It is commonly believed that racism leads to discrimination between people of different skin colors. However, people belonging to the same ethnic group are also not exempt from this type of discrimination. Even when all members of a society are of the same race, there are still prejudices based on skin tone. In this case, we speak of colorism.
Unlike the blatant cruelty of racism, colorism manifests itself in more subtle ways. Often, its method of screening is so nuanced that only someone who has been subjected to it for a long time might be able to recognize their symptoms.
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It may take the form of a worried comment from a family member about how you should stop spending time in the sun or your skin will darken. Or it can come as a praise of someone’s beauty due to their “righteousness”. It might even come as a backhanded compliment. For example, in a Cambridge O-level Bangla paper from 2020, a sentence transformation question said, “Even if the girl is dark, she is still pretty”, implying that it is not common for people with a darker shade of being visually appealing.
As a woman who has a darker skin tone, I have been unwittingly the target of colorist behavior for much of my life. But I never really understood how widespread this colorism was until very recently, when I ventured into buying complexion products (foundation, concealer).
The internet was kind enough to inform me that these products should only be one shade lighter than my own skin tone and that many makeup brands have a wide range of shades that could very easily match my color. However, my hopes were dashed the first store I walked into.
The store had a considerably large section for makeup products. It houses every kind of makeup imaginable except for the foundation shade I needed. I asked outright if they had the shade number I wanted, which was 330. The salesperson very kindly shook his head and told me that the darkest shade they had was 210. But, at the instead of leaving it there, he started showing me a shade 10. times lighter than mine and told me it would look much better on me than something that dark. Perplexed, I leave the store.
A search of ten other nearby stores, as well as online stores, led me to realize that complexion products for darker skin tones are almost impossible to find. Also, most of the stores I physically visited had employees who felt the need to give me unsolicited advice so I could buy something lighter. In one of those places, I felt like asking people why they don’t stock darker shades. Their response was that there just wasn’t enough demand for them.
I understood that these sellers were beyond reproach and that they were only expressing their internal colorism by recommending lighter shades to me, but the question of demand bothered me. If I was a single black horse in a pack of whites, I could understand why there would be no demand. But this is obviously not the case. A high proportion of women are dark-skinned in Bangladesh and most of them wear makeup to some extent. There can therefore be no lack of demand for these products.
Studies show that our penchant for lighter skin colors is initially the result of colonial practices. The British gave privileges to light-skinned groups and in turn oppressed darker people. The consequences are an obsession with fairness and fair products as well as multi-faceted discrimination on the basis of skin color in our modern society.
It can be seen that the pursuit of fairness is hammered home to people at this point and is aided by a bias for lighter tones in the mainstream media. As a result, people in our subcontinent don’t even realize they’re using something that’s wrong with their complexion. They only try blindly to appear lighter.
Zaima is a struggling college student, a failed guitarist, and a poet in need of better poetic ideas. Send your condolences to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.