Features | Unbearable darkness

The hidden politics of shadeism

Shadeism, also known as colourism, is not a term that many may be familiar with. In fact, a lot of people may not even be aware that it exists. However, shadeism is an experience that most people of colour are very well-acquainted with, and have either felt it or witnessed it. It is a type of discrimination based on the lightness of skin tone, and it occurs within communities of colour as well as intraracially. Shadeism is the result of self-hatred and internalized racism that attributes beauty to the tone of one’s skin. Although many have felt the impact of shadeism, there is little awareness of why it exists in the first place. Shadeism continues to flourish because it is a direct consequence of societies being pressured to conform to Western ideals and socially constructed standards of beauty.

Kali the goddess
There is variety of terms used by different communities to categorize shades of skin colour. Many of the terms that describe darker skin tones are typically derogatory. One term that I once heard was particularly disturbing to me. After my cousin and I spent the day outside, we returned home (several shades darker) only for her to be chided by my aunt for staying in the sun for so long. My aunt jokingly called my cousin kali a word that is derived from Sanskrit and means black or dark-coloured. This is not an uncommon term to describe a dark-skinned South Asian girl. However, it was especially concerning for me because the word kali, used as an insult in many parts of South Asia, is actually the name of a Hindu goddess.

Kali is symbolically depicted as black because she is an entity that existed before time and light themselves. The blackness represents the infinite and pure nature that transcends colour and light. Although she has been historically associated with death and destruction, these traits were not usually seen in a negative way. Rather, Kali was greatly revered as the goddess of salvation and feminine empowerment, and she is considered by devotees to be a protector and the mother of the universe. She is worshipped in many parts of South Asia, the darkness being part of her beauty. How is it that the name of a goddess that represented powerful feminine energy is now tossed around as a casual insult? Although there are many factors that play into this subversion, it largely stems from British colonialism in India.

Under the gaze of colonial imagination, Kali’s image was objectified and she became a symbol of the violent and strange ‘Oriental Other.’ Especially within the Victorian culture at the time, the colonial image of Kali challenged the perceptions of society. She became this distorted depiction of the ‘dark’ and ‘savage’ which the colonizers attributed not only to the goddess, but to the colonized as well. To the colonizers, the assumptions based on the darkness of one’s skin were not only affecting religious figures, but were used as stereotypes for all members of society. This idea was pervasive, as being dark was soon equated to also being violent, sexually aggressive, and somehow morally depraved.

This, of course, is just one very specific example that I am aware of as a member of a South Asian family that is also Hindu. However, the idea of the ‘exotic otherness’ in comparison to the ‘standard whiteness’ is a concept that is deeply rooted in many communities of colour. This subversion of natural beauty suddenly creates the need to be ‘fixed’ and ‘whitened’ as whiteness becomes the symbol for purity, elegance, and sophistication. Having white skin is not only more pure, but it is also perceived as more beautiful and powerful. The result is a mental scale of whiteness, where having a skin shade closer to white is linked to ‘better’ opportunities. Interestingly, studies have shown that in communities where this scale is very much an indication of social classification, it may be used to discriminate against other racialized people, but the complexion of white people is a much lesser concern. Whether white people are extremely pale or tan, very rarely (if at all) are they subjected to the same scale of whiteness in communities of colour. This emphasizes the very tangible racism inherent to this scale, as skin tone is one of the most prominent visible cultural identifiers.

The idea of the ‘exotic otherness’ in comparison to the ‘standard whiteness’ is a concept that is deeply rooted in many communities of colour.

Shadeism in a modern context
Rooted in a history of racism and class discrimination based on coloniality, shadeism has evolved to become indicative of desirability within communities of colour. The Western standard of beauty, which has been projected into other parts of the world, is based on European traits such as fair skin, soft hair, and light-coloured eyes. Based on colonial structures of white supremacy, this is also associated with intelligence, wealth, and, ultimately, power – and sadly that standard is still very prevalent today. Many people have internalized the idea that being closer to ‘whiteness’ means attaining more beauty and power, and therefore will provide more opportunities.

Drawing from my experiences in the South Asian community, one of the more hurtful and glaringly obvious instances of shade being equated with beauty is within the Indian film industry. All the Tamil movies that I have seen since I was a child have always depicted the main heroine as this beautiful, fair-skinned woman. It is also notable that fair skin was much more important for the female characters than the male characters. Although men also feel the effects of shadeism, women are more likely to be objectified within this very narrow perception of beauty. In many cultures, the lightness of skin tone also has a great effect on the desirability of girls as brides, as the whiteness of their skin is perceived to be directly correlated to their femininity and innocence.

In fact, the importance of having a light-skinned actress becomes even more evident when the film industry uses actresses who are not even Tamil. Currently, a popular actress in Tamil and Hindi films is Amy Jackson, a white British model who has no South Asian heritage whatsoever and does not speak the Tamil language. For all the Tamil movies in which she stars, she has to be trained to learn the dialogue or the film must be dubbed, requiring extra effort. The only conclusion that I can draw from this is that having the right shade is such a great concern in the industry – and in society – that actual talent and ability are of secondary importance. When I first became aware of this, I was shocked and appalled, but it is merely another sad affirmation of the hypocrisy surrounding the construct of beauty.

It is now probably not surprising to hear that some of the more profitable companies in India and other parts of Asia are those that provide skin-lightening products. One popular skin-lightening product, called Fair & Lovely, produces ads that have garnered a great deal of controversy, as many of them depict dark-skinned girls who are unable to find a job or get a marriage proposal but are then ‘saved’ by the whitening cream. We live in a world where Unilever – the company that owns Dove and created the award-winning “Real Beauty” campaign, which promotes ‘natural beauty’ in Canada and the U.S. – owns Fair & Lovely, and perpetuates internalized racism and self-hatred in Asian countries. The frightening part is how normalized these products have become. In many countries, skin-lightening creams or bleaching creams are as common as moisturizers. Even in Canada and the U.S., many drug stores in communities of colour widely sell these types of products. Even more horrifying is the fact that there are many people who cannot afford these types of products, and settle for more dangerous, toxic bleaching products, all in the pursuit of fairer skin. Media and film play an incredibly strong role in the creation and affirmation of unnatural beauty standards that are then perpetuated and exploited by large companies.

I still feel uncomfortable when sunlight hits my skin directly. There is this constant irrational fear that if I don’t ‘hide’ from the sun – either by wearing extensive sun protection or just staying inside – somehow I will be exposed as an ‘other.’

Historical context of shadeism
Shadeism, however, existed long before the first film was ever played in a theatre. The origins of discrimination based on skin colour and the historical attitudes toward light skin are complex, but even though the implications or situations vary, there is almost always a common thread seen throughout different cultures that experience shadeism. It is related to the systems of privilege that are created through class differences. These differences, and the discrimination that followed based on social hierarchy, were further exacerbated by European colonization. For the most part, shadeism was reinforced by the colonial acts of social classification and establishment of power.

In Europe the term ‘blue blood’ was used to describe aristocrats, because their skin was so pale that their blue veins could be seen through it. This was desirable, as it differentiated them from members of the working classes who had darker skin tones because of outside labour. With the industrial revolution, this perception changed, as more people began working indoors and tanned skin became a luxury. Even though having pale skin has largely lost its previous value in the West, it is still sought-after in Asian, African, Hispanic, and Indigenous communities.

In the U.S., shadeism is thought to have originated from the ‘pigmentocracy’ of slavery. There was a difference between slaves who worked in the house and slaves who worked out in the fields. While the house slaves would typically be lighter-skinned, the field slaves would be darker, which the slave owners saw as ‘more African’ and associated with aggression and resistance. Those who had a mixed-raced heritage, often resulting from sexual relations between the slaves and the slave owners, would have fairer skin and would get preferential treatment, such as less labour-intensive work and better healthcare. The privilege that came with the lightness of one’s skin effectively established a hierarchy of shades.

This hierarchal mentality remained active long after the abolition of slavery. One of the more shocking examples is the ‘paper bag parties’ that were held in the first half of the twentieth century. An individual had to be at least as light as a brown paper bag to be admitted into certain black social events or organizations. Many believe, even today, that to get better employment and access to higher education, they need to be accepted by the perceived white majority. This perpetuates a type of self-hatred, which is visible in many communities, in which a person feels as if they have to distance themselves from their own ethnicity in order to achieve a certain status or class privilege. Shadeism has led to divisions in the community, with darker-skinned individuals seeing themselves as disadvantaged, and lighter-skinned individuals feeling targeted and socially victimized for having advantages in the broader society.

Beyond shade
Although I’d say that I’ve distanced myself from shadeism, I still see it insidiously reveal itself in unexpected ways in my own behaviour. One of its obvious manifestations is my disdain for the sun. This experience of shadeism being a voice in the back of my mind is an experience that I share with many of my friends who are people of colour and who have similar childhood memories of tanning being seen as repulsive. Even now that I do not see shade as a factor in beauty at all, I still feel uncomfortable when sunlight hits my skin directly. There is this constant irrational fear that if I don’t ‘hide’ from the sun – either by wearing extensive sun protection or just staying inside – somehow I will be exposed as an ‘other.’ In the end, even if individuals do not use shadeism to discriminate against others, it remains a tool for hating ourselves and judging our self-worth according to external factors. Shadeism is dangerous in the way that it subtly ties in with an individual’s self-perception of their own beauty. It becomes difficult to convince yourself that it doesn’t matter when the world is filled with products and images that say otherwise.

However, we are not mere objects that have to passively accept the world for what it is. Different forms of resistance around the world are raising awareness of shadeism. Decades ago, the “Black is beautiful” cultural movement was started in Canada and the U.S. to empower Black people and repel the notion that their natural features aren’t beautiful. It encouraged them to celebrate their racial traits, including skin colour, in pursuit of conformity to Western ideals. More recently the “Dark is Beautiful” campaign was launched in India to fight the effects of shadeism, and new laws are being drafted to prevent companies from presenting individuals as disadvantaged because of their skin tone in advertisements. Many documentaries and films have also shed light on the issue. In places such as the Caribbean, the fight against shadeism has been integrated into educational programs to prevent it from being ingrained in the minds of young children.

In 2010, a group of students from Ryerson University created a short documentary film called Shadeism. With voices from Toronto’s South Asian, Caribbean, African, and Latin American communities, the film exposed the shadeism present in contemporary society, which many people were not fully aware of. The film saw a very positive response and is now being shown in many classrooms in the greater Toronto area. It has since evolved into a multidisciplinary initiative that includes workshops and discussions on shadeism. A second film, in which the origins of shadeism are discussed, is being created and is scheduled for release sometime in 2015. Initiatives such as these are important because they create the space for people who have dealt with shadeism to start the process of collective healing within their communities, beginning with themselves.


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