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.
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 Antiquity, states:
[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.
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?