In 1983 I wrote and co-produced Color, a half-hour video drama which aired on public television. It dealt with skin color issues in the black American community which we called “color-consciousness,” and documented the impact of a skin color hierarchy that was an outgrowth of enslavement. Though it targeted black Americans, we were surprised when we aired it at an independent black film festival in London and many South Asian audience members and filmmakers were both moved by and related to the subject. In that same year, in her book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, Alice Walker wrote about “Colorism” in her chapter: “If the Present Looks Like the Past, What Does the Future Look Like?”
In the opening of the essay Walker bluntly begins with the division among lighter and darker skinned black women. Walker speaks about lighter women unintentionally and unknowingly offend dark skinned women when she says, “What black black women would be interested in, I think, is a consciously heightened awareness on the part of light black women that they are capable, often quite unconsciously, of inflicting pain upon them; and that unless the question of Colorism– in my definition, prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color– is addressed in our communities and definitely in our black “sisterhoods” we cannot, as a people, progress. For colorism, like colonialism, sexism, and racism, impedes us”.
Since that time, discussing colorism has become a subject of academic and political debate. It has also erupted into the world of film, media, and pop culture criticism, as well as become part of a global controversy around the psychosocial impact and medical dangers of skin bleaching and skin-lightening products—products like “Fair & Lovely.”
Young Canadian spoken-word poet-activist Jathusha Mahenthirarajan recently responded to the Fair & Lovely skin lightening advertising campaign.