On Saturday, November 19, the UofMosaic Fellowship Program at McGill partnered with the Black Students’ Network (BSN) to host a panel discussion on the global impact of colourism.
What is colourism?
“Shadeism or colourism is basically the insidious cousin of racism,” explained panelist Nayani Thiyagarajah, a filmmaker from Toronto. “We internalize racism and then digest it and release it again as shadeism [or colourism] amongst ourselves and our communities.”
Panelist Safyer McKenzie-Sampson, a graduate student at McGill whose work focuses on the fields of prenatal epidemiology and prenatal health, highlighted the reality that this “insidious cousin” has often been swept under the rug by Black communities because other issues are deemed more important.
“[Colourism] was [meant] to create social distance, so if you were closer to white you were further from Black,” she said, “but […] you can be at different places on that spectrum, and I think it’s interesting because especially within the Black community there’s so many other issues, [and] we have so much to fight against that we don’t have time to look introspectively at these issues that do exist.”
How did colourism come to be?
“In the context of South Asia, I don’t think colourism started necessarily with European colonialism,” said Thiyagarajah. “There have been successive migrations of different communities through that region and different conquerors, some of which we don’t even have enough information on.”
“[However] it was very much made a bigger problem with successive European colonization,” she continued, tying it in with social and economic systems within South Asia. “I think […] a lot of the language surrounding colourism has to do very much with anti-Blackness as it exists in the caste system.”
Michelle Cho, another panelist and an assistant professor in the Department of East Asian Studies at McGill, elaborated on the connection between colourism and the caste system from an East Asian perspective.
“Colourism is a […] long-standing characteristic in the Korean context because it’s always been connected to class, or to social caste,” said Cho. “You have peasants who represent revolutionary subjects within the Korean context, and then […] you have a Confucian scholar who is supposed to be the opposite and the elite, […] and this is communicated not just through clothing and other accoutrements, but it’s very much something that’s confirmed in skin colour.”
Cho also tied colourism in Korean society to how it developed under Japanese occupation.
“The Japanese colonial era brought with it a concept of scientific racism that was really important to the way that people were defining themselves, because this scientific concept of race is really linked to biological essence,” said Cho. “There was a really strong need on the part of the colonial government to make very hardened distinctions between the colonized population and the colonizing, and so they were continuously trying to use this concept of scientific racism as a way to justify their presence there.”
However, Cho highlighted the absurdity of the idea that race could be an “essential difference.”
“There’s a reason that plastic surgery is so popular,” she argued. “It’s because there’s this sense that if you can change your external appearance, then why not? There is nothing essential about your features.”
McKenzie-Sampson noted that, within the Black community, dialogues surrounding colourism are very different depending on historical identities.
“In the United States, […] about 80 per cent of Blacks are descendants of the slave trade, directly,” she explained, “but if you look at Canada, about 85 to 90 per cent of Blacks are immigrants or children of immigrants. […] It’s important to mention immigrants from the Caribbean, from West Africa; they bring with them a different nature of colourism.”
However, panelist Kazue Takamura, a professor at McGill’s Institute for the Study of International Development, whose work centres around issues of labour in the diaspora, emphasized that colourism is not necessarily only perpetuated by social hierarchies outside of the individual. Takamura believes there are sometimes reasons for individuals to operate within racist structures.
“Filipino caregivers – these women also self-perpetuate this stereotypical image of docility as women of colour,” she said. “They often serve for middle and upper-middle income households and maybe different racial groups, but using this stereotype image of the docile, flexible, exploitable [woman], they gain opportunity.”
How does colourism affect us?
Some panelists described their own personal experiences with colourism: Michelle Cho drew on her experiences in Korea.
“I remember the first time I went to Seoul,” she said, “I remember thinking that it was going to be a place where I would finally be invisible in a certain way because […] until that time […] I always felt like it [was] impossible not to have to account for myself as a minority.”
“I think a lot of diasporic people feel this way when they go back to their home countries,” she continued. “I thought it was fascinating that before I even spoke, people knew. People would ask me if I was Korean-American, what they called ‘overseas Korean.’”
“I remember thinking, how did you know that?” she said. “They said, ‘because you’re dark’ or ‘you’re tan.’ They associate U.S. culture with tanning, hanging out.”
A way forward
Thiyagarajah was hopeful about the future given the recent developments within media industries in the United States.
“What’s interesting about the United States,” she began, “is that there’s a lot of private money there [in media industries] so there is a lot of support coming from […] racialized communities to support their own film makers.”
“This is why you’re seeing a lot of [people of colour on television],” she continued, “and now you’re seeing people within the industry […] creating more opportunities by themselves instead of relying on the industry itself.”
“I’m really hopeful because the screen and what we watch,” she said, “because we ingest so much of that, that says so much about our representation and how we see ourselves and so I’m excited, even in children’s books we are seeing a lot more diversity, [books] that are meant for inclusivity in storytelling.”
“I’m excited to see over the next few years how representations in our media across the board are going to impact shadism and colourism,” she concluded.
McKenzie-Sampson drew from personal experience to highlight the differing attitudes between generations, and how generational shifts trend toward progress.
“My grandmother was born in colonial times,” she began. “She doesn’t understand where we are now, she still considers herself a British citizen.”
“I remember once she was mad at my sister and she [said] ‘You look so African!’” McKenzie-Sampson said. “My sister was like, ‘that’s not an insult.’ It was just a moment where I was like, ‘Wow, to her that’s an insult.’”
“Seeing that generational shift, that the youth now don’t see that as an insult: we don’t see it as pejorative in general,” she said.
McKenzie-Sampson referenced the cultural movement celebrating natural hair texture as a positive sign within the issue of colourism.
“I thought that was interesting because it was a very grassroots shift,” she said. “There was a movement of women saying, ‘No, we’re not going to do this anymore’ and companies had to adapt quickly.”