A White Mark

I waz whitemailed
By a white witch,
Wid white magic
An white lies,
Branded by a white sheep
I slaved as a whitesmith
Near a white spot
Where I suffered whitewater fever.
Whitelisted as a whiteleg
I waz in de white book
As a master of white art,
It waz like white death.

People called me white jack
Some hailed me as a white wog,
So I joined de white watch
Trained as a white guard
Lived off the white economy.
Caught and beaten by de whiteshirts
I waz condemned to a white mass,
Don’t worry,
I shall be writing to de Black House.

– White Comedy by Benjamin Zephaniah

This poem by the British poet Benjamin Zephaniah “flips the script” on the words white and black, making the reader think about how those terms are used in the English language. In some cases white is used to denote good and black bad: white magic vs. black magic; blackleg is a derogatory term for a strike-breaker; blackguard is a criminal or someone of low status; black mass is a sacrilegious mass; black death apparently referred to the terror of the plague and not its symptoms. Others do not denote good or bad and are simply descriptive: blackwater fever is a malarial fever which turns a patient’s urine black, and the black watch is a Scottish military regiment which wears dark uniforms. I love that jarring last line, because it never occurred to me to wonder if any country would have a black house as their leader’s home.

The association of whiteness with goodness and blackness with badness is a known socio-cognitive bias. The skin tone implicit association test for example “often reveals an automatic preference for light-skin relative to dark-skin”. There is plenty of explicit bias too – you only need to watch Indian advertising or read the matrimonial columns for a few days to understand the high value that is placed on light skin. This advertisement for “Garnier White Complete Fairness Cream” for example, is par for the course. There’s a good discussion in the nirmukta.net forum on the origins of skin colour bias, for those who want to know more.

I was reminded of these matters because a few days ago, a law student filed a complaint in India’s consumer court against a crayon manufacturer, for having a pink/peach crayon called “skin”. From Student Sues Company Over ‘Racist’ Crayon, The Hindu (June 8th):

In his complaint to the (Bangalore Urban) Consumer Disputes Redressal Forum on Tuesday, Mr. Jain said, “On opening the box, I discovered that the ‘special skin crayon’ was of a shade that did not match my own skin colour. This can only be explained by the fact that the ‘special skin crayon’ which is part of the product is either defective or labelled misleadingly or both.” He terms as “extremely insensitive and inconsiderate,” the act of the company to label one particular shade as ‘skin colour’ in a market, where a majority of the consumers have skin tones that are either dark or at least different from the shade described as ‘skin’ by the company.

I don’t know how justified one is in claiming monetary compensation for this, but a few good things can happen out of it: a consumer court case can put some pressure on advertisers and it can raise public consciousness with the headlines it generates. Some small steps in the right direction.

I was also glad to see the reporter of the piece used the word colourism to describe what’s happening. The word racist used in the title isn’t quite accurate; giving this phenomenon a name like colourism (or shadeism, a term also increasingly being used) allows us to talk about it as a social system which has characteristics of its own and intersects with racism, casteism, classism and patriarchy (there is pressure on men to be light-skinned, but it’s far higher on women). As Radhika Parameswaran, a professor of journalism who has been studying colourism in the media, explains in this interview (the entire interview is worth watching – it’s around 18 minutes long and the transcript is included):

Now to use a term such as colourism for skin colour discrimination takes it beyond the term prejudice, where prejudice sometimes tends to keep discrimination at the individual level and reduces its significance and importance. By calling it colourism what we are actually doing is saying that the ways in which dark-skinned people are treated as inferior is systematic, it’s widespread, it’s a part of social, economic and cultural institutions and it needs to be tackled society-wide. We can’t do it by educating one person at a time. And perhaps we even have to think about legal solutions once you think about it hard enough–how do we tackle this problem?

I like colourism as a term because many many years ago there was no term for this kind of discrimination. So by calling it colourism we are equating it to other forms of oppression like racism and sexism which have been studied for a long time. And, which affects many different sections of society. These oppressions are systematic and have to be tackled society-wide.

And that really is the point of this post. That we’re dealing with a social system and we have to treat it as such. I’ve always thought that if we were to draw a diversity wheel for Indian society, we’d need to add two segments to the inner wheel: caste and skin colour. Note that they’d belong in the inner wheel – because for all practical purposes, they are permanent. This isn’t just an Indian thing either – as this well-made Canadian documentary titled “Shadeism” shows, it exists in African and Caribbean society too. (Watch for the scene where the filmmaker interviews her young relative, a little girl – and you’ll realise how insidious colourism is.)

Finally, on a personal note: I happen to be light-skinned. It isn’t that easy for me to say what privileges I’ve personally detected because of this, because the default privileged state is one of obliviousness. But I suspect I’ve always been accorded a certain “automatic” respect and warmth from strangers, an assumption of niceness – when I walk into a store for example, or when I’m house-hunting. There’s also been a continuous “aspirational value” attached to the colour of my skin – from my dad (who is quite dark) being asked “Why are you so dark and your son is so fair?”, to a colleague telling me “We were discussing fairness the other day, and you were the standard by which others were judged” (meant as a compliment). I have to work hard on the privilege checks – sometimes when I see someone buying a “fairness cream” in a shop, a part of my mind thinks what the hell is wrong with you? – and immediately I regret it, realising that no matter how intellectually aware I might be of the issue, I cannot know what it’s like: my locations on that diversity wheel rule out the possibility.





  1. CaitieCat says

    Really good writing – looking forward to reading more of the group’s work. Great addition to FtB.

    Funny how India keeps popping up in my life lately. Someone got me reading fiction by Indian writers, and I randomly selected a team to manage in Football Manager 2013, and it gave me East Bengal FC, where I’ve been very much enjoying the Kolkata Derby with Mohun Bagan. 😀

    ‘Bout time I learned more about the world’s largest democracy anyway.

  2. rq says

    I enjoyed this piece, and I look forward to more.
    Definitely food for thought, and I also like the term colourism.

  3. csrster says

    In “Beyond a Boundary” CLR James discusses how cricket clubs in Trinidad were segregated by skin-shade, so that sometimes even brothers would end up playing for different clubs.

  4. flybywire says

    Great article.
    I learned about the skin-shade issue about 20 years ago. I’m white and was dating a black woman at the time. A mutual associate of our who was black also, whispered to me that she was very dark skinned as if it was an issue. I was shocked because i didn’t expect such a thing and chatted about it with her later. She explained that there is judgement by skin-tone even amongst black people (Her words).

    I look forward to the day when people are no longer judged by some cultural view of acceptable appearance.

  5. says

    Interesting article.

    I think there may be two different phenomena going on here though. I think the association of white=good and black=bad may be independent of skin colour preferences or racism. I think it has more to do with the fact that we are a diurnal species, enjoying sunshine and fearing darkness. If this is true, then the association does not seem to be overly problematic or racist to me, but that may just be my privilege showing.

    I think this is unrelated to skin tone preferences because there are plenty of pale-skinned people who want to have darker skin, and seek to achieve this with sunbathing, tanning beds or fake tan.

    In contrast to the near-universal association of black with bad and white with good, skin tone preferences seem to me to be more of a transient, mutable fashion, perhaps driven by associations with economic wealth, with poorer economies in Africa and Asia usually having darker-complexioned people who seek to emulate the wealthy white people in richer Western countries. By the same token, it is often considered fashionable to wear western clothing, buy Western products, speak English, sport apparel with English text (even when it is not understood) and so on.

    The association of skin tone preference with economic wealth is also hinted at when you look at fashion trends in traditionally pale-skinned Western countries such as the UK and Ireland, where historically it was considered beautiful to be pale (perhaps because this implied sufficient wealth not to be working in the fields all day), however now it is considered more beautiful to be tanned (perhaps because this implies sufficient wealth to go on sun holidays rather than working at an office desk all day).

    If this interpretation is correct, then we might expect darker skin to be more fashionable around the world if an African country were to become the kind of economic and cultural superpower that the USA is today, however we would still associate black with bad and white with good.

    Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like we’re going to be able to test this prediction any time soon.

  6. says

    Very good article. I have one quibble, which is that blackleg may belong in the second category. The etymology is the same as scab, meaning strikebreaker: Both are diseases of cattle, blackleg being one that causes black swellings on the legs. Other than that, though, they’re all good points.

  7. Pen says

    Really interesting post. You can find traces of the colourism issue in the culture of the British Isles going way back. People with slightly more olive complexions were seen as less attractive, less healthy, less trustworthy, lower class, etc… They were often described as ‘sallow’ which meant yellowish in a way that was considered unhealthy looking. And we can also understand that pale skins, especially on women, were valued as a status symbol because poor women often had to labour outside and therefore got tanned. But it’s quite strange how the whole thing gets applied to hair colour. All those black knights and black-bearded pirates who were always perceived as just a bit more likely to be dangerous, evil and on the wrong side as the blond-haired ones. There are also some regional and ethnic issues that were associated with this at least in the older traditions of British people. I’m not sure if all their perceptions of themselves were entirely correct but it’s an interesting phenomenon.

  8. Ysanne says

    I think there may be two different phenomena going on here though. I think the association of white=good and black=bad may be independent of skin colour preferences or racism. I think it has more to do with the fact that we are a diurnal species, enjoying sunshine and fearing darkness.

    I think this idea does have merit in the context of things like “black death” or “black magic” — blackness as the dark, scary, night-time-associated. Conversely, shining light and warmth have connections with comfort (at least in non-desert cultures with long dark cold winters). Plus keeping something white and shiny requires serious cleaning effort, whereas stuff that gets dirty by wear quickly turns black, so there’s the association of white=purity, black/brown=muddy.
    However, regardless of where these associations come from, the serious problem is that they were and keep being applied to people’s skin/hair/eye colour, at which point they stop being “interesting etymological tidbit” and become “basis for colourist prejudice”.

  9. says


    What I’m proposing is that the etymology of these associations is not really what’s influencing colourist prejudice, and that this prejudice instead comes from desire to emulate the wealthy and influential west.

    If I’m wrong, then you’re right that these etymological tidbits are the basis for colourist prejudice, but if I’m right, then these phrases are a red herring, and we’d still have the same colourist prejudice even without them.

  10. Ysanne says

    Disagreeable Me,
    I agree completely that the etymology is definitely not solely responsible for a great part of the colourist prejudice. I was just trying express that even if the etymology is harmless, the way in which it is applied is not any more, so referring to harmless origins doesn’t help at all.
    Not sure though if it’s all a West-emulating thing: AFAIK, a fair number of cultures valued paleness way before the Western influence became prevalent, and even in the West, the popularity of a “healthy” tan (or really anything outdoorsy-sporty) has become desirable only relatively recently. If you have counterexamples, I’d be really interested.

  11. says


    You can find traces of the colourism issue in the culture of the British Isles going way back. People with slightly more olive complexions were seen as less attractive, less healthy, less trustworthy, lower class, etc

    SAme goes in the Scandinavian countries. In the Norse sagas, for instance, ‘dark’ (Which meant dark-haired, let alone dark complected) was routinle used as a stand-in for ‘ugly,’ and often specifically equated with such.

    There are also some regional and ethnic issues that were associated with this at least in the older traditions of British people

    I wonder if this may have something to do with the Saxons being generally fairer of eye and skin than the Celts they overran and dominated.

  12. says

    “referring to harmless origins doesn’t help at all”
    I’m proposing that maybe these terms have absolutely nothing to do with colourist prejudice whatsoever. It may be that the association of white with good and black with bad is entirely irrelevant to colourist prejudice (although, admittedly it does seem far-fetched to suppose it hasn’t influenced it even slightly). I’m not saying only that the origins are harmless, I’m suggesting that even the terms themselves may be harmless.

    ” If you have counterexamples, I’d be really interested.”
    The recent trend towards tanning is the main counter-example I had in mind. I don’t see why it should be discounted just because it’s recent.

    But if the common verbal association of black with bad and white with good was really so influential, I doubt we’d see so much black used in fashion and product design. Any deep association with badness or inferiority would surely lead to reduced sales of black products, and business would quickly catch onto this and produce less of them.

    The fact that this does not seem to be the case is perhaps indicative that this linguistic association is not strong enough to influence us much unconsciously. While I agree that colourism is a pervasive and pernicious problem, I am simply skeptical that it has much to do with language such as we see in White Comedy.

    All that being said, your point about pale skin being preferred even before influence from the West does seem to undermine my hypothesis, especially if preference for pale skin was much more common than the reverse. However, even if this is so, it may yet have been because wealthier people tended to be paler from not having to work outdoors all day. It may have been a case of the influence of the pale upper class rather than the influence of the pale West.

    But all this is just speculation. I don’t have any evidence to back this up. I’m not arguing for a position so much as I’m arguing for open-mindedness on the issue.

  13. Tsu Dho Nimh says

    Part of it can also be attribituted to scarcity … an attraction to the rare specimen.

    An acquaintance of mine, a dark-complected Mexican from Veracruz, was advised to work on his tan before an assignment in Norway. He said it was resoundingly successful.

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