Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2018-19/Imperialism: a black and white issue?

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A study was carried out to test the hypothesis that the variation in the pigmentation of skin colour in diverse populations is consistently correlated with the mean measured IQs of various groups.[1] The notion that people's cognitive abilities can be ranked on a sort of hierarchical scale seems absurd. The main limitation of such a study design is the reasoning behind the causal basis of the correlation. Does the pigmentation of one's skin actually define intelligence? Or is it simply a social construct, which has fed into the system, enabling the elites to retain their socio-political power? These questions may be something for the 94 percent of (white) politicians sitting in the House of Commons to think about.[2]

Colourism: Imperialist Roots[edit | edit source]

This scientific correlation parallels the ideologies underpinning the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century: an intellectual and philosophical revolution which identified Europeans with superior intellect and beauty.[3] These principles were later embodied in the work of Immanuel Kant, who claimed that the colour of the individuals’ skin was “clear proof that what he said was stupid” [4](p. 38). According to Western religious beliefs, blackness is associated with sin and whiteness with purity. European religious folk-law overflows with stories of sin turning men black, to stories of black people being born in hell. Thinking about this more profoundly, the ideology of IQ and intellect was almost founded during the Age of Enlightenment. Are these scientific tests based on a concept designed to facilitate European superiority?

The unequivocal link between the psychological damage of the slavery movement and the development of the skin bleaching is highlighted by Deborah Gabriel.[3] The imperialist domination over African nations dehumanised those who were enslaved,[3] thus establishing an exclusive standard of human beings based on Western superiority. Between 1526 and 1867,[5] approximately 12.5 million slaves were shipped from Africa to the West. Gabriel argues that the scars of this "tragic past" [3](p. 101) developed from centuries of being perceived as second-class citizens.[3]

Thinking about colourism further, Gabriel defines the concept as a "system of privilege and discrimination based on the degree of lightness" of skin colour [3](p. 5). Furthermore, Bodenhorn and Ruebeck [6] discuss that colourism developed during the slavery era of America, in reference to the fact that light skinned slaves were disproportionately selected to work as house-slaves, whereas those with relatively darker skin were forced into the fields. Developing further, having a lighter skin tone was regarded as the basis for a better standard of living,[5] which further highlights the exponential imperialist influence. Moreover, centuries of “irreparable cultural damage” [3](p. 96) from enslavement has established the foundations for the phenomena of skin bleaching to this day.

Skin perception in the mass media[edit | edit source]

This issue of colourism is reflected in the media in the forms of advertisement, magazines, movies, television and the internet. Mainstream media plays an important role in the construction of the black image, shaping society's understandings of blackness and beauty, often dissociating the one from the other. For instance, the underrepresentation of dark skin females in advertisements contributes to the promotion of the unhealthy, "racist" idea of "black ugliness" in women" [3](p. 19), indicating the existence of a white supremacy in beauty standards.

As argued by Deborah Gabriel [3] (p. 28): “because white skin is personified as the beauty ideal, lighter skin women are seen as more beautiful than darker skinned women”. Even though we live in a diverse society, popular culture keeps privileging light skinned women over their darker counterpart, as they are closer to whiteness and Eurocentric features. In 2005, four African-American women (Halle Berry, Alicia Keys, Sophie Okonedo and Oprah Winfrey) appeared in People's Magazine list of '50 Most Beautiful People', but all of them except for Winfrey had a lighter complexion, which is a product of their mix race heritage.[7] Furthermore, the glorification of white beauty is clearly visible in the fashion industry, which is dominated by fair skinned models.[3] However, earlier studies have found that even black African-American magazines such as Ebony leave little room for dark black women in their pages.[3] This highlights how the colourist bias is also embedded in the minds of the black community. Given that light skin is a marker of beauty and attractiveness, dark skinned women may suffer from low self-esteem in a world that fails to represent them and that constantly rewards and values whiteness. In fact, researchers found that “a change in skin colour from dark to light is associated with a .28 increment in self-esteem” [8](p. 347). That is to say that colourism actively affects women's perception of their dark skinned self in a negative way. The issue is being brought to the attention of the international audience, thanks to notable celebrities such as actress Nandita Das. In an interview with The Guardian, Kavitha Emmanuel, founder of Indian NGO Women of Worth, explains how the 'Dark is Beautiful' campaign endorsed by the actress in 2009 “is standing up to bias toward lighter skin in India”.[9]

India: the biggest market[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Skin bleaching cosmetic products. Photo taken in a shop in London on the 1st December 2018.

During the nineteenth century, Great Britain was one of the leading Imperialist countries of the West and had colonies in India since the sixteen hundreds. At the end of the 19th Century, British emigration to India increased exponentially as the British Imperialist Government encouraged the ideological reproduction of the Empire.[10] Nationalist British who moved to India considered themselves to be a superior race with respect to the black Indians. As they were a minority, the British were mainly interested in Indians for their army and workforce, while higher positions were reserved for white people, or in some cases to whiter skinned Indians.[11] The idea of a privileged, lighter skinned ruling class is deeply embedded in Indian culture, such that even after independence in 1947, lighter skin was still considered more desirable.[11] Market size for fairness cosmetics and creams in India is estimated to be approximately US$450 million today and the market growth rate for this cosmetic branch is 20% per annum.[12] According to “a conjoint analysis of consumer preferences”,[12] “it has been estimated that males constitute 20% of the total sales for fairness creams in India” and teens make up the 10% of sales of fairness skin cosmetics: these products have penetrated the Indian society as a whole (p. 13).

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Skin bleaching products are not only widely diffused in India, but can be found worldwide and are very easily available, as we can see from Figure 1- a photo taken recently in central London. Internationally renowned Western cosmetics giants, such as Garnier, which owns 7% of the total market share,[13] are the main actors behind this obsession with fair complexion that continues to grow exponentially. Ironically, this is not only an issue involving the colonised, yet is prevalent in the heart of post-colonist Britain. As we can see from the previous economical, historical, psychological and sociological analysis, skin bleaching continues to be an urgent and extremely widespread issue: the global skin-lightening industry was worth $4.8bn in 2017.[13]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Jensen AR. Comments on correlations of IQ with skin color and geographic–demographic variables, Intelligence. 2006;34(2): 128-131. Available from: [Accessed 30th November 2018].
  2. Wood J, Cracknell R. Social and General Statistics Section. Ethnic Minorities in Politics, Government and Public Life. 2013: 1-10. Available from: [Accessed 28th November 2018].
  3. a b c d e f g h i j k Gabriel D. Layers of Blackness: Colourism in the African Diaspora. London: Imani Media; 2007.
  4. Kant I. On the Different Races of Man. In: Eze EC. (ed.) Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader. (38-64). Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell; 1997.
  5. a b Torin. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Historical Context: The Global Effect of World War I. Available from: [Accessed 4th December 2018].
  6. Bodenhorn, H. & Ruebeck, C.S. J Popul Econ. Colourism and African–american wealth: evidence from the nineteenth-century south. 2007; 20: 599-620. Available from:
  7. Harrison, Matthew S. Racism in the 21st Century: An Empirical Analysis of Skin Color. New York: Springer-Verlag New York Inc; 2010: p.52.
  8. Maxine S. Thompson, Verna M. Keith. The blacker the berry: Gender, Skin tone, Self-Esteem and Self-Efficacy. Gender and Society. 2001; 15(3): 336-357 .
  9. Abraham MR. "Dark is beautiful: the battle to end the world's obsession with lighter skin". Available from: [Accessed 6th December 2018].
  10. Kaul C. From Empire to Independence: The British Raj in India 1858–1947, The Government. Available from: [Accessed 4th December 2018]
  11. a b Mishra N. Washington University Global Studies Law Review, Global Perspectives on Colorism (Symposium Edition), “India and Colorism: The Finer Nuances”. 2015;14(4): 725-750. Available from: [Accessed 2nd December 2018].
  12. a b Patel RK. A Conjoint Analysis of Consumer Preferences for Fairness Creams among Small Towns Located near Ahmedabad City. 2014;2(3): 12-29. Available from:  [Accessed 4th December 2018].
  13. a b Coco K. "Skin-lightening creams are dangerous – yet business is booming. Can the trade be stopped?". Available from: [Accessed 8th December 2018]