Is the ideology of colourism an issue in the Arts Community and in the UK?

Let's talk colourism photo

In a nutshell, yes. While the origins of colourism date back to slavery, the television, theatre and film industries have certainly upheld its power and influence.

Casting directors, producers, and directors are still being guided by their unconscious bias in opting for actors/ performers with eurocentric features over those with darker complexions.

The Oxford dictionary describes Colourism as a “prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone.”

Prevalent in Black and Asian communities, colourism it is thought to be a hangover of slavery where white masters favoured light skinned or mixed-race women who were often a product of raping dark-skinned women. In the Asian community it is said to be an age-old issue of class, the elite ruling class often had lighter skin, whilst those who worked outside (labourers) were darker. 

After emancipation, colourism was a legitimate way to separate black and black mixed-race people by class. The lighter your skin tone, the higher your class. In came the brown paper bag test. This however did not negate mixed -race or lighter skinned people from racism and was a practice perpetuated by the black community.

With the rising conversation about racism in the UK, colourism cannot be left. As another result of white supremacist patriarchy that plagues the world and therefore the entertainment industry, it needs to be addressed.

Unconsciously and often consciously gate keepers are still making choices to employ black people in the entertainment industry with a closer proximity to whiteness. This practice is still very much perpetuating racism and racist systems. It continues to support the idea that ‘white is right’ and black is tolerated or black beauty only exists within the confines of whiteness.

Singing and West End performer, Beverley Knight was once quoted in a Hello interview about her career saying, “It was easier to market someone who was much lighter, with more ‘European’ features.”

As lighter skin has always been easier to ‘sell’ white people in power are still making choices to support this.

Lighter skinned or mixed – raced individuals also suffer as a result of this power structure. Often having their heritage and race questioned or ignored and being put into boxes that fit a white lens rather than having any semblance of accuracy or respect for their history.

Until the influx of ‘different’ casting choices after the tragic events of 2020 the representation on screen of black people in general was still far and few between. The representation of dark -skinned individuals taking a major back seat.

From adverts to the newest Netflix craze, Brigerton (celebrated for its diversity), casting choices being made still favour a lighter skin tone.

As Lupita Nyong’o once said, ‘colourism is the daughter of racism’ in  ‘a world that rewards lighter skin over darker skin”.

The existence of light-skinned or mixed- race families is often more prevalent than dark -skinned families in UK television and on stage. When darker – skinned performers are used they are often mixed in as part of a multiracial family creating a more palatable product for consumers. White consumers.

The UK theatre industry is also awfully familiar with perpetuating colourism. It is however not often acknowledged as much as the screen world. The existence of darker -skinned women as love interests has slightly increased but these women are often paired with a white partner. This ‘justifies’ their existence in this imagined world by having a white man by their side, it also validates their beauty and attractiveness by having been chosen by the pinnacle of patriarchy.

The use of colour-blind casting also brings up issues for the black community. It often seeks to erase the race of a performer of colour, giving them a white parent or sibling. This way the audience is being asked to suspend their disbelief and again justifies or waters down the existence of a performer of colour. If that performer is dark-skinned it is almost always a given. Just look at UK theatre over the past 5 years and the major players.

The issue of colourism is not an American issue. It is not an issue only faced in Hollywood and the US music industry, where the Zendaya’s, Beyonce’s, Mariah Carey’s and Rhianna’s climb to success faster than the Viola Davis’ and Danai Guriras’. Although, of course this is the case.

This problem exists at our own back door.

All black people, regardless of their skin tone, experience racism but we must be willing to talk about the dangerous unconscious bias and favouring of those with a closer proximity to whiteness. Representation is improving but there is still some way to go and we must do more to actively break down this open secret. 

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