many of us dismiss colour bias as an unfortunate but acceptable part of our lives. We look at it almost like a personal problem, but that does not minimise its social, economic and political impact.


Vedantam’s novel, The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, discussed how even the most liberal-minded progressives agree that the colour of your skin determines who gets ahead and who stays behind. It can solely determine where you will work (or whether you will even be hired), who you will marry and whether you have the opportunity to make a number of these choices for yourself.

It’s not a coincidence that the most successful people are light-skinned counterparts of the black and brown community.

Amani Al Khatahtbeh, an Arab American activist and the founder of Muslim Girl spoke poignantly on the issue of colour bias, 'privilege has been on my mind a lot this year: If I was a Muslim woman with darker skin...then I doubt I’d be getting as much airtime as I am right now. Maybe not nearly as many people would care about hearing what I have to say.'


Did Colourism Appear Out Of Thin Air?


To try to identify the exact trajectory of colourism is like trying to trace the origins of racism, it can feel pointless. However, we need to understand how this issue precedes us in order to tackle it. For every country where the colourism mindset runs rampant they have a shared history. Beyond the Pale proved that countries colonised by Europeans, ‘cemented and generalised the privilege attached to light skin.' Essentially, there may have been colour bias pre - colonisation but Europeans embedded colourism into the structures of the societies and the laws in the countries they colonised and they colonised 80% of the world.


There are other factors that set up these countries ripe and ready for this colourist mindset. When the British colonised India they institutionalised the caste system, what once was an issue that was isolated from community to community and varied in impact and practice was mechanised and used as a tool to oppress. They used this tactic, or something similar in the other hundred countries they colonised stretching from Sri Lanka and Egypt to Jamaica and Kenya.


Similarly, America’s involvement in the Vietnam and the Korean war capitalised on pre - existing colour bias by marketing Western skin and features as 'ideal'. The first clinics for double eyelid surgery opened during the war along with the initial sales of skin whitening products. The film Parasite reflects how the modern day struggle of class aspirationalism is experienced in the bodies of darker skinned Koreans. An implicit but powerful statement about how co-dependent class and colour continues to be.


It’s In Our Culture


A preference for a light shade is so deeply embedded in the fabric of so many cultures and devastatingly most of our lessons on colour bias begin in the home. The article Globalisation and Whitefacing in Asia explores how the skin whitening industry repackaged wealth, success and opportunity and sold it as whiteness. Most American, Australian and European cosmetic brands jumped on this bandwagon and continue to market their products in South Asia and East Asia as lightening products or more overtly as whitening products. Convincing us that whiteness can now be attained by anyone and everyone which will allow us to stand apart or more simply above the ‘darker ethnic mass’ (if you can’t beat them join them).

Lamisa: Umm yea I was so so young, maybe seven, when I was first introduced to ‘Fair and Lovely.' I remember thinking, ‘woah, there’s actually something out there that could fix me.' I don’t know why my mum didn’t question it. I asked my Aunty to buy it for me as a gift and I would rub it into my baby face. A few years later we returned to Bangladesh for a wedding and at the beauty parlour the lady powdered my skin until it looked shaada. But when I looked in the mirror, I was so horrified that I started crying. It just didn’t look like me.

A common example of 'Fair and Lovely' advertisements

Money, Money (Must Be Funny In A White Man's World)


We need to push for a ban on all these products but how can that be possible when it generates between 10 to 20 billion dollars a year? The banning of advertisements won’t stop the sales of skin-whitening creams, because the demand is still there, where the World Health Organisation found that 60% of Indian women use lightening creams and 77% of Nigerian women use whitening creams. The world still associates light skin with beauty.


The majority of the Bollywood industry fails to speak out against colourism. Fair and Handsome, founded in 2005, is supported by the biggest movie star in the world, Sharukh Khan. Imagine if this same man starring in these advertisements walked away from a skin-lightening cream instead of recommending it? Seema Hari explains, an action like that would in itself change so many minds and we agree.


Now this issue is borderless. An Instagram account of ‘Whitenicious’, one of the most problematic accounts out there promote thinly-veiled colourism, with the founder explaining, “it’s a personal choice to want to change your skin colour." This account boasts 105k followers and is followed by countless celebrities. But this ridiculous standard of beauty excludes the majority of the world’s population, only benefitting the companies that feed off these insecurities.


Our Good Mates Bollywood and Hollywood

Lamisa; When did you first realise that you wanted to pursue this idea of lightness?


Irisa; Mmm it’s difficult because I’m sure watching both Bollywood and Hollywood films from as young as I can remember already taught me that women with lighter skin are more successful, find love more easily and are just in general happier. But when I was about fourteen, I would lather on layer upon layer of sunscreen and refuse to play sports outside on days that I declared were ‘too sunny’ because I never, ever wanted my skin to tan to its natural colour. I wanted to look like the people I saw on screen and they always happened to have lighter skin.

Bollywood film director Ghaywan explained how the fact that colourism isn’t even addressed is exactly the problem with the current entertainment industry. With Hollywood it’s almost common knowledge, where Zendaya, a lighter skin actress, expressed, “I’m Hollywood's acceptable version of a black girl", and when Oprah asked Lupita Nyong’o whether colourism still existed in Hollywood she just responded with a I-can’t-believe-you-would-even-have-to-ask-that, ‘hah!’.


Bhumi Pednekar using 'brownface' in her lead role in Bala

While Bollywood is not the root cause for the preference of fair skin, its continued patronage has contributed to the growth of the fairness cream industry in India. It’s almost more insidious because as sociologist Sanjay Srivastava explains colourism isn’t even seen as a problem, ‘brownface’ and ‘blackface’ is used as a common trope for entertainment purposes. It steadily reinforces the association between dark skin and undesirability.


Resistance Against This Colourist Mindset


There has been a stream of resistance against colourism in recent years. Famous Bollywood Actress Nandita Das launched a Dark is Beautiful Campaign and the University of Texas launched an #UnfairandLovely. These two movements seek to redefine what is considered beautiful. This week Nina Davuluri, an Indian American who won Miss America, is releasing a new series on colourism called COMPLEXion that will highlight the effect and extent of colourism around the world. Cosmetic companies like LiveTinted and Fenty were founded on the basis that they would accomodate for every shade, changing the cosmetics game permanently and forcing other brands to catch up.


Fenty campaign (2017)

But we also need laws to protect us. The Therapeutic Goods Act in Australia protects consumers from seeing, or purchasing, products that overtly market themselves as ‘skin whiteners.’ Recently, Bangladesh banned eight whitening creams that have a percentage of mercury that is 600 times the permissible limit. Following suit, India introduced a Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisement) Bill which seeks to prohibit marketing any skin whitening products. It is definitely a step forward, but progress is slow.


Unless our culture evolves these laws are just aspirational.

Lamisa; Just two days ago, a shop owner told my aunty, “Your daughter is so beautiful, she doesn’t even look Bengali”. I wish I could have told her that she was discriminating against her own ethnicity and that this was colourism disguised as a compliment.


Irisa: Yes this is so true! It’s just frustrating. Once I asked my mum how it felt to be considered forsha in a community that adored it. She laughed and then said, "well I grew up in Sydney in the 70s and because of the way I looked people used to call me ‘Blackie’ and everything else you could imagine so when people would compliment my skin, I would just have to go to school the next day to be insulted for my skin. It's a vicious cycle so don't ever let it get to you."

The Political Is The Personal


Personal growth can't be conflated with political action but it's a damn good starting point.

Irisa; When did you start resisting this mindset?


Lamisa: I started resisting it when the people around me told me to love my skin and my features. Now, I wear sunscreen to protect it and not as a way to stop getting darker. Yet, the colourism still manifests in different ways. I try not to choose filters that make my skin lighter but I wouldn’t necessarily choose a filter that makes me look darker. I still sometimes fall into equating light skin with beauty when I see it in other people. It is a frustrating experience.

We need to first decolonise our minds. Address it in our own communities, connect with other advocates, and ensure the generations younger than us don't aspire to this idea of lightness. Last of all, colourism needs to be handled in the same way as any other structural issue. It isn’t about self-actualisation or loving your skin. It is about pushing for laws that prohibit marketing and selling skin lightening products. It’s about holding these cosmetic companies accountable when they use colourist marketing tactics.


It’s also about being this type of friend in every story.


Lamisa; My primary school friend Amani had these beautiful sea green eyes, I used to describe them as dazzling eyes, and I remember once turning to her saying, ‘omg I wish I had your eyes,’ and she turned to me and said ‘why would you want my eyes? Your eyes are so beautiful, they look like the night sky’, and after that I never thought about the colour of my eyes in the same way.

Some interesting background reading;


Aisha Phoenix 2014, ‘Colourism and the politics of beauty’, Feminist Review, vol. 108, no. 1, pp. 97–105.

Das, P 2020, 'Ban On Fairness Cream Ads | Effect On Market, Advertising And Society,' [online]. Available at: <https://insideiim.com/ban-on-fairness-cream-ads-effect-on-market-advertising-and-society> [Accessed 11 May 2020].

Davids, LM, van Wyk, J et al 2016, ‘The phenomenon of skin lightening: Is it right to be light?’, South African Journal Of Science, vol. 112, no. 11-12, pp. 1–5.

Paul, A 2016, ‘'Beyoung the Pale? Skinderella Stories and Colourism in India’, vol. 14, pp. 133–145,150.

Sarkar, M., 2020, 'Why Does Bollywood Use The Offensive Practice Of Brownface In Movies?. [online] CNN. Available at: <https://edition.cnn.com/style/article/india-bollywood-brownface-hnk-intl/index.html> [Accessed 11 May 2020].


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