Recently racism has become a prevalent topic of discussion, with people demanding social justice and visible progress. However, colourism is a similar issue that is often swept under the rug, but deserves attention as well. Colourism, also known as shadeism, refers to “a form of prejudice or discrimination in which people who are usually members of the same race are treated differently based on the social implications which come with the cultural meanings which are attached to skin color”. Colourism manifests in a number of ways, often through individuals of a certain race discriminating against their own kind based on skin colour, or people favouring a person of another race based on the shade of their skin. Majority of the time, across cultures, darker skinned people tend to be discriminated against the most (as pointed out by Andre 3000, photographed below), while fairer skinned people benefit from their complexion in many cases.
The problem is particularly pronounced in the entertainment industry. In Hollywood, there is a pattern of casting biracial actors in monoracial roles (admittedly, the problem is even worse sometimes, with actors playing an entirely different race – typically white actors in non-white roles, but that’s a discussion for another day). One of the issues with this tendency is it takes away opportunities from already marginalized groups who are technically better suited for the role, and may not be given as many opportunities for other roles. Additionally, if biracial actors are cast for monoracial roles (especially if they are partly white), viewers are less exposed to the appearances of certain people, and this can normalize specific beauty standards, while ‘othering’ less represented appearances. It is long overdue to have minorities in lead roles, but if they are being played by half-white actors, this can be seen as one step forward and half a step back. The issue is particularly noticeable in roles of Black women.
Black men of different complexions have achieved mainstream success, and audiences have become accustomed to representation among A-list male actors, with the likes of Denzel Washington, Idris Elba, Samuel L. Jackson and many more. On the other hand, skin tone tends to act as a barrier for Black female actors, as Hollywood aims the spotlight on female actors with lighter skin tones, such as Halle Berry and Zendaya. The problem is not on the actors, but on the casting directors, especially when roles are meant for a Black or African characters. In the case of Storm in Marvel’s X-Men, the character’s parents are Kenyan and African-American, yet she is played by Halle Berry, who is half-Black and half-white. This is not to discredit Halle Berry, but perhaps it would have been more socially responsible of the production company to be inclusive and provide an opportunity for talented actors of the character’s cultural background.
By opting for biracial actors in these types of roles, what messages are casting directors sending? We don’t know their intent, but the pattern of biracial and lighter skinned actors in the spotlight makes them appear more desirable, and perpetuates problematic beauty standards, excluding many people. As a result, do biracial actors (and people in general) benefit from white privilege? I ask myself the same thing. As a young biracial man, I reflect on my own experiences as well.
I’m Indian on my dad’s side and white on my mom’s side (her family is Canadian for generations with European roots) and I question how this dichotomy of my ethnic background impacts me and the way others perceive me. People ask me “where are you from?”, and when I say “Markham”, they say “No, where are you really from?” Their predictions range drastically; I’ve heard it all – Arab, Afghan, Spanish, Italian, Mexican etc. Occasionally people think I’m just white, and sometimes people just think I’m Indian. I identify with my Indian side more, as this is the culture I was raised in, but that is not apparent based on my complexion. Due to this, it’s hard to identify the way race affects the way I’m viewed and treated, but I would be ignorant to think it’s impossible that I receive privilege based on my light complexion. I’m certainly racialized, and most people acknowledge this if not by my appearance then by my Hindu name, but if I was darker in skin tone, I feel that I’d have to face more systemic barriers in my life (if not now, then down the road).
As a takeaway, we may not be able to completely erase colourism instantaneously, but we can still do our part. We have the opportunity to think critically about the way colourism manifests in society, reflect on our own privileges, recognize that all shades and colours are beautiful, acknowledge that darker skinned people are discriminated against the most across cultures, and act accordingly to combat this issue.