Colourism: An Interracial Perspective – Series 3/5

Article written by Jonathon Rhule

Colonialism and Colourism’s perpetuation

Before we start, I just want to say three things. Firstly, as I said almost a month ago, Breonna Taylor’s murderers are STILL out here walking among us. Keep talking, keep fighting. We cannot let the relentless news cycle smother the flame of justice. Secondly, Rest in Peace Chadwick Boseman. I’ve had a hard week coming to terms with your death. You were an icon and an emblem to me not just in your characters, but in your civility, passion, and charming radiance. You are what we should strive to be. I hope you have finally found peace. Thirdly, I hope Jacob Blake is recuperating well. His shooting is yet another blaring alarm to a world that seemingly loves to hit snooze. Keep his name on your mind, in your mouth and in your heart.

Can a person of colour be racist? A complicated question. Some of you may immediately say: “no, that’s impossible that doesn’t make any sense what are you on, J?”. Others may say, “no, but they can be discriminatory to others of a different race. It’s not racist: racism is systemic.” Whilst I used to believe in this idea and, in some instances, think this is the right perspective, life is more complicated than that. Sure, in our Eurocentric bubble, systemic racism has been directly prejudicial and discriminatory toward Black, Asian and minority peoples, but we must look further afield to truly understand why this is a flawed sequence of reasoning. We may be minorities here, but we’re not minorities everywhere.

Look at our homogenous little country vs Canada or even Spain – the U.K. is comparably miles behind.

Historically, many countries have had a Caste system. This system determines your worth to society based on a few key factors and creates a social hierarchy/ranking. It doesn’t take a MENSA member to know which factor unjustly plays a large role in this classism. Whilst many of you I’m sure are aware of the overall concept, I want to share with you the intricacies of racial and colourist prejudice within these systems, with my key example being Nepal.

My sister Kate travelled around Nepal during her Gap Year. She observed many underlying biases and discriminatory practices that are still prevalent in region, things that we Westerners don’t really talk about. Whilst discrimination in line with the caste system was outlawed in 1962, its effects are still felt. 

The image neighbouring this text shows the Nepalese Caste System. Even from a quick glance, you can see a few, should we say… troubling aspects. The pure/impure dynamic is something I touched on last time (including the origin of half-caste) so click here for more of that after you read this as I don’t want to bore repeat readers. The indigenous peoples being seen as enslavable is, unfortunately, a historical trend in every continent (besides I guess Antarctica lol). The section I want to really touch upon though is the bottom echelon, Acchut/Untouchable. The Untouchables, amongst other factors, are the darkest in society. Despite worshipping the same Gods as the upper rung, they are deemed the low of the low, massively due to the colour of their skin. This structural colourism is abhorrent, but I hopefully didn’t need to tell you that. Just take a second to imagine being in this caste. Those of you reading this are most likely fortunate: you have running water, a bed and voting rights. These people, however, were denied many of these things, perpetually rooted within the cycle of poverty with no escape. When I learnt of these people from Kate, I was shocked, but she added an additional sentence that astonished me further. “They’re the lowest for sure, but they make jokes, they laugh because at least, in their eyes, they’re not as bad as the Africans.”

 This notion left me speechless. These people are living in a system which oppresses them for their entire lives because of the shade of their skin and yet they still hold these profoundly racist beliefs, feeding into the cycle of discrimination even further. I mean, such inhumanity from humanity shouldn’t surprise at this point, but still, that’s a hard one to break down. Elaborating recently, Kate added that natives would interrogate her about her colour, asking “Where is your father from?” Upon responding the Caribbean, they would reply “so African then?” and mockingly laugh to themselves. I can only praise Kate for her composure during such disgusting derision.

When you delve deeper into this subject, you will find the gasoline that emboldened the flame of this bigotry; Colonialism (surprise surprise). Colonialism instilled the belief in these countries that lighter skin= power. That pureness correlates to shade, that self-worth is in some way linked to pigmentation. This effect isn’t subtle either, it’s evident and traceable. Growing up in the U.K. many of us studied R.E.- Religious Education. When we studied the Hindu gods, they looked like this:

Hinduism is believed to have originated from the Indus Valley (near Pakistan). I don’t know about you, but I’ve never met a Pakistani person with a similar pigment. Much like Jesus, the Hindu Gods have been whitewashed. These gods have been twisted to appear white when historically, this would be impossible. These Gods were even explicitly described within the scripture to be dark-skinned, and would actually have appeared like this:

When the British helped instil the caste system within the colonies, however, these dark-skinned figures didn’t align for two reasons. Firstly, these Gods would now be classified as Untouchables. Their darker pigment would place them in the lowest Hindu rung, which of course, makes no sense (almost as if racism is a ridiculous non-sensical social construct eh?).

“Race, like gender, is ‘real’ in the sense that is has real, though changing, effects in the world and real, tangible, and complex impacts on individuals’ sense of self and life chances”

(Ruth Frankenberg 1993)

Secondly, in order to colonise these nations, the people had to believe that the white men were superior, that their rule was natural and righteous. Last time I checked, Pete from South East London doesn’t look like either of darker skinned deities above. Having Gods that in many ways, were the direct opposite in appearance to themselves wouldn’t work for the colonisers, so they had to change them.

Awareness of the white hand meddling in the world’s business is by this point apparent but it doesn’t mean that the effects of this colonisation are not still felt. Skin Bleaching is still a prevalent practice across Asia. Many western readers may think this is a choice, that select few in society use these products and that it is frowned upon. Unfortunately, however, I can assure you this is not the case. Skin bleaching adverts and products are still abundant in these countries, with many large brands supported by prominent Bollywood celebrities.

Bollywood Main-stay Shahrukh Khan promoting “Fair and Handsome” a skin bleaching brand- (hyperlinked above)

My sister Emma lives in Malaysia with her husband and newborn daughter. She spoke to me recently about the prevalence of bleaching products, saying that the only face wash brand that she could find that didn’t include bleaching chemicals was Simple. All the other Asian and even Western brands included an ingredient (whether it was advertised or not) that would make you lighter in just a few months. Furthermore, my Grandma (black Caribbean) was asked by a street merchant if she was interested in bleaching her skin in Kuala Lumpur. She politely declined, stating that she loved herself too much to ruin her beauty- what a queen.

My Grandma Norma, Auntie Christine and Myself

Whilst this is undoubtedly a horrible, systemic colourist element of this culture, us Westerners can’t talk- we’re trending toward the opposite. Paleness is now seen as bad in Western culture with many fake tanning to appear darker-skinned than they naturally are. Many girls reading this may be thinking- it’s not about race, it’s about looking like you’ve been on holiday! To this, I admit yes, but that is a different avenue of problematic. Fake tan in that instance is being used to symbolise wealth, that you have the disposable income to travel to hot places. In Asia, though, they see lighter skin as a symbol of the same thing. The ability to afford to be in the shade, to own a parasol or umbrella to stave off the heat is something to be revered. Is this not just two sides of the same coin? Asian people are avoiding the sun and bleaching because they don’t want to be dark. Westerners are seeking the sun and fake tanning because they don’t want to be pale. This creates almost a reverse of traditional colourism in our society, where being overly white/pale is terrible, yet a simultaneous upholding of conventional colourism still exists. Is systemic racism, not just a more subliminal equivalent of the Nepalese Caste System?

 If you’re an immigrant or too dark, your progression within society is limited and you are more likely to unjustly punished and/or brutalised by authority and your standard of living is lower on average. Just because we don’t give specific names within the law to the oppressed classes as the Nepalese did, doesn’t mean they aren’t still oppressed. For example, when my Grandmother and her parents first sought accommodation after travelling to this country during the Windrush, many Landlords had a strict rule: No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs. Free-living space was denied based on racial factors, these minorities beastialised. Black people were portrayed as less intelligent, our black men strong, masculine and hardworking, not intelligent, cogent and professional. When my father gave a reading at a Sunday Service, my mother’s friends said “If you closed your eyes you wouldn’t know he was black! He’s so eloquent!”.  They said this despite knowing the fact that he is a Structural Engineer- an esteemed profession of extreme difficulty.

Whilst it is unclear where its roots lie, Colonialism in undoubtedly the sturdy trunk facilitating the growth of the colourism tree. This weed still bears fruit in both societies far afield and within our own. Although we cannot pierce the bark of this bigotry as it has hardened over centuries, we can destroy the branches and eradicate these out-dated notions from the minds of our future generations. If we do so, we could compost this plant and create something beautiful. This future, however, is still far from reach, and we must be active in shaping it. Passivity is no longer enough.

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