In a word: colourism. Coined by writer Alice Walker, colourism refers to discrimination within communities of color towards those with darker skin. The preference for white skin is so firmly entrenched, two-thirds of Nigerian men saying they would prefer a lighter-skinned wife.
According to African-American author Iyanla Vanzant, the roots of colourism can be traced back to slavery. As black female slaves were ‘bred’ with their white owners, their children became successively lighter skinned and received preferential treatment. Darker skinned slaves toiled in the fields as their lighter counterparts were permitted indoors to service the ‘mistresses’ of the house.
Similar stories occurred in India during colonization when fairer Indians, who more closely resembled their European colonizers, were favored over their darker counterparts. Fair skin became associated with wealth, power and status, and darker skin with poverty, backwardness, and field work.
It is vital to recognise these origins of colourism in any discussion of it. Vanzant calls colourism, “A consequence of internalization of a white-dominated society’s entrenched white racial preference.”
In the Caribbean, the minority light-skinned community forms the majority of the ruling elite. This is, according to Caribbean-born writer Elizabeth Pears, “the effects of generations of wealth and privilege and marrying the ‘right’ people from the ‘right’ (and light!) families.”
In India, famed commercial director Prahled Kakkar admits that fair people are routinely cast over darker skinned rivals. “I often fight with clients if I think one (dark skinned actor) is a better performer, but clients are very open about not wanting to take what is seen as a risk.”
Dark skin is also seen as a risk in the west as the magazine industry’s attitude to black skin attests. Most recently Vanity Fair has come under fire for apparently lightening the skin of 12 Years A Slave star Lupita Nyong’o by several shades. Some claim it is just a ‘trick’ of the lighting, but regardless, the effect remains the same.