Sunday, July 12, 2020


Article Index

III. The Geography of Colorism

Colorism operates on a global scale. There is a worldwide market for chemicals that lighten skin tones. Asia has the largest market for skin-whitening creams. In India and Pakistan, women are socialized to believe that a fair complexion equates to beauty and is the key to success in life, marriage, and work. During the colonial era, the idea that Indians *83 with fair skin were superior was usually unstated but well understood. The belief that a light complexion is superior to a darker one is embedded deeply within the Indian psyche, since skin color is an important consideration in marriage. Research conducted by a matrimonial website in three northern Indian states confirmed that skin tone is the most important criteria when selecting a partner.

A journalist wrote: "it is being called ‘Snow White syndrome' in India, a market where sales of whitening creams are far outstripping those of Coca-Cola and tea." According to Imani Perry, this practice exemplifies the perverse objectification of the female body in sexual partnering.

Colorism is also evident in advertisements. For instance, a television ad for the cream Fair & Lovely reinforces the idea that girls seeking a prospective groom should utilize skin-lightening creams in order to become more marketable for marriage. Beyond the simple advertisement for a flawless skin, it is implied that using this cream is also necessary to advance in all relevant aspects of life. But the use of lightening creams is not restricted to women. The popularity of these products is increasing among men and the availability of products for male consumers is highly advertised. A commercial shown on Indian satellite channels featured Bollywood star Shahrukh Khan promoting a skin cream called Fair and Handsome. In it, a glum, dark-skinned Indian man used the skin-lightening cream to become many shades lighter. At the end of the commercial he is shown smiling and walking confidently with a lovely woman at his side. L'Oreal hired Bollywood actor John Abraham to pitch its Garnier for Men skin-whitening lotion in an effort to challenge the *84 market leader, Fair and Handsome. Another skin-lightening cream, Unilever's Vaseline Healthy White Body, is currently the most advertised cosmetic brand on Indian television. Unilever's cream created great controversy with its Internet marketing strategy, which appeared to be racist, because it showed a distinct preference for lighter skin. Recently, further concerns have been raised regarding the dissemination of other desirable physical characteristics for young Indians. The homogeneity of color is becoming a new social expectation in order to overcome self-consciousness. Therefore, young Indians are being encouraged to start using deodorants and intimate wash products containing skin-lightening ingredients.

Skin-lightening creams increased $432 million in sales in South Asia during the first nine months of 2008, and the industry expects to continue growing as the levels of urbanization and affordability augment their target populations by expanding the market for men in the following decade. However, this phenomenon is not limited to South Asia. An increasing number of East Asians are using their rising incomes to purchase skin-lightening products. In Hong Kong, Malaysia, the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan, four of every ten women use a whitening cream. And, as is the case elsewhere, the cosmetics industry is reaping enormous profits. In Hong Kong, pale Asian models dominate the flat-screens and multimedia billboards of public transit. They appear on the pages of glossy magazines and cinema advertisements promoting such products as Blanc Expert, White-Plus, White Light, Future White Day, Active White, and Snow UV. Skin lightening has a long history in Asia. In ancient *85 China and Japan, a saying, "one white covers up three ugliness," has been passed down through the generations. These attitudes are largely the same among many Asian Americans.

Colorism is also pervasive in Latin America. Unlike America's "one-drop rule" in which any amount of African ancestry classifies an individual as Black, Latin America exhibits a more fluid classification system based on color gradations and appearance. Racial distinctions are based on phenotypes that focus more on physiognomy than ancestry. The flexibility in Latin America's racial designation system is limited to those whose lighter complexions and European phenotypes allow them to distinguish themselves from darker-complexioned Blacks, since Blackness is subjectively perceived as an offensive racial category in the social hierarchy. In Latin America, individuals are valued by how closely their appearances, status, and progeny approach whiteness.

Mexico's colonization illustrates how discrimination on the basis of color influenced the creation of a racialized hierarchy, which continues to affect the socioeconomic and political systems at present. Spanish colonizers imposed a stratified status system in Mexico where Whites were the elites and Native Mexicans the slaves. These groups intermingled creating a large population of mixed-race mestizos that resulted in the creation of a color hierarchy. Light-complexioned persons occupied the upper rungs of the social strata. The darkest persons were relegated to the lowest levels.

Colorism has concerned the Mexican-American columnist Ruben Navarrette since his childhood, when he realized his skin tone was different compared with the rest of the children in a United States kindergarten. Now, as an adult, Navarrette stresses that, a century after the Mexican Revolution, the division between urban and rural Mexico continues, along with the silent wars between the wealthy and poor, and *86 the light and dark-skinned individuals. He remarked that it is very common to find light-colored people in television, politics and academia, but it is unlikely to find persons from this racial category working at construction sites or kitchens, where darker-colored people prevail.

There is a conspicuous absence of dark-skinned Mexicans in telenovelas, commercials, and other forms of advertising, which are an inadequate representation of the country's inhabitants. A study that examined the content of six Spanish-language telelenovelas and a drama on three Spanish-language television networks in the United States (Telemundo, Univision, and Azteca America) found that "lighter skin characters were more likely to play major roles, were more fit and younger, and more likely to be upper class than their darker skin counterparts." A promotion for Televisa's popular program, "Destilando Amor" (Distilling Love), presents an example of how color status is portrayed. In one scene, an upscale woman with blonde hair sits at a dinner table expressing her displeasure with a family member for falling in love with a working-class woman. As the fair-skinned woman speaks, a servant with dark, indigenous features stands silently in the background.

Colorism can be found elsewhere in Latin America. In Brazil, individuals are assigned to racial groups based on physical appearance rather than ancestry. This criterion of racial self-identification has resulted in ambiguous and numerous color categories. Many of the terms Brazilians use to describe racial mixtures are vague, and there is no consistent agreement on their meaning or to whom they should be applied. For instance, a 1976 census collected 135 popular terms, including "purple, dark chocolate, or Pele colored."

Given the focus on phenotypical characteristics, some individuals may be identified in varying racial terms at various times by different people, and some parents and full siblings in the same family may be assigned to different racial groups. One article explained:

*87 Brazilian racial classification schemes defining a person based on the slightest variation of physical characteristics presumably associated with Black ancestry and/or white ancestry could either elevate or demote an individual on the racial ladder. The implementation of such a highly stratified method of categorizing race evidences an extreme effort on behalf of the white minority to preserve their economic, social, and political dominance over masses of people of mixed and unmixed African descent. Additionally, because of its relatively relaxed approach to manumission, which contributed to the rapid growth of free people of color, it was imperative for Brazil to develop a racial taxonomy based on infinite physical distinctions that simultaneously maintained its racial hierarchy and recognized the country's widespread miscegenation.

The current official categories used by the Brazilian census are White (Branco), Brown (Pardo), Black (Preto), Asian/Yellow (Amarelo), and Indigenous (Indigena). It is estimated that the first three categories account for 99% of Brazilians. In 2010, a majority (50.7%) of the population identified themselves as Afro-Brazilians, a classification that includes both Black (7.6%) and mix-raced Brazilians (43.1%). In a 2010 census, more individuals identified themselves as Black than in 2000.

Despite the Brazilian efforts to project a racially neutral structure through what is known as a racial democracy, scholars have shown that a racial hierarchy composed of a graduated scale of color persists. The data shows that Afro-Brazilians are more economically, socially, and politically disadvantaged than their lighter-skinned counterparts. According to Seth Racusen, "all key socioeconomic variables demonstrate this wide gap between ‘Whites' compared to ‘Browns' and ‘Blacks."'

Brazilian media also reinforces the social preference for Whites by portraying them as symbols of "beauty, happiness, and middle-class success." The concept portrayed in television seems consistent with the perception of reality. As indicated by Patricia de Santana Pinho, "the power of whiteness is lived by everyone in Brazil, and it is always operating either in opening or closing doors of opportunity and achievement."

Given the strong negative stereotypes against dark-colored people and, on the other hand, the potential incentives that could be derived from affirmative action policies, individuals may have personal motivations to alter the designation of their race.

How individuals are classified does not depend solely on their physical appearance. The saying "money whitens" reminds Brazilians that the apparent wealth and status of a person, as well as the immediate social company, are important considerations for the observer who determines their race. Therefore, as individuals accumulate wealth they also gain color status. The ambiguity of race categories along with the deficiencies of the self-identification system makes it feasible for individuals to change their racial identities by becoming better educated or more affluent.

These attitudes can be found in other Latin American countries. Tanya Hernandez examined racial attitudes in Puerto Rico and Cuba, given the acceptance of race fluidity in the former country and the formal rejection of the concept of race in the latter. She found that, despite the apparent respect for social fluidity and flexible racial labeling, racial identity and identification are neither completely fluid nor neutral. For example, like in Mexico and Brazil, Cubans and Puerto Ricans also exercised the plasticity of race labeling in order to avoid Black designation in social status and self-identification. Today, many Puerto Ricans of mixed ancestry (usually called "triguenos" and "morenos") prefer to classify *89 themselves as White rather than Black on census forms. This response, however, underestimates the long history of miscegenation and African ancestry of much of Puerto Rico's population. Prejudice and discrimination against people of African descent are the principal reasons for this preference, since African ancestry is associated with slavery and extreme poverty.

Puerto Ricans perceive that having lighter skin and European features increases an individual's socioeconomic opportunities. Darker complexions and African features severely limit an individual's economic and social mobility. According to Wendy D. Roth, medium skin tones confer upon people a certain amount of status compared to those further toward the dark end of the color spectrum.

Research suggests that being discriminated against on the basis of color produces feelings of shame and embarrassment. Many Latin American Blacks harbor internalized attitudes about color and phenotype. Skin color, nose width, lip thickness, and hair texture weigh heavily on the self-esteem of Afro-Latinos, since these are considered racial signifiers of denigrated African ancestry. The belief exists among some Latin Americans that color is something that can be controlled by utilizing whitening creams and to "‘improve the race"' of their children.

Marrying someone with a lighter complexion is referred to as adelantando la raza (improving the race) under the theory of blanqueamiento. The concept of blanqueamiento refers to ethnic, cultural, and racial "whitening." It is an ideology and a social practice that places a higher value on White culture while implicitly devaluing non- *90 White cultural norms. Blanqueamiento perpetuates a social hierarchy based on race by linking whiteness to status, wealth, power, modernity, and development, while implicitly associating blackness with a lack of cultural refinement, ambition, and civilization.

Despite the national ideologies of racial democracy, mestizaje, and racial blindness in Latin America, skin tone is a major marker of status and a form of symbolic capital. Light complexions and European features are highly valued; the darker, more African an individual appears, the lower that person is likely to be on the socioeconomic scale.

Vernellia R. Randall
Founder and Editor
Professor Emerita of Law
The University of Dayton School of Law