We hear about it a lot, but no one actually talks about it. It’s an uncomfortable subject, especially in a world where we hear protests of Black Lives Matter and calls for the unification of black people; we want to move towards togetherness, not division. Talking about colourism makes people feel uncomfortable because it shows that within ourselves, we discriminate against one another based on our skin tones. A harsh truth, but that’s the point. What’s even more unsettling is the notion that black people, who have been some of the most systematically oppressed people in the world, can subject their own people to such horrific abuse. We’ve challenged the white man for racism and many of our societal injustices, but in reflection, we’ve also neglected the oppression that we inflict on one another.
Colourism, as defined by The Oxford Dictionary, is prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group.
Let’s talk my experiences with colourism and the effect it’s had on my life.
I can remember the first time I felt that my dark skin was ugly, unattractive and put me at a disadvantage and I started bleaching my skin; a form of self harm that is often the most visible effect of colourism.
My mum is a beautiful dark-skinned woman and she always celebrated her rich skin tone. I’ve never heard her say anything negative about her skin, however the same can not be said for my wider community. I grew up in a Ghanaian community in London, where it wasn’t unusual to stay over at someone’s house and see that the family soap in the bathroom was a skin bleaching one. It wasn’t unusual to hear the word ‘fair’ used as a synonym for beauty, or to hear the people around me covet and praise those who were born with, or had achieved a fairer skin tone. I also quickly noticed the special treatment they received; the extra care that was taken with them and the way people in general were nicer to them.
I remember when we first had cable TV at home and channels like MTV were readily streamed into our living room. They introduced myself and a whole generation to hip hop culture, which was filled with video vixens, who very quickly became the ultimate standard of beauty. In my circle I would regularly hear about the sex appeal of ‘blackenese’ and ‘spanish’ girls, of ‘lighties’ ... which on reflection is very funny as we had a community that was almost exclusively African and Caribbean.
In the black community as a whole, fairer skin has always been celebrated. I was warned constantly to not go into the sun, for fear of getting dark, lest I grow up never to be wed. Unsurprisingly, when I dabbled in skin bleaching myself, every time I moved up a shade I was drowned in compliments with regards to my complexion. I was praised on its ‘brightness’. Yet no one questioned me when my nw50 skin suddenly became nw43 ... it was just accepted and encouraged.
Studies have shown that there is a bias towards lighter skin. Being of a darker skin tone overwhelmingly has a significant impact on one’s socioeconomic outcomes and one’s quality of life. How do we move forward as a community and move past the belief that light is right?
There are many ways that we can effect change, the first is always the most obvious but hardest to execute. Firstly, education. Education starts with discussion and open dialogue with respect and acceptance for other people’s experiences, even if they are not your own. We need to address the bias that exists within our communities and actively work towards removing them. I particularly applaud Zendaya for openly discussing this, becoming an ally for her darker skinned sisters who don’t have the privilege of being heard. Secondly, representation. Darker skin tones, especially darker skinned women, are rarely shown in advertising, film or music. And when they are, they are shown in a negative light. This needs to change. Black woman are beautifully diverse and should be shown as such. Lastly, elimination. As black people we must censor ourselves, our speech, our actions and our entertainment. We have a responsibility to pay attention to the stereotypes that we portray in the entertainment that we produce ourselves.
At the basis of this, we need accountability. We must start to look inwards for resolution. Why do we oppress our own people when we already have to deal with the devastation of racism and the legacy of colonialism. We need to be accountable to each other and ourselves for the damage we do to one another when we intentionally or unintentionally use slurs such as black-attack and blick. We must stop equating the darkness of our skin tones with poverty, ugliness and despair. We have to do more.