Christ, colourism, and the contemporary Church
A brief exploration into colourism past and present, and its potential parallels and impact within modern evangelical communities
Disclaimer. As I discuss the trends that I have witnessed when it comes to romantic partnerships within church communities — namely black men and white/light skin/racially ambiguous women — these observations are based on personal experience and thus are not objective fact. Moreover, I speak of the black man-white/light skin/racially ambiguous woman paradigm because this is the relational structure that I most frequently see. Finally, my goal is not to police romantic relationships or antagonise any individual for the romantic choices they have made. Rather, as I strive to do in all of my writing, I aim to offer a few moments of introspection, challenging both myself and readers to interrogate the beliefs and ‘preferences’ which we have in order to achieve a greater awareness of ourselves and the prejudices we may hold.
“Life as a black man in the UK means worrying that your girlfriend’s parents might be racist.” I first heard this phrase vulnerably shared during a church-setting panel on the topic of racial inequality a number of weeks ago, and it has repeatedly played in my mind. This honest but equally alarming phrase prompted my thinking to a trend that exists not only in general society, but may also draw parallels in Western contemporary church culture — colourism. Colourism, one of the most destructive offspring of racism, has subtle but impactful implications in social and economic settings. One’s hesitance to acknowledge and confront possible issues of colourism within church communities can send adverse messages about the practicalities of being born again in a heavily racialised society. We may all love and serve Christ, but we cannot continue to subscribe (whether subconsciously or intentionally) to colourist ideals.
Condensing the details of the transatlantic slave trade and colonisation’s primordial role in racial hierarchies, history shows that enslaved peoples were given preferential treatment based on their complexion; light skin slaves who had been the product of slave-master rapes or ‘relations’ were often one-rung-up on the ladder of social-racial hierarchies. Notably, some historians also comment that colourist attitudes existed in pre-colonial Africa, particularly in the Northern regions and outside of Africa in South Asian cultures. Nonetheless, as a most writers and historians concur, European colonialism and cannot be absolved of the damaging role it has played in perpetuating colourist attitudes. (I highly recommend these articles and essays for more reading on the relationship between pre- and post-colonial colourism and its impact on the Black community, classism and colourism, and the colourist politics of beauty). The black man-white/light skin/ethnically ambiguous woman relational paradigm is particularly striking when we look at socio-economic research when it comes to colourism. Margaret Hunter, writer of ‘The Persistent Problem of Colorism: Skin Tone, Status, and Inequality’ concludes that lighter skin individuals “earn more money, complete more years of schooling, live in better neighbourhoods, and marry higher-status people than darker-skinned people of the same race or ethnicity.” Although Hunter speaks to socio-economic contexts in the USA, these parallels clearly exist in the UK.
Colourism in this regard surpasses that which is banally attributed to racially-motivated ‘pretty privilege’ — it continually robs many of socio-economic and political positioning in modern society.
Colourism. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines it as ‘prejudice or discrimination especially within a racial or ethnic group favoring people with lighter skin over those with darker skin.’ To most, this type of treatment is inherently wrong and unjust. Many of us would even say that we have never bought into it, right? Wrong. We probably all have. It goes without saying that our likes and dislikes are not developed within a vacuum. The way in which we perceive the world and make decisions, from the clothes we wear, the food we eat, where and how we spend our money, and the relationships we form will never be entirely organic as we are naturally informed and influenced by our surroundings. The entertainment industry has excelled for decades in the erasure dark skin people from central positions of influence, beauty, and economic agency. Look no further than the recent Adidas ‘My body, My Swim’ campaign which featured four women spearheading the company’s new body positivity campaign. Interestingly, the faces of this campaign are all of lighter complexions and the one dark skin woman who featured in the original photoshoot has been cropped from the main editorial image. Colourism in this regard surpasses that which is banally attributed to racially-motivated ‘pretty privilege’ — it continually robs many of socio-economic and political positioning in modern society.
Moreover, colourism may present itself in one’s pysche through the subconscious desire to be of mixed heritage and have lighter skin (not necessarily synonymous) in the hopes that one may receive better or even preferential treatment when it comes to career opportunities, relationships etc. Colourism may look like having a core social circle of only lighter-complexioned people, hiring exclusively light skin/ethnically ambiguous staff members or dating solely light skin people. What I seek to address here within the context of the Church is the latter, particularly when it comes to romantic relationships, particularly in leadership positions.
I began noticing possible colourist trends within church contexts around the age of 15. From my observations then and now, the story typically goes like this: young black man comes to church and ticks all the right contemporary ‘Christianese’ boxes. Young black guy is encouraged to join a team, serves well, engages with the church community, and is clearly committed. Young black guy is then noticed for his dedication and passion and begins to occupy senior volunteer positions over an extended period of time, and ultimately assumes the official role of Pastor, typically in youth ministries. This is a harmless trajectory, an admirable one, even. But often, in between these natural progressions, the young black male protagonist falls in love with white/light skin/racially ambiguous woman, gets married and this new partnership becomes #couplegoals. Now, as I have forewarned, this is not an attack on interracial marriages, nor is it an essay about desirability. I believe God is far more interested in the purpose of a marriage as opposed to the pigmentation of those joined in it. Instead, this is a call to consider the way in which we may unknowingly embrace societal trends like colourism within our faith journeys without fully allowing for the honest renewal of our minds.
Churches should be epicentres of the rejection of pernicious societal trends, but when it comes to possible issues of colourism it appears that the topic is ignored and perhaps even reaffirmed.
Now, having considered the brief history of colourism, and how it may evidence itself inside and outside of a church congregation, we must consider what message this could send. Churches should be epicentres of the rejection of pernicious societal trends, but when it comes to possible issues of colourism it appears that the topic is ignored and perhaps even reaffirmed. I’m not concluding that the black man-white/light skin/ethnically ambiguous woman couple next door is clear cut evidence of colourism within religious or secular contexts. What I am asserting however, is that we examine how we may mirror secular trends within contemporary church settings and the message this presents to congregations — particularly black and/or dark skin youth — and even wider society.
If we come to know and accept Christ yet fail to examine our attitudes, ‘preferences’, habits, and beliefs, how can we say that we are truly being transformed and changed?
Although these attributes are often humoured, it is necessary to clarify that just as getting a tattoo or dressing in Acne Studios does not make someone ‘of the world’, having a white/light skin/racially ambiguous partner does not automatically mean that one is colourist. What we must interrogate in both instances is the why behind these choices. The intentions and motivations that galvanise our decisions are topics well explored in the Bible. Paul writes clearly about the importance of introspection even as Christians and the renewing of the mind as a necessary process that follows the gift of salvation. Romans 12:2–3 says:
2 Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. 3 Because of the privilege and authority God has given me, I give each of you this warning: Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us.
As I have learned to consider the why behind a number of my decisions, from my relationships to future career choices to my spending, this verse regarding the renewing of one’s mind often comes to mind. The Hebrew word for the mind here, ‘nous’ refers not only to one’s thought-life but also ‘the faculties of perceiving and understanding and those of feeling, judging, determining.’ If we come to know and accept Christ yet fail to examine our attitudes, ‘preferences’, habits, and beliefs, how can we say that we are truly being transformed and changed? The renewing of our minds is more than an awakening to the importance of grace, acceptance, joy, contentment, conviction, mercy, etc. for ourselves — it also means a thorough analysis and often reconfiguration of our rationale and in turn interactions with others. If we cannot begin to see others through the Biblical lens of love, detaching ourselves from restrictive and denigrating societal filters, have we not forgone one of the central messages of the faith?
I do not have all of the solutions, neither do I contend that my observations here are unequivocal. What I hope is that as this reaches the viewership of young Christians, particularly in the West, we can be frank with ourselves about how we go interact with the notion of ‘preferences’ and interrogate the motivations behind our relational decisions. Racism is the root of many of the injustices that we see today, but as mentioned, colourism is one of its most harmful consequences. It is imperative that we have honest and vulnerable conversations within church communities about colourism alongside racism, and we must be prepared to prayerfully reconsider how we live through their implications. You are not a colourist simply because your partner is white/light skin/racially ambiguous, just as I am not a misandrist because I prioritise the female experience in my reading, writing, and conversation. But, we are both living myopic and ill-informed existences if we neglect to open up our hearts and minds up to godly renewal and transformation when it comes to these issues that plague our society. We all love Christ, but if we never let our relationship with Him to challenge, transform, and renew us, all aspects of us, then we will never be like Him.