Students reflect on colorism at UT-Austin

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Photo Credit: Rachel Tyler | Daily Texan Staff

Sparks flew on social media after Dominican-American star Amara La Negra made a guest appearance on “The Breakfast Club” to discuss colorism in Latin American and American entertainment industries.

Defending herself from insensitive comments made by the show’s hosts, La Negra’s race, skin tone and experiences with discrimination were brought into question. For many across the world — even on the Forty Acres — this is an everyday struggle.

The term “colorism,” or discrimination made on the basis of skin tone, originated from Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple.” Michaela Machicote, a doctoral student in the African & African Diaspora Studies Department, said colorism was historically used to “socially mobilize” individuals in non-white communities affected by colonialism or white supremacy while fostering exclusion.

Many mistake colorism for racism because of similarities in prejudice and discrimination, but the difference lies in the groups involved and the discrimination’s roots.

“Colorism is an in-group issue,” Machicote said. “It’s not external and as systemically detrimental to a certain group as racism is. Racism is based on your racial background, while colorism is based solely on skin tone.”

With blacks making up less than five percent of the student body, it is a common misconception that issues related to colorism are not as widespread at UT. However, biochemistry freshman Lois Owolabi said the school’s small black population only amplifies colorism-related issues.

“Because of our small population, what is defined as ‘black UT’ is very narrow,” Owolabi said. “There aren’t varying degrees of what’s considered black.”

Colorism within UT’s black community is even found in commonplace situations. Government freshman Savannah Anderson-Knight said the black population’s common use of the terms “light-skins” and “dark-skins” promotes colorism.

“’Light-skins’ are seen as more weak and delicate, while ‘dark-skins’ are seen as more masculine and ‘hood,’” Anderson-Knight said. “On campus, I feel that our perceptions of each other are different, based on just skin color.”

Owolabi said colorism on campus extends beyond skin tone, often pertaining to beauty perceptions of hairstyles.

“If people ‘going natural’ have looser curl patterns, people on campus will view their hair as prettier when compared to others with tighter curl patterns,” Owolabi said. “I have to do so much to my hair so that it doesn’t even look like my natural hair anymore.”

To overcome colorism on campus, Anderson-Knight believes people must be willing to acknowledge and address colorist behavior as it occurs.

Owolabi said because colorism is an in-group and not an out-group issue, racism is often addressed first. She said this is problematic because outside groups will then use colorist behavior as an example on how to treat blacks.

“Sometimes you want to tackle the bigger issue, but if you already have an intrinsic problem within your own community, no one will want to give you the floor to speak,” Owolabi said. “You need to tackle colorism before tackling racism.”

Taking an optimistic stance, Anderson-Knight said she believes the state of colorism on campus will improve in the future.

“People want the state of colorism to get better, and we want to tackle it together as a community,” Anderson-Knight said. “As long as people are willing to learn and talk about these problems, negative views regarding colorism will be changed.”