Everyday Racism and Colourism Pt. 1

Racism: a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race. — Merriam Webster Dictionary

Humans are visual creatures, when we look at one another, our first impressions are formed through what we see. And the colour of our skin is an undeniable visual factor that contributes to that. In what way however, depends on the colour. 

Racism is the act of possessing and acting on prejudices based on racial differences. The Merriam Webster Dictionary’s definition includes one crucial element to the meaning of racism – ‘racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race’. ‘Superiority’ is the key word. When a person of one race discriminates against a person of another race, it is the case that the discriminator inherently believes their race is superior to the other. 

Given the current political climate around the world, and global history, the usual attribution to that behaviour is white people towards all other racial groups. Through colonisation, imperialism, religious conquests, and expansionism, the white ideal has spread all across the world. It has been engrained into our thought processes through systemic oppression over thousands of years that white is good, everything else is not. That ideal, even after decolonisation and the end of imperialism is still reinforced. 

In movies we see predominantly white actors, and when we do see people of colour, they are usually light skinned or white-passing actors (although now we do see a lot of improvement, there is still a long way to go). In many parts of the world skin lightening and bleaching are multimillion dollar industries, where the same brands that promote diversity, also profit off of millions of people trying to change their biological features to fit that ideal. In the corporate world, the more ‘professional’ clothing attire and hairstyles are those that fit caucasion body types and skin colour. A simple google search of ‘professional hairstyle for men/women’ vs ‘unprofessional hairstyle for men/women’ can show you very clearly that ideal. This ideal has trickled down to the everyday lives of people of colour. In South Asia, fairness creams and skin lightening surgeries are ever so present. Movies and celebrities are all those that are light skinned and promote that standard of beauty. In Eastern Asia, the double eye lid is a constantly perpetuated beauty standard, where everyday people buy glue to stick their eyelids in shape. 

This led to the formation of colourism, when light skin is perceived as better. Within communities of colour, lighter skinned people are almost always preferred over darker skinned people. I remember when I was in elementary school and we were learning to draw and colour people, I was taught that the beige crayon was skin colour. That is where the problem starts. We are taught as kids that there is only one appropriate skin colour. As children, we couldn’t have know any better. We did as our parents and our teachers taught us. We were never told to find what we thought was skin colour, we were never credited for using brown or darker colours for our skin colour, we were never told that other colours for skin even existed. Inherently, we were denied the acknowledgement of our colour as one that is beautiful. If no one is taught that other colours are appropriate, we never see artwork or media that shows our colour, and the less we are represented, the less we believe our colour matters. 

A relative of mine conducts training for corporate offices in various areas such as problem solving and effective communication. The ability to become such a trainer requires extensive educational requirements and high levels of intellectual ability as they train all levels of the corporate chain in various areas. When I ask her after every session how the training went, her thoughts are always positive, highlighting how engaging the participants were, and how she gets to learn more about the local corporate world as well by interacting with them. However, with every session, comes one remark of reflection that immediately bothered me – ‘they said my accent was a little difficult to understand’. 

I was taken aback by that comment, especially considering we live in a country where there isn’t a majority white population, we have a predominantly eastern asian population. We live in a country where almost every single person has a different accent. I asked her if she had any difficulty understanding the participants’ accents to which she replied no, because she has had a lot of experience working alongside people with that accent. I then asked her if they had any problems understanding the various educational videos that were shown during the training, all that had an american or british accented host. She said no. It was absurd that they had difficulty understanding her accent but not other accents of which they also did not have much experience listening to. I first brushed it off as the ignorant view of a few participants that hadn’t interacted with people of other accents however, she was then assessed by a high ranking official of the company she works for. In their assessment, almost all comments were about her great ability to engage the learners and her strong understanding of the topic and being able to teach it well. But then came another comment – ‘although the trainer has a strong native accent, her grasp of english is very strong and was able to effectively communicate to the trainees’. My relative was gleeful after seeing all the positive comments but unaware of the repercussions that final comment had.

What did they mean by ‘native accent’? Why does the accent matter in the first place if everything else is good? Would they ever have made that comment for a white trainer with an American or British accent? Would they say that they have a ‘strong native accent’? Keep in mind, this high ranking official is not white themself.

Such prejudicial comments on the daily basis are those that have the most impact on our everyday lives. It might not seem as a big deal, it might seem like a slip of the tongue, or a mistaken interpretation. But that relative is now overly conscious over her speaking ability, even though she is renowned for her english skills and writing ability. Why should there be that lingering assumption that her accent is in any way inferior to another if the english ability is equal if not superior? 

This post has only been a dip in the pool of casual racism and colourism that so many of us experience on a daily basis. From beauty standards, to work, to child rearing, casual racism and colourism has implications in the way we perceive ourselves and others around us. How we speak about issues, how we approach other people, how we tackle prejudices, and what information we seek out. 

Stay tuned for more posts on this topic in the future.

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