Colourism

Mikael Wagner
11 min readJun 1, 2023

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Are you familiar with the term colourism? It’s a term that I never heard of until I became an adult. I can remember friends and neighbours teasing my mother by calling her Creole or high yellow. I had no idea what it referred to at the time. This was language often heard in the Black community where I grew up. To be honest, I thought colourism referred to the jumper or sweater I was wearing to school, but I was wrong.

As a young black boy, I believed that everyone in the Black community was the same. I genuinely loved all my classmates, not for the colour of their skin but because they were true friends. This is when I learned that discrimination could be used by Blacks against other Blacks depending on the shade of their skin. My mother was considered high yellow, but she married a man, my father who friends would refer to be black as the ace of spades. Once again, I was confused by the description. My oldest sister came out the colour of my father and she hated it because she was often teased about being too black by her Black classmates. My older brother came out a beautiful brown colour like a cup of cappuccino. Then I was delivered, looking like a red fire engine with red skin and reddish/blond hair. Like my sister, I hated it too, but there were benefits and big differences.

We attended Black primary, middle, and high school with all Black staff that always discriminated against the students with darker skin, even though most of the teachers and counsellors had very dark skin too. More than anything in the world, my sister wanted to be a majorette for her black high school, but she kept getting rejected because she was too dark, and they only wanted light-complexioned or high-yellow girls and boys to apply. My sister never gave up and finally, they allowed her to join, after a visit to the school by my mother who was small but rather frightening. For me, it was a bit of a blessing and a curse. Darker skin classmates started to resent me because I was always selected to take notes to the office for our teachers, to help put lessons on the board or help the teachers grade papers. I never wanted to do any of it, but because I had red skin, they seemed to like me more, but I still don’t understand why it made a difference. I was a naughty little boy that always got into trouble, but they bailed me out time and time again. With no talent for turning flips or dancing like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, I was nominated and drafted to become a cheerleader even though I kept declining the offer. Now I understand why, it all had to do with the colour of my skin and my big red afro.

So, what exactly is colourism? The term was coined in 1983 by Pulitzer Prize–winner Alice Walker, who defined colourism as “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their colour” in her book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose. Many experts agree that colourism, as it operates in America, can be traced back to chattel slavery, as seen in the distinction between “house” and “field” slaves. But it certainly exists beyond the constraints of the United States. While the term colourism may have been coined by a Black woman, with stealthy roots in American slavery and racism, its impacts are global. According to Anu Mandapati, A south Indian global diversity, equity, and inclusion leader, “When the British were in India, that was where a lot of the standards were set, because people who were lighter skinned got jobs in government and they were treated better than darker skinned individuals. Darker-skinned individuals usually had labour-type positions.

One of my best friends from El Salvador shared similar stories with me. Apparently, colourism existed there too. His mother and older sister have lighter skin, almost white, but he has beautiful brown skin. As a result, he wasn’t allowed to play in the sunshine as much as he wanted to do because his mother wanted to protect him from getting too dark. She would always say to both of us, “You need to wear a hat if you don’t want to get darker.” But that’s exactly what we both wanted. Being of darker skin around the world comes with negative stereotypes that are not true when people are being described. Once we grew up, we would travel to many places where there were beaches and hot sun, and we would lay out to get even darker.

Colourism can exist when applying for jobs. If you are lighter skinned, interviewers, especially if they are white feel more comfortable having you on their team. If your skin is darker, interviewers often became frightened or hesitant to hire someone of this colouring. Those with fairer skin tones are often viewed as a more preferred means of inclusion. It gets worse, usually, if there is a Black person on the interview panel, you may not get to the next level for a variety of similar reasons If you are dark-skinned, they may strive to make sure you are not hired because they seem to believe that one black person in a company or in a department is enough. In reverse, if your skin is too light, a Black member on the panel will dislike you regardless of your skills or experience to do a great job. Often in their minds, they believed that a lighter-skinned person may think they are better than other Black people or may want to take their job. Of course, none of this is true.

Often in many companies where I was employed, Black people, regardless of their skin colours would be hired to discriminate against other Black workers and to keep them down. They often became known as Uncle Tom or Aunt Tomasina. Often when a Black person tried to file a discrimination complaint against their employer, they would be unsuccessful if it was a race discrimination claim. I lost track of the number of friends that lost cases when the discrimination was legitimate.

At different periods throughout my life, I was confronted with the brown paper bag test. Are you familiar with the test? Well, the brown paper bag test was a form of discrimination used to exclude dark-skinned Black people by comparing their skin tone to the colour of a brown paper bag. Those who were lighter than the paper bag were allowed into the clubs or private parties. Those whose skin failed the test were rejected. There are stories of Black fraternities and sororities, professional organisations, and even churches using the test to determine membership. The gangster owner of Harlem’s Cotton Club, which catered to white audiences, was said to use the test to restrict who could join his dance troupe, sometimes known as the Copper Coloured Gals. In New Orleans, where generations of racial mixing between white Europeans, enslaved Black people, and Indigenous Americans had created a unique caste structure based on skin tone, there are still reputable stories surrounding brown bag parties which was a New Orleans custom.

My introduction to the brown paper bag test occurred during the early 1990s in the beautiful Oakland Hills. I was excited to be invited to one of the coolest gay Black parties in a neighbourhood I would never be able to afford to live in. During that time, if you were Black and living in the Oakland Hills, you were considered financially well off. Once I got the invitation, I called my best friend Kenny who moved to the Bay Area from Detroit to see if he wanted to join me. He screamed, “Hell Yeah”. I smiled all week looking forward to attending this fun event. All week we discussed what we would wear, what were the best colours, buying new shoes, and getting our afros trimmed to perfection. We couldn’t wait for the weekend. Once it arrived, we were literally jumping up and down all day in preparation for a good time. We were both giddy with excitement as we jumped into my little Mazda CRX with great dance music blasting. We were both singing the words of songs and moving to the beat of the music. As we started going up the hill, we thought it best to turn the sound down so we wouldn’t be harassed by the Oakland Hills police. After we approached the beautiful home and parked, we sat in the car for another 10 minutes convincing ourselves that we were good enough to be invited to this party. Neither of us knew that it was a brown paper bag party or what it meant, but we soon found out.

Kenny and I hugged each other and pressed the doorbell. A handsome light-skinned Black man opened the door, held a paper bag next to my face and immediately started flirting with me and gave me a warm hug as he introduced himself to me. Not sure why, but I still remember his name. With a deep voice he said, “My name is Malcolm.” I just smiled and he pulled me into the house. I waited for my friend, but his reception was less than warm towards him. Malcolm looked at him, held up the paper bag and declared that he wasn’t welcome because he didn’t pass the test. I started to question him and argued with him as my friend was trying to pull me back from getting into a fight. When Malcolm said, “Your friend is too dark for this party, but you can come in, but he can’t.” As my hands started to make a fist, I was asked to respect the rules and leave my friend in the car. I lost my temper and was asked to leave the house. We hugged each other for a while then got into the car and drove away in complete silence. We drove back to my place in San Francisco, listened to music and danced and celebrating our friendship with a bottle of champagne from the back of my car. It was the first time I was aware of privileges. Everyone has privileges in life, but it’s the way that you use them to help others. When I shared the story with my mother, she laughed and reminded me of lessons that I obviously missed while growing up.

Mom taught me that it didn’t matter if my skin was light or dark because Blacks would be treated the same by whites. Throughout my life I would test her theory by simply crossing any street that wasn’t considered a black community and hearing all the auto door locks click as soon as they would see me, whether I was wearing a suit and tie or torn jeans. I loved getting into elevators full of white people, men, and women, and watching the frightened looks on their faces. Many of the white women would grab their purses or exit the elevator to wait for the next one. Often, I would ride elevators on my lunch break just to see the look of terror on their faces so I could go home and share the funny stories with my roommates. Shopping was also another situation where most salespeople were afraid of a Black customer or would simply pretend you were not waiting to make a purchase. My first case of this was in the fabulous Neiman Marcus department store in San Francisco. I wanted to buy a cake for a friend’s birthday. The salesperson kept looking over my head and trying to help white customers. To my surprise, I was very patient, not like I am today. Finally, a very tall, good-looking white businessman said, “I am sorry, but this gentleman was next and has been waiting.” I thought the salesperson was going wet her pants with fear. I remained polite and respectable, and I am still not sure how.

While working and living in Washington DC during the Obama Administration, I was unable to get a taxi any day of the week. My work required that a suit and tie be worn every day. Most days, when it wasn’t snowing, I would simply walk the 10 or 15 minutes to work. One snowy day I took a chance at trying to get a taxi. Not one taxi stopped to pick me up. Finally, one European driver that passed me three times decided to stop once I pulled my hoodie off. I asked him why he wouldn’t stop and as he started to explain his reasoning I could feel and see his embarrassment. He shared with me that Black people would rob and steal from you and often jump out of the taxi without paying. Before I could ask another question, he looked me in the eyes and apologised and said none of it had ever happened to him before but it was what the other drivers had warned him about. He teared up. I ended up taking him for coffee and a light breakfast. Bonding with him and learning the truth was worth missing my meeting. Usually in DC a white man or woman would push me aside, hail a taxi, open the door, and push me into the car. The drivers would usually look shocked and nervous. I am ashamed to say that many of the drivers that would not stop were African. Of course, I would question them too if I could get one to stop for me.

As I attended a Black college, the caste system didn’t come as a surprise anymore. Many fraternities kept trying to recruit me to become a member because of my skin colour. I refused to be a part of any of them although it was not easy to keep saying ‘no’. On campus, the two biggest fraternities/sororities were the Alpha Kappa Alpha and Delta Sigma Theta from the first half of the 20th century. Once again, I was tricked into becoming a cheerleader and I had no interest in being a part of the team. In return I managed to get all my dark-skinned friends into the games. Their cheers and screaming made me dance even harder for them and we would laugh after each game. Honestly, I was hoping I would have been eliminated from the squad.

The first time I travelled to Europe, mostly Italy and France, I was frightened because no one was afraid of me or of my skin colour. The trauma that we often carry with us is shocking. It was the first time that I realised that the treatment of some people of colour was very different from life in America where almost every race is discriminated against in the job market, housing, education, and healthcare. I never wanted to leave Europe so I ended up attending college in Rome through an exchange program and later moved to Paris to explore the world.

Although things have changed in the world, young friends tell me they still feel discrimination from whites and from within the Black communities. Often Black people can treat each other worse than whites and it still makes no sense to me. Lately, I read a lot about slavery and black history and have learned how it was easier to control a race of people by placing negative thoughts in their heads to keep each other down or from achieving equality. It has worked for over 300 years. It’s the old divide and conquer theory that is still prevalent today. My mom called it the crabs in a bucket theory, not allowing any to escape the bucket. I was always taught to show kindness to anyone who looks like me or is a person from a cultural background. The paper bag parties still exist today. Often, I still struggle to understand why hatred is so prevalent in the world. If we live in a society that shows an explicit preference for white and light-skinned people, the brown paper bag test will still matter because even though we’re not walking around with a brown paper bag in our pockets, the way society treats dark-skinned people reveals the threat that not only racism but also colourism poses.

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Mikael Wagner

Mikael Wagner is a communications project manager with focus on health promotion, public relations , marketing and focus group facilitation.