Colorism – another weapon in the arsenal of white supremacy: what it is and how it works

We are all black women! Without this thing of mulata, parda, moreninha...
We are all black women! Without this thing of mulata, parda, moreninha…

Note from BW of Brazil: Racism in the land that would later be known as Brazil has existed perhaps since the colonization of the land by the Portuguese. And even as Brazil continues to deny or fall short of fully acknowledging how deeply ingrained this system of racial privilege structures so many facets of life, underneath the practice of racism lies yet another layer or perhaps sub-category of this system of penalties: colorism. From perhaps the earliest articles posted on this blog in which we attempted to break down various terminologies commonly used throughout the country in an attempt to explain an existent color-coded hierarchy, colorism explains so many things about the very question of race in Brazil. From the widespread escape from a specifically black identity, to treatment within one’s own family to the difficulty of a black woman finding a life-long partner of the opposite sex, colorism remains alive and well!

Though not as commonly discussed and debated as its more powerful relative, a recent controversy about a lighter-skinned black woman replacing a darker-skinned black woman for a position that many agree is in itself detrimental to black women of all skin tones brought the topic to forefront. And it needs to be! Due to numerous conversations with various afrodescendentes in Brazil, this writer can attest to the fact that many lighter-skinned self-defined blacks sometimes even deny the very existence of such privileges and penalties. The blog’s position on racial classification has long been the fact that in terms of socioeconomic data that shows quality of life in Brazil, pretos (blacks) and pardos (browns) are almost at an identical disadvantage in comparison to those who classify themselves or are classified as brancos (whites), which is the reason most social research studies usually classify and study the two together as group, ie, Afro-Brazilians. But even so, as Brazil’s color hierarchy operates in a color continuum, this is NOT to say that that privileges and penalties don’t exist within the group. Today’s piece explores this reality very well. 

Colorism: what it is, how it works

by Aline Djokic

Colorism* or pigmentocracy is discrimination by skin color and is very common in countries that suffered European colonization and in post-slaveholding countries. In a simplified way, the term means that the more pigmented a person, the more exclusion and discrimination that person will suffer.

Contrary to racism, which is based on the identification of the subject as belonging to a certain race to exercise discrimination, colorism is oriented only on the person’s skin color. This means that even if a person is recognized as black or African descendant, the tone of his or her skin will be decisive for the treatment that society will give him or her.

Colorism makes difficult and even completely prevents access of dark-skinned people to certain places in society, which in turn damages or prevents their access to services of which they are entitled as Brazilian citizens.

Although orienting oneself in skin color, colorism in Brazil presents a peculiarity; phenotypic aspects such as cabelo crespo (kinky/curly hair), round or broad nose, among other physical aspects that our culture associates with African ancestry, also influence the process of discrimination.

But why does having lighter skin bring privileges for the Afro-descendant person if he/she is still not identified as white? Because even when he/she is identified as “negra” by a racist society, which would mean that he or she could not enjoy the same rights as a white person, he/she is still more “pleasant” to the eyes of branquitude (whiteness) and should/can therefore be “tolerated “in their midst. This is a very important aspect in colorism: a black person is tolerated but not accepted because accepting him/her would be recognizing that the difference exists and that overcoming prejudice that one has about this “difference” has to be defeated.

In the branquitude-pessoa negra de pele clara (whiteness-light-skinned black) relationship the important thing is not convincing one’s self that the person is in fact white, but rather to ignore their black features to the point of imagining him/her as white, to the point of enduring his/her presence that, because of racism, is seen as intrusive.

In our society tolerance of the black subject is constructed through mimicry**. The most common example of mimicry is that of insects such as the owl butterfly (caligo memnon) case, whose open wings look like the face of an owl. This kind of “camouflage” protects it from potential predators and is a survival strategy.

In order to be tolerated in a racist and discriminatory society, black people force themselves to practice mimicry to gain access to spaces in which they were always excluded. Hair straightening was also born from his necessity of “camouflaging” their very presence, to become less “visible” to the whiteness and thus ensure their very survival.

The colorism works as a system of favors, in which branquitude allows the presence of black subjects with greater identification of close physical traits of Europe, but not elevating them to the same level of whites, it tolerates these “intruders” of which they can recognize themselves in part and in whose act of imitating they can also recognize the domain of their ideal of human in the other.

It’s important to accepting this “favor” is not an option for the black subject. Rejecting this “agreement” would result in their exclusion. An example is the mulheres negras de pele clara (light-skinned black women) that while straightening her hair, suffers less racial harassment in the workplace, but after abdicating from this process goes on to be openly discriminated against. What happens is that the blackness of these women could no longer be ignored and her reaffirmation through the black aesthetic comes to be seen as a threat by whiteness as a threat, a sign of insubordination that deserves retaliation and/or exclusion. In the case of dark-skinned women abandoning the white aesthetic can mean the intensification of social exclusion, of which she has already been an uninterrupted victim and in all spaces.

The presence of black people, whose physical features are more accepted by branquitude, in spaces that it intends to keep exclusively white, provokes the camouflage of the still existing racism in our society.

In addition, colorism creates the illusion of the insertion of the whole black population, when in fact the dark-skinned population is denied any possibility of access. A pessoa de pele escura (dark-skinned person) shall be recognized as black in all circumstances, whiteness will not recognize in him/her traits with which it can identify itself and thereby awaken its empathy.

Colorism however is not an exclusive problem of interaction between the whiteness and the black subject of the various shades in society, it also generates conflict within the black community.

The tolerance of the negro de pele clara (light-skinned black) subject by whiteness (that favors, but doesn’t free him/her from racism), sometimes creates a rivalry between them and negros de pele escura (dark-skinned blacks), who have to fight for their right to mobility without any kind of advantage. It appears then, a sense of injustice that can intensify the false idea that fair-skinned people are not black, as they have the “same” access and enjoy the same freedom to move around in all areas as white people. Such access and tolerance also leads many light-skinned blacks to doubt their blackness, while dark-skinned black people come to understand their more unhidden experiences of racism as a reaffirmation and proof of the originality of their blackness.

In areas of relationships, as the ideal within that hierarchy of colors and tones is to achieve whiteness and eliminate or reject blackness, black women are both, as much the light-skinned as the dark-skinned, constantly exposed to rejection.

In the relationship involvement of a light-skinned black woman with a man, she will be seen as a second option or of no detriment of a white woman, and in the case of dark-skinned black woman, she will not even be an option or will be the third option after the lighter skinned black woman and the white woman, in that order. This happens because in our patriarchal society women continue to be considered a man’s property and as part of the goods, with which he defines his position in society; and within our racist society the black woman does not bring any status.

In the case of black man restrictions the restrictions connected to mobility and insertion remains identical to that of black women, differing only in gender issues. Through personal relationships, however, the black man regardless of his skin tone, can insert himself in the spaces intended for whiteness through amorous involvement with a white woman. This explains in part the majority preference of black men who ascend financially for amorous involvement with white women, preferably those whose appearance re-enforces to the maximum the ideal of Eurocentric beauty in our society.

Machismo in our society defines that the “value” of a woman depends on her “beauty”. Because of racism the black woman is at a constant disadvantage in comparison to white women, since whiteness understands that to be beautiful is to be white. Colorism is in this aspect, an aggravation of this discrimination because it stigmatizes the image already loaded with stereotypes of the black woman, dividing them into black women that are good to be desired or hyper-sexualized and those that do not deserve to be desired, thus creating a situation of “exclusion of exclusion”. We see here a demonstration of of the title of Alice Walker’s text that introduces the term colorism, “If the Present Looks Like the Past, What Does the Future Look Like?” (“Se o presente se parece com o passado, como será o future?”), as we see today, that Brazilian society still considers that “a branca é para casar, a mulata para fornicar e a preta para trabalhar” (white woman is for marrying, the mulata for fornication and black woman for work) (1).

Sister Citizen - Shame, Stereotypes and Black Women in America by Melissa Harris-Perry
Sister Citizen – Shame, Stereotypes and Black Women in America by Melissa Harris-Perry

Following this thought, the black man, even without social mobility is in a privileged position in relation to black women, for being black does not impede him from relating himself emotionally with black women, while black women because of sexism and because of racism she encounters, lesser and lesser, with whom she wants to relate herself. We see happen in Brazil, a situation that Melissa Harris-Perry describes in her book Sister Citizen – Shame, Stereotypes and Black Women in America (Irmã Cidadã – Vergonha, Estereótipos e Mulheres Negras na América), in which the author says that “loneliness in the life of the black women is something that begins in childhood with parental abandonment and extends throughout her life through the  delay in amorous relationships.” ***

This short introduction of the effects of colorism in the lives of black people in Brazil shows how it horribly affects self-esteem, amorous relationships and the exertion of full citizenship for black people. In addition, he it’s a very important instrument of a racist society in maintaining only white spaces.

* The term colorism was first used for the first time by the writer Alice Walker in the essay “If the Present Looks Like the Past, What Does the Future Look Like?”, which was published in the book In Search of Our Mothers’ Garden in 1982.

** Maria do Mar Castro Varela & Nikita Dhawan discuss mimicry and the obsession for whiteness in European former colonies in the text “Of Mimicry and (Wo)Man: Desiring Whiteness in Postcolonialism” published in the book Kritische Weißseinforschung in Deutschland – Mythen , Subjekte, Masken of 2005.

*** Harris-Perry, Melissa V. Sister CitizenShame, Stereotypes and Black Women in America. Yale University Print 2013.

Source: Blogueiras Negras


1. An old saying in Brazilian society that has been utilized in a number of posts on this blog.

About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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