Culture & Society · Food & Health · Recollections & Reflections

On Internalized Colourism

Colourism.

It’s a word my good friend used the other day. I’m not the hippest when it comes to 21st century nomenclature; but as a concept, it’s something I’m very familiar with and have been a subject of.

It’s been on my mind this week, particularly today.

When I was younger, I knew I was darker than what was deemed to be considered beautiful. I wish I could say this “beauty” standard was limited to just South Asian cultures, but you see it everywhere colonialism has ruptured the fabric of society.

But being darker didn’t bother me. In fact, it was a matter of pride.

Being darker was not in my control (that’s how God made me!), so it didn’t make sense that that could serve as a basis for looking down on others. I, of course, as a seven year old, could not have placed this into the context of racism or colonialism.

What was in my control was my weight; so those remarks were a little less difficult to shake off.

At least that’s what I told myself.

The other day, however, I had a reaction that called this all into question. After dining with my Muslim-Jewish women’s interfaith group, we decided to take a group photo. New friends. Nice weather. Why not?

However, when I saw the photo, my first thought – and I am not happy to admit it – was, “I’m the darkest woman in the photo! Did I get darker? Have I been reckless by not wearing sunscreen (which is such a pain, by the way, for someone who produces enough oil on her face to bankrupt all the OPEC countries combined!)?”

I hate that I even thought that for a second.

But I guess at least I’m aware of how much those negative comments from my childhood have affected me. I used to think it was just the weight, but now I realize the comments about my skin — and darker skin in general — were just as pervasive.

The weird thing is: when I lost the weight, my skin actually lightened. I don’t understand how that happened, but I swear, it was a natural result of losing the weight. On the other end, I got darker and darker, the more I gained weight. I don’t know if this happens with other people, but it did with me. A change in hormone levels can do some pretty weird things, I guess? I don’t know. I failed AP Chemistry, so don’t quote me on anything science-y.

Naturally, losing the weight was a big deal. But the comments I got from some South Asians were particularly revealing. Being called things like “beautiful” for the first time at the age of 22 felt good, I won’t lie, but I can’t shake the feeling now, as I write this at age 31, that it was because I was thin and fair now.

A part of me was happy to be called beautiful (whatever that means), because what young woman does not want to hear that? 18-year-old me, in my over-sized Linkin Park t-shirt, would have scoffed at that claim. But deep down inside all that emoness, I wanted it so badly.

But exactly why was I beautiful now and not before?

I don’t regret losing that weight. I needed to do it for my health. But by buying into the myth of weight and beauty, which I have been trying unpack all those years since, have I also unconsciously bought into the myth of colour and beauty and not realized it until now?

8 thoughts on “On Internalized Colourism

  1. Such an interesting post. It is a double edged sword when you make a change that brings about a load of compliments .. you feel pleased, but was there something wrong with the way you were before? I hope you’re feeling beautiful in your own skin now ❤️

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  2. It is a double-edged sword indeed! That’s exactly how I felt. I liked the compliments, but they made me feel like I was not worthy of them before. It all seemed superficial, that people didn’t care about my personality. Because that was always the same, you know? The whole experience served as a filter for me. I knew who to keep close and who I should probably be a bit weary of. It’s unfortunate to have to think that way. Thanks for your kind words!

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  3. I wish I could give you a big hug right about now Rafia. You are absolutely one of my favourite bloggers. Your musings are truly a source of deep reflection about the many things we either take for granted in our lives, or fail to unpack. Colourism is unfortunately a pathology triggered by colonial discourse that continues to plague any society touched by the scourge of Western imperialism.

    I am dark skinned but thankfully I never attributed any negative connotations to my complexion. I think I owe a debt of gratitude to my parents who very rarely commented on my looks. My behaviour, my school performance, my attitude toward family and friends…..those things were usually what they commented on. I was never called “pretty girl”, but neither was I ever meant to feel ugly. I was fully aware that I was darker in my complexion than both of my parents, but it never meant anything more than that (positive or negative).

    I often cringe when I hear people commenting on the looks of little girls. We socialize our daughters to equate femininity with “a certain set of beauty standards”, and view their worth through it. We tend to compliment little girls much more on their hair, complexion, clothes, smile, than on their intelligence, ingenuity, or kindness. Which explains why colourism is such a big deal to a lot of women (men are not exempt by this, but women are definitely more affected by it) and skin bleaching is a booming industry.

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  4. I am so happy to hear that your parents protected you from this damaging phenomenon. It must have been a very conscious move on their part. Kudos to them for raising such a brilliant woman! :)

    The thing I am grateful for is that my mother (who usually is the culprit is many of these cases) NEVER made any disparaging comments about my looks. She still think her children are beautiful and not because we fit those “ideals,” but because my mom just effuses love for everyone. Unfortunately, the other voices in my childhood were much louder and affected by subconscious more than I thought. But I can recognize that. Unfortunately, so many men and women never do.

    On a somewhat unrelated note: This fetishization of all things British, the royal family especially, makes me angry. Not only because it is such a waste of time, but also because we’re essentially celebrating the dynasty that ruined millions of lives globally. I’m not expecting reparations or anything, but I don’t think it’s fair that Britain and other countries just get to rid their hands clean of what they did. And, I JUST love how the Brits claim tea as their own.

    LOL. You got me on my angry post-colonialist rampage here!

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  5. OMG, you and I must be sharing the same brain LOL. I cannot stand this whole hoopla about the royal wedding. We are somehow expected to forget how this family accumulated the riches they are enjoying, and just celebrate them. NOPE, not gonna happen. Every time I see the Queen wearing her crown, all I can see is that massive diamond they stole from India. They’ve syphoned much of Asia and Africa, and in the process created poverty and chaos we are still dealing with, and yet they have no shame about parading the wealth they’ve stollen. Everything about that family makes my blood boil, and it always makes me sad when I see POC being so enamoured with them……get some self- awareness guys, please. I also want to take the tea back from them….yes, I’m that petty LOOL.

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  6. The Kohinoor! I think that diamond was stolen from Golconda Fort just outside of Hyderabad, MY city! LOL. It makes me even angrier knowing that it may be rightfully MINE – haha! I don’t care. I don’t even wear my wedding ring. But still. MY CITY. Ugh, it infuriates me especially when POC go gaga over this family. I’ll join you in that Indiana Jones’s quest. Now, that I think about it. I wonder if there are any tinges of imperialism in that whole concept. Or am I reading too much into this? Haha, I may be, but I am having way too much fun here.

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  7. LOL, we should call ourselves the repo squad. “Yes, hello Elizabeth. We are here to repossess The Kohinoor and other artefact/jewels that your family stole. Who are we? We are the repo squad, please step away from the royal coffers”….LOOOL.

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