03/07/2018 06:04 BST | Updated 03/07/2018 06:04 BST

Reflecting On 'The Ugly Duckling' As A Symbol Of Colourism

'It took me a while to familiarise myself with the intersectionality of discrimination.'

maxresdefault / YouTube


I've had to acknowledge that by subconsciously not recognising the impact of colourism on the social imagination, I also inadvertently participated in the erasure and misrepresentation of other black women. As a black person who's been privileged by her default of being born with a lighter skin, I equally have a responsibility to break the silence on the oppressive culture that continues to render darker-skinned women invisible.

I may be a benefactor of such a sinister act of self-degradation, but the reality is that all black people will be better off without a system that has socialised us to elevate ourselves by erasing parts of ourselves. If we continue to measure our self-worth by how close we are to whiteness, therefore rendering ourselves better than the next black, then we are no better than the "masters" who brainwashed us to internalise such notions of ourselves.

The reality is that as black people, in spite of our complexion or where we imagine ourselves to be on the hierarchy of blackness, we are all still having to fight for the crumbs at the bottom of the pit, while those we aspire to look like live in lavish waste. Our collective silence adds to the subjectivity of those at the receiving end of such a culture, and not recognising it as a serious social issue we need to address with urgency makes us part of the problem.

History has proven time and time again that we can't change what we can't acknowledge, so we need to recognise this problem in order to end the cycle of institutionalised anti-blackness. Personally, colourism wasn't an issue I thought about at all growing up, because I didn't have the language for it and was on the "right" side of the colourism spectrum. It took me a while to familiarise myself with the intersectionality of discrimination. As a person who grew up with what has become termed "light-skin privilege", this wasn't an issue that was top of mind for me, even as an adult.

The most immediate complex to me was more race-based because I, like many middle-class kids, grew up on stories of white fairy-tale princesses that implanted subjective notions of beauty into our psyche. Our screens brought to life the unrealistic lives of damsels in distress who wore the palest of skins, and that served as the foundation of our inferiority complex. Mermaids were being elevated and revered as the standard of beauty for us young girls to aspire to.

Those were the images that made me aware of myself as a race. It was less about whether I was dark skinned or light skinned, because in that context I was just black. Our young imaginations were dominantly captured by images of whiteness as the measure of beauty, which is where we developed an inferiority because we couldn't physically attain such a standard. But in the midst of that dominant narrative, I remember there used to be one cartoon that stuck with me from watching it after school called "The Ugly Duckling".

I laughed along as other white swans and yellow-toned ducks bullied him because he was dark-skinned. I didn't realise it then, but 'The Ugly Duckling' was a spitting reflection of reality. Society treats dark-skinned black people with a similar indifference and insensitivity.

In Jackie Winfield's words, "a mother duck had been sitting on her nest of eggs for several weeks. When the time was right, the eggs began to hatch, and soon the mother duck was surrounded by her young ones who made little 'peep-peep' sounds. The last egg to hatch looked a little unusual, and when the shell cracked open, mother duck got quite a shock. The creature which emerged looked quite different. He did not have fluffy yellow feathers and a little red beak, and as such, did not fit the picture of a pretty little duckling. He looked nothing like the others... and the more she looked at him, the more she thought him ugly and clumsy and really 'not one of us' at all." (2010)

The mother duck's conclusion was based solely on the fact that the duck in question was darker, so it challenged their expectations. The ugly duckling was portrayed as an unlikable character who was darker than the swans in his family, his entire life was an "ugly mess". He was always the subject of jokes, and I couldn't relate to this fictional character's suffering.

I laughed along as other white swans and yellow-toned ducks bullied him because he was dark-skinned. I didn't realise it then, but "the ugly duckling" was a spitting reflection of reality. Society treats dark-skinned black people with a similar indifference and insensitivity. Those who were considered the "pretty" members of his family where those who turned out to be swans with pure white/yellow feathered "skins". I didn't understand what that meant at the time, but that's exactly the essence of colourism.

Those who are regarded as light-skinned find themselves in positions of privilege. Meanwhile, dark-skinned people are dehumanised and relegated to the bottom of the scale. The practice of colourism thrives because black people perpetuate it as it makes individuals feel better about themselves. Thus, the idea that we get to keep our position as the "better blacks" as long as someone else has it worse off than us.

The reality of this behaviour is rooted in anti-black sentiment born of a colonial history that socialised black people to measure themselves against their colonial masters. Many of us who have had the "ordinary" black South African experience will recall that there was always a child who elders referred to as mantsho, meaning the dark one. This reference to a child's skin tone was a subconscious projection of apartheid trauma suffered by elders, who were weighed down by their internalised self-hate and projected it on to a child who didn't know any better.

It's elders who compared children to one another that fostered a culture of hate between children who shouldn't have had to deal with adult problems. The implication is that you have another generation of kids who grow up with low self-esteem and subsequently become adults who take measures to erase their darkness because of a cycle of anti-black self-hate. Some grow up to bleach their skins, despite the health consequences, because they would rather risk their lives than show up in the world as the type of blacks that get ignored.

I remember as a child, I'd see black elders in Limpopo who used to put red mud or shoe polish or a product called "colour-mine" on their skin to avoid getting "burned" when they were outside. Others would wear plastic bags beneath their clothing in the midst of hot summers in an attempt to "sweat out" their darker complexions.

Hence, a child growing up in that context quickly identifies that dark = bad and light = good. We have a culture that has come to associate light skin with purity and beauty because of the symbols we got from whiteness as a supposed supreme race. So, we spend our lives chasing the "ideal" white aesthetic.