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There’s a way of talking about race and racism that is really bothering me. It’s when people will interchange racial identity and skin colour, and figure racism as discriminating against someone based on the colour of their skin. Racism certainly and prominently involves discrimination based on skin colour, but that is very far from the whole story, and skin tone certainly doesn’t govern identity.

It seems to me that this is partly (largely?) seeping into the discourse I’m hearing from the United States, where it’s really evident how racism has been structured and reinforced around skin tone, with, for black people in particular, lighter being “better” and associated with better treatment and status. In Australia, until a few decades ago, if you were light and Aboriginal, it was a good excuse for you to be taken away from your family, and now you’re told that you’re too inauthentic and disconnected and urban and “white” to be Aboriginal. Skin tone and racism don’t function in the same way in all contexts and amongst all groups.

Racism is of course based on the idea that there are discernable physical differences between so-called racial groups, and that those that are associated with non-white groups are inferior. Historically, this has included things like skull shape, various facial features, figure, and so forth, as well as skin colour. Skin colour has and continues to be a major feature which is falsely used to set up supposedly inherent racial differences, but it hasn’t inevitably been so. A couple of centuries ago in England, Irish people and some African peoples were thought to be of the same “racial type,” and they had skin colours about as different as it gets.

In this historical moment and in a lot of contexts, skin colour is a prominent feature to which racism is attached. Not only, however, do not all people of colour have dark skin, or consistent skin tone across their particular grouping, but all the plastic surgery and denigrating of noses and rear ends and such should tell you that ideas of good and bad supposed racial characteristics go far, far beyond skin. And it goes far beyond bodies, too. We racially code people based on their names, accent, language use, dress, food, cultural practices and so forth.

The other thing is that not only do people within racial categories often have vastly different skin colours, but the imagined baseline for different groups can be quite similar.  It’s not a clearcut thing, and you can’t point to the colour of one’s skin as holding a static set of significances.

That’s my main problem with this model of or shorthand for racism: it’s essentialist. It puts race right back in as an essential attribute of bodies rather than a malleable attribute of a bigoted society. Racism isn’t literally based on the colour of skin, even where skin colour is the focus of racism: it’s based on the attributes assigned to that skin and body, cultural and intellectual and physical and more. Racism is about inferences and context as well as bodies.

What narrowing race down to skin colour alone does is to allow understandings of racism to get narrowed down. It opens up the potential for racists to say, okay, something I just said or did had nothing to do with literal skin colour, so how can it be racist? It pins race down to the individual body rather than the institutional problem. If instances of racism are based on the colour of your skin, they’re about how someone else reads you in a given moment rather than that plus the rest of your presentation, your life, your family, your ethnic/racial history, your experiences in the world, and your relationships with the people around you and institutions over a lifetime. It uncomplicates understandings of what is a very complicated issue, which just makes it easier to ride right over the bulk of how racism functions and has functioned.

Race isn’t just about skin colour, and so neither is racism.