When I was four years old, I told my mother that I didn’t believe in God any more because I prayed to God to make me white and he didn’t. I had lots of black dolls, books with black protagonists and posters of prominent black people including Nina Simone and Thelonious Monk, still I had internalised the prevalent racism of the 1980s. That was then. But, a few months ago my friend’s daughter, pushing her white doll round her living room told me she did not like her black doll because ‘black is bad,’ and that the black doll was not nice and did not like anyone. Her parents told me that this had started when she began school. It was the ‘‘Kenneth and Mamie Clark’ doll test in their living room. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, the Clarks, black US psychologists, presented African American children with white dolls with blonde hair and black versions of the same doll. They found that the children selected a white doll when asked questions that included ‘give me the doll that is a nice doll’ and ‘give me the doll that you like to play with’, but picked a black doll when asked negative questions such as ‘give me the doll that looks bad’ (Clark and Clark, 1947: 169.) PDF ‘Racial Identification and Preference in Negro Children’ by Kenneth Clark and Mamie Clark. In 2005, Kiri Davis, then a teenager, replicated the doll test in the US with similar results (See A Girl Like Me).
These issues of internalised racism and colourism are explored in the film; Dark Girls, produced by D. Channsin Berry and Bill Duke, focused on how colourism affects African American women, but it is as much an issue here, in the UK. The film engages directly, with a subject that is often taboo, by highlighting the ways in which colourism is inextricably linked with structural or institutional racism. Ali Rattansi describes this as ‘the myriad, taken-for-granted ways in which routine institutional procedures, whatever their original purposes, end up discriminating against and disadvantaging black and other ethnic minorities’ (2005: 35). In the film, Cheryl Grills, president of the National Association of Black Psychologists,, described structural racism as,
the kinds of policies and practices that we have in place that perpetuate colourism. Whether that’s the things that you see in the media and advertising … and who gets selected to be the models, and in the movies who plays the lead character and who plays the servant role and who plays the Jezebel role…”.
These insidious processes have a negative effect on how people of colour see themselves and each other.
Dark Girls suggests that ‘love begins at home’ and that we need to love ourselves before anyone else can, which is important but difficult in a context where institutions like the media have a history of institutional racism and, as Stuart Hall says, remain a powerful source of ideas about race (Hall, 1995[A1] ), often privileging whiteness and prioritising particular representations of people of colour that consequently lead to the marginalisation of black people with dark skin.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s in Britain, black people were trying to address this and issues of racism (for example, Bernard Coard’s book on How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Subnormal in the British School System. Of course there have been numerous developments since Coard’s book of the early seventies, and the 1930s and 1940s when the Clarks were writing. There is relatively less institutional racism and there are more robust challenges to it. Change is happening but more is needed. For example, the Runnymede Trust, a UK race equality think tank seeks to ‘End Racism This Generation,’ with its three-year public awareness and advocacy campaign that aims to ‘inspire action to tackle racial inequality, support people to work together in new ways to tackle racism and create lasting solutions to racial injustice’. The black super models, Naomi Campbell and Iman, alongside former model agent Bethann Hardison, have started a campaign to end racism on the runway . These are just two of many examples of anti-racism projects.
I propose that alongside challenging racism we also need to challenge colourism and to recognise the beauty of dark black skin so that no black child is subjected to comments such as ‘darkie,’ and ‘blackie,’ which I remember from my childhood; or ‘tar baby,’ ‘gorilla,’ and ‘black, ugly nigger,’ as mentioned by women in the Dark Girls film. Challenging colourism would also mean that people with light skin would not be accused of being superior or stigmatised for not being sufficiently dark. As Baroness Lola Young argues, the prevalence of debilitating beliefs in the superiority of people with light skin contributes to a ‘dislike of those considered to be “too light to be black” on the grounds that they – especially black women, it seems – have an unfair advantage socially, economically and sexually’ (2000: 418) By appreciating dark skin I do not mean exoticising it and I do not mean essentialising black people by prioritising dark skin over and above other shades. What I am calling for is a focus on the beauty of dark black skin that counters the colourist trends that hold up light skin as the beauty ideal for all black people, and particularly women. We need children with dark skin to be represented in mainstream children’s books and a range of black dolls and characters routinely available in mainstream stores for all parents to buy for their children, not just black parents. The limited availability of black dolls when I was growing up meant that my parents had to import some of my black dolls from the United States. In that context, it is very welcome to see that on October 26 there will be the fifth exposition of black dolls at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre.
So, why a ‘dark is beautiful’ campaign when there has already been a ‘black is beautiful’ campaign, which was more inclusive and a mass movement? ‘Dark is beautiful,’ seeks to address the privileging of light skin that is so insidious in colourism, which ‘black is beautiful’ will not necessarily do.
Zadie Smith was described as ‘a beautiful black woman writer’ on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in September, which she is. Yet, she also has one white parent with obviously light skin, and therefore it is much easier for her to be lauded as a beautiful black woman, than someone with darker skin. ‘Dark is beautiful’ particularly focusses on those black people with dark skin who are so often invisible or considered ugly,as described in the Dark Girls film. This is important so that young black children with dark skin can grow up without attaching value-connotations of bad and good to skin colour, i.e., black is bad, white is good and that if only they had lighter skin, their lives would be better. That the idea of a ‘dark is beautiful’ campaign is important and timely is illustrated by the fact that, although I thought I was being original in coming up with the term, a Google search shows that there is already a ‘dark is beautiful’ campaign against colourism in India, championed by the film star Nandita Das. So, while I still struggle with the idea that it may sound apolitical and perhaps another term needs to emerge, the idea is gaining momentum. However, a ‘dark is beautiful’ campaign is insufficient without a broader campaign to end colourism in all its ugly forms. It is unacceptable for anyone dark or light to feel ugly, invisible, ostracised or under attack because of the shade of their skin.
No doubt many of us (and I include myself) believe that none of this should matter in a twenty-first century era where Paul Gilroy eloquently argues the case for post race, planetary humanism and convivial multiculturalism. Yet, until this is achieved, a ‘dark is beautiful’ campaign and an ‘end colourism’ campaign are needed and they should be supported by all, not just people with dark skin. The aim of a ‘dark is beautiful’ campaign alongside a broader campaign to ‘end colourism’ is to reach a situation where self esteem is not connected to skin shade and the divisiveness that results from this prejudice is eliminated. This is important so that future generations do not have to go through the trauma that colourism causes.
Clark, Kenneth and Clark, Mamie.1947. ‘Racial Identification and Preference in Negro Children’, in T. Newcomb and E. Hartley (eds), Readings in Social Psychology, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, pp. 169-78.
Hall, Stuart. 1995. ‘The Whites of Their Eyes: Racist Ideologies and the Media’, in G. Dines and J. Humez (eds). Gender, Race and Class in Media: A Text-Reader. London: Sage.
Rattansi, Ali. 2005. ‘Changing the Subject? Racism, Culture and Education’, in J. Donald and A. Rattansi (eds). ‘Race’, Culture & Difference. London: Sage, pp.11-48.
Young, Lola. 2000. ‘How Do We Look? Unfixing the Singular Black (Female) Subject’, in P. Gilroy, L. Grossberg and A. McRobbie (eds). Without Guarantees: In Honour of Stuart Hall. London: Verso, pp.416-429.
Aisha Phoenix writes about colourism, racism, gender, belonging, diversity, occupation and justice. She is completing a PhD in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London on Palestinian students negotiating life under occupation. She has worked as a media reporter at Bloomberg News and has written for Open Democracy, the Voice, The Royal Television Society’s Television Magazine and The British Council. She also writes for academic journals. She has a postgraduate diploma in Newspaper Journalism from City University, a BA in Arabic and Modern Middle Eastern Studies and Masters in Social Research and Social Anthropology of Development. Twitter: @firebirdN4
“You’re Pretty for a Dark-Skinned Girl” (mediadiversityuk.com)
‘Dark Girls’ The @WritersofColour Review (mediadiversityuk.com)
Racism on the Runways (mediadiversityuk.com)
Being Mixed Race: Am I A Human Rorschach Test? (mediadiversityuk.com)