Colorism’s Roots & Routes

The simple answer you’ll get from most people about where colorism comes from is that during slavery in the Americas, blacks and whites bore children of mixed ancestry, but according to the law, any trace of black ancestry meant you were black (one drop rule), and children took the status of their mother, which was slave in most cases.

As a result, the spectrum of skin tones among slaves and others who were legally black, grew wider. Slave owners often granted more privileges to the lighter skinned slaves, saw them as smarter and more capable because of their white ancestry, allowed them some form of education or training, and occasionally granted them their freedom.

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Even after slavery ended, similar advantages were given to blacks whose appearance was closer to white, such as first consideration for certain schools and jobs.

The preferential treatment served to create division among blacks. Simultaneously there was resentment for this preferential treatment and the desire to acquire and take advantage of it.

Some might think that explaining the origins of colorism in America is as simple as pointing to American slavery. But it’s deeper than that. Colorism is the result of white supremacist ideology, which is ancient compared to slavery in America.

Social hierarchies based on nationality, religion, class, gender, education, race, and color have existed for millenniums. 

Roots in Biblical & Religious Texts

One story that’s historically been used to justify racism, colorism, and slavery is the so called “curse of Ham.” That’s the story of Noah’s youngest son, Ham, who saw his father naked, then told his brothers. Noah was angry and cursed his son Ham, who the scriptures say is the father of Canaan. Noah’s curse said that Canaan would be the slaves of Ham’s brothers (Gen 9:20-27).

So where would color come in to play for those who use this story as the basis for practicing racism?

It’s a stretch, but here’s the “logic”:

Since Ham is the father of Cush  (Gen 10:6), and Cush is sometimes used synonymously with the regions of Nubia, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan; then Ham and his decedents must be associated with dark skin. If Ham is associated with dark skin, and he’s the one who committed the disgraceful (some say sinful) act against his father, then dark skin must also be associated with disgrace and sin. Even though it was Canaan, not Cush, that Noah said would be enslaved, slavery was still somehow associated with black skin.

Then there’s a later reference in the bible to skin color that further connects Cush to skin color: “Can the Ethiopian  (Hebrew Cushite) change his skin or the leopard his spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil” (Jer 13:23).

This interpretation of Ham’s story shows how human pathology causes people to defy logic in order to believe in their own superiority and to justify their oppression of other peoples.

An additional trope from the bible that people point to as one source of how people view skin color is the distinction between darkness being bad or evil, and light or white being good, pure, clean, and holy. (I trust that you can do your own search on this if you’re curious.) While the majority of these references don’t specifically refer to skin color, the distinctions between black/dark and white/light is a symbol in many cultures that has been generally applied to many subjects.

But it’s not just the Judeo-Christian bible that carries such symbolism.

Roots in Indian, Greek, and Roman Texts

In this amazing documentary titled “Shadeism,” by a young woman who’s family is from Sri Lanka, she explains how colorism existed in regions like India even before colonialism . . . long before.

In the ancient Indian scripture of the Ramayana, there’s a scene that depicts a fight between a noble, fair-skinned king from the north, and an evil dark-skinned king from the south. According to an explanation of the Ramayana published through UCLA, this tale may date back as far as 1500 BCE.

A blurb about Benjamin Isaac’s book, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquitystates:

[Isaac] considers the literature from classical Greece to late antiquity in a quest for the various forms of the discriminatory stereotypes and social hatred that have played such an important role in recent history and continue to do so in modern society.

Isaac’s book is said to disprove the belief that ancient Greeks and Romans only held ethnic/cultural prejudice but not racial prejudice.

Routes Around the Globe: Colonialism & Pigmentocracy

Whether or not colorism was present in cultures before colonialism, there’s little argument against the fact that it became ubiquitous as a result of colonialism.

Pigmentocracy describes a social structure in which status, class, education, occupation, etc is determined by skin color. It’s existed in various forms all over the globe, and  some pigmentocracies throughout history have been more operational and institutionalized than others.  Pigmentocracy involves all races, unlike the common notion of colorism, which is that it functions among the people of one race.

America is an example of one of the pigmentocracies that have existed around the globe. While not precisely broken down by exact skin tone, it’s generally true that this country has granted the highest status and opportunity to those of the lightest skin, and denied that status and opportunity to those with the darkest skin, with varying degrees in between.

To trace the routes of Europeans around the globe during colonialism, is to literally trace the roots of colorism. The spread of colorism is a direct result of the spread of white supremacist ideology.

I still wonder what’s the initial source of white supremacy.

In thinking about those ancient texts like the Ramayana and the Bible, I wonder how humans began to equate light with good and dark with bad.

Was it as quotidian as one random person who had a strange thought and then went and shared his ideas with friends and neighbors? Or was it as strategic as some ancient government plotting to brainwash the masses so that they could gain power through some arbitrary characteristic?

Why didn’t the tides of history end up spreading black, brown, yellow, or red supremacy? Not that any of those would be right.

Do we have to rehash every detail about the roots of colorism every time we have a conversation about it?

Maybe we should explain the historical roots to those who claim to have never heard of colorism.

But for the converted, for those of us who already understand the who, what, why, when, why, and how of colorism’s roots and routes, can we finally begin to have productive conversations about the present and future?

I guess my biggest question is: Where do we go from here?


Colorism: The Truth About Soledad’s “Who is Black in America?”

It struck a nerve.

Got under the skin of blacks, whites, and others.

Since Sunday evening, when Soledad O’Brien’s fifth installment of Black in America aired on CNN, many have asked, “Does it matter who is black in America?”

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Of course, proponents of the “I’m HUMAN” brand, and the “I don’t see color” camp showed up in full force following the documentary.

Several have insisted that people like Soledad pick at the scab of racism and won’t let us heal. That she and others are responsible for keeping racism and colorism alive because they won’t stop talking about it.

Other complaints included “I’m not represented,” or “This documentary doesn’t run the gamut of all black experiences.”

But I have another way to look at Soledad’s “Black in America” series in general, and more specifically at “Who is Black in America?” because it covers colorism, which has been a large focus of my writing since I began blogging in 2011.

Race may be something we’ve created, but created things are real.

Because they have real consequences.

Socially constructed or not, race was real when used to determine a person’s status as a slave. Socially constructed or not, race was real when used to determine who had the right to legally marry. Socially constructed or not, race was real when used to determine where you could sit, what water fountain you could drink from, and which door you had to enter.

When our social construct of race leads to bullying, physical violence and murder, economic disparities, educational disparities, and psychological pain, it becomes tangible, more than just a myth.

Unfortunately, the institution of racism that’s existed in this land for centuries is still reflected in our lived experiences, whether it’s residual, such as the economic and educational disparities between races, or whether it’s blatant acts of hate, such as bullying or murder.

Race is our Frankenstein. We’ve created it, so now we have to deal with it. I’m glad Soledad has the courage to confront this monster that so many want to run from.

Being “color blind” is not honorable.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with difference. The problem is allowing differences to divide us.

We don’t want homogeneity. We don’t want to be clones of each other, no more than we want flowers to all look the same.

The key is to recognize the beauty in our differences. God created us all unique in some way, not to segregate, but to celebrate. It’s human nature to recognize patterns, similarities, and differences, not just among people, but amid all elements of creation.

Yes, the entire world has a history and way of using differences to establish hierarchies or castes to gain power and privilege, and to oppress others. That’s the evil of the world.

But we don’t have to deny ourselves the blessing of beautiful colors. We need to create societies that accommodate,  appreciate,  and celebrate differences, not try to neutralize them.

Insisting on “color blindness” actually has an opposite effect. It results in making skin color differences taboo.

If what you really mean is that you don’t show differential treatment based on skin color, then say that. But don’t pretend you can’t see skin color.

Talking about race and colorism is part of the solution, not the problem.

On Starting Point with Soledad O’Brien, Michaela Angela Davis said,

Soledad, you’re in the solution.

On the Google+ Hangout with ESSENCE, Perry “Vision” DiVirgilio used an analogy that I like:

If you have an open wound on your arm, and you don’t treat it, it’s not going to go away. It’s going to stay there and fester.

Because I’ve already written about why I kept silent for so long and why I’m not any longer, I won’t go into great detail here.

I will simply ask, when has not talking about a social problem, ever helped people solve it? Would the Holocaust have ended if everyone in the world had just stopped talking about it? Would Apartheid have ended if everyone had just stopped talking about it? Would slavery in American have ended if everyone had merely stopped talking about it? Would women have gotten the right to vote if people stopped talking about it?


Racism and it’s offspring, colorism, will not disappear because people go silent about it. People consistently bring about change in this world by first speaking up, and then taking action.

Consider what happens when you try to put a lid on a boiling pot.

One documentary cannot encompass everything.

It’s not fair to require one blog post, one article, one movie, one documentary, one book, one school, or one person to be the ultimate and final answer to all the world’s problems.

When I began blogging about colorism, I received similar criticism as Soledad did for her documentaries. People wanted to dictate what I should be writing about.

I say, if you don’t see what you want to see, go somewhere else and find it, or create it yourself.

We need all hands on deck. Soledad can’t do it alone. Yaba can’t do it alone. Vision can’t do it alone.

Plus, the documentary is a series. That means what you haven’t seen in the first five episodes, might show up in the sixth, seventh, or eighth. And the documentary is less than an hour long (if you consider commercial time). Let’s be logical about that.

“Who is Black in America?” merely opens the door a little more.

The bottom line is that I’m overjoyed that the issue of colorism has a national stage in mainstream media for the first time ever. In an earlier post on the media, I explained that the media covers weight issues, bullying, violence, interracial discrimination, single mothers, rape, and a host of other painful issues, but has never discussed colorism on such a prominent platform.

It’s been talked about, no doubt, but never in a forum so big as this.

I know the documentary barely scratched the surface of colorism, but it’s fueled the discussion like nothing ever before. Because of that, I applaud this segment of Black in America, and personally view it as success.



I Think I Need a Barber But This As A Man’s World

I prefer short natural hair. Very short.

Unfortunately, that means I’m dependent on someone else to cut my hair because I haven’t learned how to do it myself.

I’ve often turned to the universal experts on my kind of hair–black barbershops, but it’s clear that barbershop culture is not ready to embrace women like me.

In Hair Story, the most comprehensive account of black hair I’ve ever read, the authors Anna D. Byrd & Lori L. Tharps explain that there is indeed a culture built around black hair:

“The many aspects of human adaptation–including language, technology, traditions, values, and social organization–are all identifiable components of the culture of Black hair in America.” p. 134

The first time I went to a barbershop for a haircut, it was a culture shock. I felt like an utter outsider.

I didn’t know that there’s a certain way to request services in a barbershop, so I sat down and waited to be greeted or acknowledged, you know, like: “Hi. How’re you doing? What can we do for you today?” I just sat there feeling and looking out of place.

When I finally got in the chair, I didn’t know the proper lingo or understand the technology for describing the haircut I wanted. Brush length or comb length? A number 3 or a number 2? I didn’t know there were different kinds of fades. I had a picture of a beautiful model that I tore out of a magazine, and that was the best I could do.

Whereas the average man has long since been initiated into barbershop culture from the time he was a few years old, I had no such acculturation. When I was a young girl, I spent hours in beauty salons and never ventured into a barbershop unless I was with my mother to wait for my brother. Back then I could never even imagine that I might be in a barber’s chair someday.

Beyond my personal ignorance of barbershop culture, there’s something else at play, something deeper and more troubling.

From small towns in Mississippi to big cities in California, I read a distinct aversion in barbers when it comes to cutting this woman’s hair, and I think there are four main reasons why the aversion exists.

1) When barber’s see me, they don’t see a loyal customer that yields the highest profit margin.

This explains why I get handed to the newcomer without many clients of his own yet, or I get passed off to the guy no one else likes very much.

But worse than that is getting the barber who rushes through the process of cutting my hair so that they can get back to their “real” clientele or back to sweeping floors. Those barbers disengage. They sort of do what they want, never cut my hair short enough, and don’t even let me evaluate the look before they’re ripping the cape from around my neck.

Unfortunately, with such crappy customer service, they never give me the chance to become a loyal customer. Like I said before, I love short hair, so I would actually come back if my experience was at least decent, if I at least felt respected.

In Hair Story a barber explains that full loyalty comes from “the way I treat him and the service we provide.” p. 154

Isn’t the same level of respect required before a woman becomes a loyal customer?

Respect is the reason I stopped accepting discounts. If you charge less because I’m a woman, it might be chivalry, but it could also mean you do lesser quality work because I’m a woman. I pay the same as the guys so that I can expect the same service as the guys. A dollar is a dollar whether it comes from a man’s pocket or a woman’s pocketbook.

2) One of the things men love about the barbershop is the absence of women.

In Hair Story, the authors explain this concept and cite the experiences of various men:

“One of the most satisfying times in my life was going to the barbershop [and] bonding with the other brothers.” p.151

“The Philadelphia Hair Company is the type of establishment where Black men go to get pampered, watch the game, and while away an entire Saturday afternoon in good company.” p. 154

If the owners were ten year olds, barbershops would definitely have “No Girls Allowed” signs out front. This boy’s club atmosphere is most evident in the conversation.

Sports and politics I can handle, but when the conversation, as it always does, veers into the realm of women and relationships, I wonder if my cute cut is even worth it.

Many barber shops have televisions streaming hip hop videos or melodramatic reality TV shows. Though many women are into those things (even I’ve watched a few in the past) I’m now averse to them.

But the barbers don’t just let these shows play in the background. They have to start offering their commentary on the women’s bodies, on the relative worthiness of each female character in comparison to each other and to women in general, on the “reality” of relationship politics, and other distorted ideology.

Perhaps this doesn’t signal that no women are allowed, but it definitely signals that a certain type of woman will not feel comfortable, like any woman who’s sick and tired of the racist and misogynist portrayals of men and women in the media, any woman who laments the continuous brainwashing of both sexes, basically any woman like me.

I won’t go into detail right now about my last two reasons but they are essentially this:

3) Men still expect black women to be at the beauty salon getting perms and weaves to look good for men.
4) Men don’t like to see women cut their hair

I don’t expect barbershop culture to change for me or even for the growing number of women like me. But I do think it’s a relevant experience that’s worth sharing (especially when I get deeper into reasons 3 & 4).

I’ve tried going to unisex salons or female stylists, but my previous post on hair explains why that’s not much better.

Now you tell me what you think!

Do my observations seem ligit, or is it just me?

Should I just suck it up if I want my hair cut?

Are barbershops and hair styles so irrelevant that you don’t know why you bothered to read this post?

Clearly, I have my opinion, but maybe you can sway me.

Go ahead.

Give it a try.

Then come back later when I share more thoughts on reasons 3 & 4.

Peace & Love

Sarah L. Webb

Quarter-life Crisis or Crescendo?

Clearly, Americans in general resist aging. We do every thing from lie about our ages (turning 29 for the third year in a row) to shelling out beaucoup money on “age defying” cosmetics. In our culture, we admire youth. That’s why we have the age-old phenomenon of the mid-life crisis. We all know the archetypes: the fifty year old man buying a red sports car, the forty-year old woman dating the twenty year old guy. Well, there are actually some theories about our emotional reactions to aging.

According to an article on, as people age they try to preserve their ego and avoid feelings of despair about running out of time or wasting the time they had. Basically, people have an age related crisis when they want to maintain the self-image of their youth or when they have lots of regrets. Older people, according to CN, spend more and more time reminiscing or agonizing over their past.

But it’s not just the 40+ crowd having these kinds of issues. Apparently, along with tons of other shifts in age related behavior and expectations, twenty-somethings are experiencing an age related crisis too. It’s officially deemed a quarter-life crisis.

I’m thinking about this because I’m a twenty-something who just had a birthday. (Doesn’t everyone get contemplative around their birthdays?) While I think I’ve had my own version of the quarter-life crisis recently, I’m feeling right at home in my new age of 27. Who new it would feel so good? My life might actually be building up to something, like a Crescendo! (Or a cliff, but I’ll stay positive.)

Since the QLC is a relatively new condition, I thought I’d look to our more experienced crisis survivors for a few life lessons. Going back to the CN article, regrets are often the catalyst for an age related crisis. This should teach younger people to do what they can now to avoid regrets later. I quote someone when I say, “We won’t regret the things we’ve done, only the things we have not done.” So, as soon as you finish reading my blog, get up and do something!

CN also says that old people spend lots of time thinking about their past and sharing it with everyone they meet. At twenty-something you may or may not have much of a past to dwell in, but you can certainly find an elderly person willing to share stories and wisdom from their life. Go forth and sit at their feet.

Now, since I’m not a total slacker, I’ve found another great source besides CN that describes 10 ways you can survive an age-related crisis. The Frisky article targets people in their twenties, but at S. L. Writes, I think it applies to any demographic.

Adapted from Christine Hassler as shared by Wendy Atterberry
  1. Live in the present moment.
  2. Stop comparing yourself to your peers.
  3. Don’t worry about what others think.
  4. Listen to your intuition.
  5. “Don’t’ wait for permission, approval, or validation.”
  6. Be decisive.
  7. Don’t fear mistakes.
  8. Do things alone.
  9. Surround yourself with good counsel.
  10. Serve others.

I add one more: Use what’s in your hand.

I realized I’ve been trying to live by these principles my entire life, but I think our social conditioning makes it difficult to really put these into practice. I think the key word is practice. It’s better than doing nothing. It’s better than letting fear of change, fear of failure, or fear of success keep us from our best lives. I suggest practicing one bit of advice at a time. Even the smallest change can make a big difference.

For more incredible readings on age related crises, check out the related articles below.

Peace and Love from Sarah L. Webb

What’s in your hand?