Kristel Tracey talks about the importance of acknowledging light-skinned privilege amongst black communities
If you is white, you’s alright,
if you’s brown, stick around,
but if you’s black,
Almost seventy years ago, American blues singer Big Bill Broonzy sang of the racial hierarchy in place under America’s Jim Crow system.
Colourism. Shadism. #teamlightskin. #teamdarkskin. Divide and conquer, make one group believe they’re better than the other (but always inferior to white). Perhaps one of the most harmful remnants of colonisation and slavery was the internalisation of these cancerous notions, which persist across continents and cultures to this day.
To borrow the definition provided by Edward Ademolu, colourism (or shadism) “…is an intra-racial complexion-based hierarchy, that often affords societal, cultural, economic privileges and favouritism for/towards lighter-skinned people and discrimination against those with darker complexions. Some academics have even proposed that this may influence a persons’ life chances as much as ‘race’ itself.”
From Asia, to Africa, to the Americas, racial and caste hierarchies are complex, and as much to do with class and status as they are about racial classification. The skin-lightening industry is projected to be worth $31.2 billion in the global beauty industry by 2024, and everyday millions of people around the world slather creams with names like ‘Fair and Lovely’, ‘White Radiance’ and ‘White Complete’ on their skin in a bid to achieve these ideals.
“It’s about following standards that are dictated by Eurocentrism,” says Christopher Charles, Ph.D., a senior lecturer in political psychology at University of the West Indies. “It’s a response to hundreds of years of colonial indoctrination that has been passed down through socialization.”
Although colourism applies across genders, dark-skinned black women find themselves at the jagged intersection of racialised sexism and misogyny. In the UK context, Maya Jama, rapidly rising star and half-Somali girlfriend of grime artist Stormzy, is the latest public figure to have found herself in hot water over the issue.
In a recently unearthed Tweet from 2012, she quoted a ‘joke’ by a comedian, which said: “Dark skin bitches shaving their head expecting to look like Amber Rose, when really they end up looking like Micheal [sic] Jordan.” Looooooooool.” To add insult to injury, her follow-up apology seemed to come straight out of the ‘All Lives Matter’ handbook, stating: “My genuine and sincerest apologies go out, not just to dark skinned women but to ALL women.”
“You didn’t offend all women, it was dark skinned women” responded one Twitter user. “Normalising the slandering of dark-skinned Black womxn as a rite of passage when coming of age has to stop,” said another.
In her powerful short film Dark Skinned Girls, filmmaker Marian Edusei explores the toxicity of colourism in the black community by placing sound bites of degrading statements made by men over images of dark-skinned women. “No one likes dark-skinned girls, bruv” claims one, while another boasts: “Light-skinned women, we can break them down more easily, you know what I’m saying?”
These revolting stereotypes are reinforced in popular culture, with a number of male stars spewing similar sentiments:
“My daughter is the first and last dark skin child I’m having. The rest of my baby moms [are] light-skinned chicks. I even got an Asian baby moms to make sure I have a daughter with good hair. Too bad we had a son.”
– Lil Wayne
“If it wasn’t for race mixing there’d be no video girls. Me and most of our friends like mutts a lot. Yeah, in the hood they call ‘em mutts.”
– Kanye West
“#handsdown Light-skinned women usually have better credit than a dark-skinned woman…Broke ass dark hoes…”
– Kevin Hart
A world drunk on white supremacy and patriarchy creates an ugly cocktail for black women of all hues. We are folded, moulded and distorted to fit into men’s stereotypes, used as emotional punching bags or target practice for their inadequacies or fantasies.
As black women discussing the harm colourism has wrought, it’s important we remember this. But as a light-skinned black woman of mixed heritage, I feel it hugely problematic not to acknowledge the privilege and access we are afforded in a world that judges your worth according to your proximity to whiteness.
Search on Twitter and it won’t take you long to find discussions around colourism, but primarily led by dark-skinned women frustrated by the reluctance of their lighter-skinned counterparts to call out their own privilege. As highlighted by Kelechi Okafor: ‘A lot of light-skinned women don’t like when a debate about colourism comes up because they feel like it’s a slight on their achievements… acknowledging that you’re afforded privileges because you’re seen as “palatable black” is the discussion.’
It’s not an easy conversation, but we can’t shy away from having it. A fairer skin tone certainly does not shield you from racism, but it acts as a buffer against its impacts.
The first time I recall being made acutely aware of this privilege was during my first trip to my father’s home country of Jamaica as an 11-year-old, a country afflicted with an epidemic of skin bleaching and where lighter skin is still used as a marker of social capital. My great-aunt’s friend quietly informed me that it would be ill-advised for me to end up with a dark-skinned man when I was older, so as not to “send the gene pool backwards”. Growing up as a teenager in the UK I was fetishized for my mixed ancestry by men keen to use me as a prop to bolster their toxic masculinity, referred to as “lightie”/ “that light skinned ting”, while my dark-skinned friends were overlooked and disrespected for not passing the modern-day equivalent of the brown paper bag test. I have been called ‘best of both’ so many times I had begun to wonder whether I was a loaf of bread. I have heard a legion of folks cooing about how cute mixed-race babies are and how much they want one, as though we are handbags you can cop in Selfridges. I’ve been told by previous partners of different ethnicities that their families probably wouldn’t have too much of an issue with them dating me, because my mixed heritage somehow made me a more acceptable face at the family dinner table. None of these things are complimentary and all have made me feel deeply unsettled, frustrated and offended. All of these experiences are based on the underlying assumption that blackness is only acceptable or desirable in a ‘watered down’ form.
Representation matters. While the number of dark-skinned women in the spotlight is slowly improving, for every one Lupita Nyong’o there are five Zoe Saldana’s. When asked about his thoughts on colourism among Black women in the music industry, Beyonce’s father Matthew Knowles remarked: “Do you think that’s an accident [that they’re all lighter skinned]?”
Calling out the abuse and underrepresentation of dark-skinned black women should not be an emotional labour they are expected to shoulder alone. In a recent interview, Zendaya acknowledged: “There is so much work left to be done… can I honestly say I would be in the position I’m in if I weren’t a lighter-skinned black woman? No.” Representation was the reason Amandla Stenberg dropped out of the Black Panther auditions: “I was in the audition process for it, then I decided to not continue with the process because I thought that it wouldn’t be right for me as a biracial, light-skinned American to be playing [the role]… Black Panther is one of the only films that we have that has darker-skinned representation. That’s what was so beautiful about it.” In disappointing contrast, Yara Shahidi – an actress otherwise outspoken on issues around social justice, race and feminism – was slammed for blocking Twitter users who asked her to address the lack of dark-skinned people on her hit show Grown-ish.
To deny privilege is to risk perpetuating it. To attempt to silence people’s lived experiences of colourism in our communities is to allow it to continue unfettered. To actively partake in inflicting this pain is even worst. Discussions around the intersection of colourism, sexism and the racism which underpins it do not need to divide us as black women but can be healing, helping us to unpick the harm centuries of indoctrination has done to our self-perception. It is to remove the Eurocentric yardstick imposed on us, which continues to be passed down the generations like a shitty baton.
In the words of Michaela Angela Davis: “Acting Like it [colourism] doesn’t exist doesn’t heal… this is our taboo issue that brings up so much. It triggers a lot of black girl pain… It triggers a lot of bias. It triggers a lot of emotional things. And like any family, when we go into our history and say this horrible thing created this characteristic, people don’t want to look at it. But this is the road to healing. This is the only way we’re going to feel whole: is we talk about where we’re fractured.
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Queen Nefertiti in a past life. Reborn in Luton as a plebeian. Reinvented as a too-much-to-say-for-herself Londoner and writer. Tweets @the_vajabond.
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