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Pre-European Contact Colorism and Post-colonial Racism in Asia and North Africa

European imperialists are often blamed for bringing the "lighter skin is righter" mentality to indigenes of colonized lands in Africa and Asia. Critics of this mental colonization don't always acknowledge in the same breath that many North African and Asian cultures had placed a premium on light skin PRIOR to European exposure. Indian folk songs praised the beautiful woman who has "the color of butter" (Indian butter is white, not yellow). Pre-colonial Indonesian women used plant-based skin treatments to make their complexion pale.

However, the fact that pre-colonial colorism exists does NOT absolve Europeans of their responsibility for indoctrinating non-European populations with harmful racial ideologies. Pre-colonial colorism in many cultures is fundamentally different from modern Western racism; the vocabulary and assumptions used in the discussion of modern racism are not necessarily helpful or relevant in understanding pre-European-contact attitudes towards complexion.

Pre-European-contact colorism occurs in the context of members of the same "race" (quotes being used because "race" is a modern Western concept we are applying anachronistically). Wealthy people did not have to work in the sun, and thus were lighter-complexioned than poor workers and peasants. Light skin became a symbol of wealth and class. Fatness, another physical characteristic associated with a lifestyle of prestige and plenty, was also deemed attractive. Famed medieval North African writer Ibn Battuta described "the most perfect of women in beauty" as "pure white and fat."1

Such preferences for the plump and pale were not limited to North Africa. Paintings from pre-modern China and Japan depicted gods, warriors, and other attractive men with ample bellies. The round belly implies physical stability and economic sufficiency. The Chinese euphemism for getting fat literally means "getting wealthy". Chinese texts from as early as the 3rd century praised a handsome man's pallid countenance as the perfect contrast to gleaming black eyes.2

Ihara Saikaku, a 17th century Japanese writer, constrasted the beauty of the black-haired, pale-skinned urban youth to the unattractiveness of orange-haired, sun-tanned rural boys. Peasant boys who worked outdoors had their black hair bleached orange by sun and sweat. Thus, for the pre-modern Japanese, pale hair and dark skin came to be signifiers of an under-privileged lifestyle, just as black hair and pale skin symbolized urban sophistication and privilege.

When Europeans started exporting their ideas of the white European master race to colonized lands, the toxic reaction between old lifestyle-based colorism and new Western racism produced a harmful new compound which associated European features with power, wealth and beauty. Some European-descent whites absolve themselves of responsibility by saying, "The only reason racism took root so easily in Japan/the Philippines/[fill in the blanks] is because the people there already had similar ideas about race and color." What these Europeans fail to understand is that while the new ideas of racism may wear the clothes of old class/lifestyle-based colorism, it is a whole different animal underneath.

Firstly, the fact that other indigenous preferences that accompanied traditional colorism - such as the preference for fatness, black hair, black eyes and round flat faces - have declined demonstrates that the new Eurocentric standards of beauty are based on assumptions different from those of traditional colorism. For example, the influence of American pop culture replaced the original Japanese ideal of jet black hair with the phenomenon of Japanese dyeing their hair red, blonde or orange.

In a similar vein, many modern Filipinos see the 'high-nosed', oval-faced European as beautiful, some openly expressing the wish for a higher nose or more oval face. But this preference has not always existed. Prior to European colonization, the ancient Visayans of the Philippines considered the very opposite of high noses and oval faces handsome. Visayans, as well as some other Austronesian peoples in Malaysia and Indonesia, compressed their babies' skulls to achieve broad faces with receding foreheads and flat noses . The Minahasa of Celebes even restricted binding with a forehead board to the nobility. 3

Secondly, the modern concept of 'race' itself is a Western import. This new racial 'colorism' is no longer framed in the old context of "lifestyle/social circumstance determines appearance", i.e. "if you are wealthy, you will have certain physical characteristics as a result of your lifestyle". Post-colonial racism is in fact based on the opposite concept: that one's genotype, and by extension, its phenotypic expression, determines one's circumstance in life, i.e. "if you are white, you will have certain privileges as a result of your biological heritage". This idea of "biology=destiny" is what undergirds modern Western racism.

Sadly, many non-whites today do not examine the roots of their admiration for the white-skinned, high-nosed and light-eyed, and assume that their desire for whiteness is "natural" or "traditional". Some non-black people of color even speak of their "instinctive" fear of black people. Even without interacting with black people, some brown and yellow individuals have unthinkingly internalized European colonialist attitudes of a racial hierarchy with white at the top and black at the bottom.

In other cases, some Asians who assume that individual blacks are poor or uneducated may be possibly acting on traditional colorism. These Asians make the same assumptions about darker persons of their own 'race'. For all of individuals (regardless of race) some introspection would come in handy. Instead of excusing our preferences as "natural", "determined by hormones", "purely emotional, and therefore defying logical analysis", let's just ask ourselves as individuals, "Why do I prefer people who have certain physical characteristics, be it fatness or thinness or whiteness or blackness?"

Perhaps our individual motivations are totally benign. But perhaps if those who unconsciously subscribe to class-based colorism realize the origins of their preference for the light-skinned was based on wealth and not race, their idea that "black=poor" will fall flat because it should be obvious that people from dark-skinned races, regardless of economic situation, are dark-skinned. And therefore, using skin color as a gauge of economic status is not as relevant for subSaharan Africans and aboriginal Australians as it is for North Africans and Asians.

Even if 'race' is completely out of the picture, the next step is to acknowledge the classist implications of pre-colonial non-racial colorism. Some people find it appalling to marry for money, but the same people excuse preferences for spouses of light complexion as "purely physical". They do not recognize the wealth-based roots of color prejudices, and fail to see the role of social conditioning in constructing desire. The purpose of this essay is not to command people to change their desires, for no one has the power to dictate what is attractive to another. It merely suggests that we should UNDERSTAND the causes of our preferences. Whether we want or need to change is up to us.

  1. Said Hamdun and Noel King, Ibn Battuta in Black Africa, p. 67
  2. Bret Hinsch, Passions of the Cut Sleeve, p. 66
  3. William Henry Scott, Barangay: Sixteenth Century Philippine Culture and Society, p. 22