Dark Girls on Colourism

Cosmopolitan (South Africa) - - REPORT - by bu­sang senne

We know a lot about racism – but have you heard of colourism? We in­ves­ti­gate what this racial phe­nom­e­non is, how it came to be and why it’s so dan­ger­ous.

‘ IN IN­DIAN CUL­TURE, COLOURISM IS PREVA­LENT. FROM A YOUNG AGE, IT’ S IN­GRAINED T HAT “FAIR” I NDIAN WOMEN ARE MORE BEAU­TI­FUL.’ DEVAKSHA VALLABHJEE ‘ A HAIR­STYL­IST ON A FASH­ION SHOOT ONCE TOLD A PHO­TOG­RA­PHER THAT I ’ M WAY T OO DARK TO B E ON C AMERA.’ HAUWA DAUDA ‘ THE M OST P OPULAR FIL­TERS O N SNAPCHAT GIVE DARK- SKINNED PEO­PLE A B LEACHED L OOK A ND BLUE E YES … L IKE A W HITE V ERSION OF YOUR­SELF.’ VERASHNI PILLAY ‘ ON S HOOTS, D ARKER W OMEN A RE PUT IN T HE B ACKGROUND, W HILE LIGHTER- SKINNED W OMEN A RE IN T HE FORE­GROUND.’ KAG­ISO MATLALA ‘ AS A MAKEUP A RTIST, I KNOW THAT THE MAR­KET DOESN’T CATER FOR WOMEN WITH DARK SKIN TONES AS MUCH A S FOR LIGHTER SKIN T ONES.’ LESEDI LEKETI

When we talk about #black­girl­magic, we’re usu­ally speak­ing about a spe­cific type of black girl. She’s light-skinned or ‘yel­low bone’ and ‘thicc’, with a curvy ass but a skinny waist – an In­sta­gram kween with caramel un­der­tones. This has a bit to do with pretty priv­i­lege – the ad­van­tages women re­ceive for be­ing con­ven­tion­ally beau­ti­ful – but it has more to do with colourism. Racism is about the dis­crim­i­na­tion against peo­ple based on their race. But colourism – a term coined by writer Alice Walker in her 1983 book In Search Of Our Moth­ers’ Gar­dens – is a form of ‘prej­u­di­cial or pref­er­en­tial treat­ment of same-race peo­ple based solely on their colour’. While racism is typ­i­cally ex­pe­ri­enced at the hands of peo­ple of a dif­fer­ent race than you, colourism is of­ten ex­pe­ri­enced at the hands of peo­ple of the same race as you.

Light is right… Right?

‘My first ex­pe­ri­ence of colourism was in Grade 1, when a friend re­fused to hold my hand be­cause he said my skin was “dark and gross” – and that if he touched me, he would be dirty as well,’ says Kag­iso Matlala, a beauty vlog­ger and model based in Jo’burg. ‘I was teased for hav­ing darker skin. At the time, I knew noth­ing about colourism and couldn’t ex­plain why my skin colour evoked neg­a­tive re­ac­tions from cer­tain peo­ple. What I did know was that ev­ery time I tried speak­ing about it, my ex­pe­ri­ence was dis­missed, fol­lowed by com­ments such as, “There is no such thing; it’s im­pos­si­ble for black peo­ple to dis­crim­i­nate against each other based on skin tone.”’

But we know that it’s not im­pos­si­ble. To ex­plain colourism, we need to think of the rep­re­sen­ta­tions we see of black women. The sub­tle cod­ing and sub­lim­i­nal mes­sag­ing cre­ate a re­la­tion­ship be­tween black and white: it’s good vs evil, pure vs dirty, poor vs priv­i­leged. Black­ness has been as­so­ci­ated with evil, dark­ness and im­pu­rity, and white­ness with good­ness, clean­li­ness and in­no­cence. Across pop cul­ture, lit­er­a­ture, film and so­ci­ety, the closer you are to the West­ern beauty ideal of white­ness, the more priv­i­lege you re­ceive.

It all started in the days of colo­nial­ism, when a darker skin tone rep­re­sented poverty and slav­ery. This colo­nial legacy has spread across the world and given rise to colourism among black peo­ple and peo­ple of colour.

‘Light skin op­er­ates as a form of sym­bolic cap­i­tal – one that is es­pe­cially crit­i­cal for women be­cause of the con­nec­tion be­tween skin tone, at­trac­tive­ness and de­sir­abil­ity,’ says Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia Berke­ley so­ci­ol­o­gist Eve­lyn Nakano Glenn.

A prime ex­am­ple of colourism is the film

Nina. The pro­duc­ers of the Nina Si­mone biopic were heav­ily crit­i­cised for cast­ing Zoe Sal­dana (a light-skinned AfroLatina woman) as Nina Si­mone (a dark-skinned black woman). Not only did they cast Sal­dana, they also dark­ened her skin with makeup and added pros­thetic thick lips and a flat nose to make her look more like Si­mone.

Why not just cast a darker ac­tress rather than turn­ing a mu­sic le­gend into a car­i­ca­ture? The an­swer is be­cause lighter-skinned black peo­ple and peo­ple of colour are priv­i­leged when it comes to ‘ac­cept­able’ rep­re­sen­ta­tions of black­ness.

Pop star Zen­daya has spo­ken out about colourism, ad­mit­ting she doesn’t ‘face the same strug­gles as darker women’ be­cause of her lighter skin tone. ‘If I get put in a po­si­tion be­cause of the colour of my skin where peo­ple will lis­ten to me, I should use that priv­i­lege in the right way,’ she told COSMO in an in­ter­view last year.

These aren’t the only two ex­am­ples – there are count­less cases of dark-skinned women, such as Os­car-win­ning ac­tress Vi­ola Davis, be­ing placed on the side­lines in me­dia and pop cul­ture be­cause of their darker skin tone.

Even In­sta­gram and Kanye are guilty of colourism

‘I can’t help but no­tice that In­sta­gram fil­ters (and other fil­ters for smart­phones) tend to make me look lighter,’ says Verashni Pillay, for­mer edi­tor of the

Mail & Guardian and Huff­in­g­ton Post South Africa. ‘There are very few that cre­ate that “cool” fil­ter ef­fect while still hon­our­ing my skin tone. The most pop­u­lar fil­ters on Snapchat are ones that give dark-skinned peo­ple a bleached look, more aquiline fea­tures and blue eyes … like a white ver­sion of your­self.’

And long be­fore In­sta­gram, there were black rap artists who per­pet­u­ated colourism in their mu­sic.

‘Light skin is a form of sym­bolic cap­i­tal – crit­i­cal for women be­cause of the con­nec­tion be­tween skin tone and at­trac­tive­ness’

‘In his song Power, Kanye West raps that he’s rolling with “some light-skinned girls and some Kelly Row­lands”,’ adds Pillay. ‘I can’t help but no­tice that the most pow­er­ful women of colour in pop­u­lar mu­sic to­day are lighter-skinned – just look at Bey­oncé, Ri­hanna, Cardi B and Nicki Mi­naj. Bey­oncé once dark­ened her skin for a pho­to­shoot in a French mag­a­zine. I found this in­cred­i­bly of­fen­sive, and akin to black face.’

Even Bey­oncé’s dad Mathew Knowles said re­cently in an in­ter­view that ‘When it comes to black fe­males, who are the peo­ple who get their mu­sic played on pop ra­dio? Mariah Carey, Ri­hanna, my kids [Bey­oncé and Solange]. What do they all have in com­mon? They’re all lighter-skinned.’

When darker women see them­selves ex­cluded or even ridiculed in the me­dia, the mes­sage is ex­tremely harm­ful. ‘For a long time, it made me feel like there was some­thing fun­da­men­tally wrong with me,’ says Pillay. ‘It was only when I started read­ing up on the­o­ries of iden­tity pol­i­tics at uni­ver­sity and fol­lowed par­tic­u­larly pro­gres­sive black thinkers that I came to recog­nise this as non­sense, and be­came very proud of my skin colour.’

Colourism per­vades ev­ery part of so­ci­ety

Hauwa Dauda, a model from Nige­ria cur­rently based in Cape Town, is no stranger to colourism – here or any­where else. ‘ The idea is that the closer to white you are, the bet­ter you are,’ she says. ‘You can re­ally start to feel like you’re not beau­ti­ful; like you’re not good enough. As a pro­fes­sional model, I’ve been in many sit­u­a­tions where colourism plays out. A hair­styl­ist on a fash­ion shoot once told a pho­tog­ra­pher that I’m way too dark to be on cam­era. And that’s not even the half of it – I’ve heard peo­ple on shoot ask, “Why are dark girls al­ways so dif­fi­cult?” (when it comes to find­ing the right foun­da­tion for my skin tone).’

‘I’ve also seen colourism play out in fash­ion and beauty,’ says Matlala. ‘Lighter­skinned mod­els are pre­ferred over dark­er­skinned mod­els. You can see it when darker women are put in the back­ground while lighter-skinned women are in the fore­ground.’

‘As a makeup artist, I find that shop­ping for makeup has be­come a heavy task,’ says Jo’burg makeup artist Lesedi Leketi. ‘In terms of foun­da­tion, the mar­ket doesn’t cater for women with dark skin tones as much as it does for women with lighter skin. Kim Kar­dashian West re­cently re­leased a range of con­tour sticks in which the dark­est colour wasn’t even made for re­ally dark skin, but more for a “yel­low bone” type of skin. I wasn’t even sur­prised by this – to me, it was yet an­other ex­am­ple of dark skin be­ing ex­cluded.’

‘Yel­low bone’ is the pop­u­lar term for black women and women of colour who are lighter­skinned. Of­ten, ‘yel­low bone’ women (typ­i­cally as­so­ci­ated with be­ing mixed-race) tend to have more Euro­pean- type hair tex­ture (looser, less coiled), and fa­cial fea­tures (such as a thin­ner nose). In essence, they are women of colour who look more white – and they’re cel­e­brated for this.

‘For me, the term “yel­low bone” high­lights the fact that lighter­skinned women are praised by so­ci­ety,’ says Leketi. ‘When you’re a “yel­low bone”, you in­stantly be­come so­ci­ety’s def­i­ni­tion of a beau­ti­ful woman.’

Colourism has far­reach­ing con­se­quences in terms of how black women nav­i­gate so­ci­ety. Cen­turies of colo­nial­ism mean that op­por­tu­ni­ties are few and far be­tween for dark-skinned black women in com­par­i­son to their lighter-skinned coun­ter­parts. Dark women are hin­dered when it comes to ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tion, en­try into em­ploy­ment, so­cial cap­i­tal, po­lit­i­cal priv­i­lege and op­por­tu­ni­ties for up­ward mo­bil­ity.

So­ci­ol­o­gist Mar­garet Hunter con­firms this: ‘Light-skinned peo­ple earn more money, com­plete more years of school­ing, live in bet­ter neigh­bour­hoods, and marry higher-sta­tus peo­ple than dark­er­skinned peo­ple of the same race or eth­nic­ity.’

‘For me, the term “yel­low bone” high­lights the fact that lighter­skinned women are praised by so­ci­ety’

It’s not just an african thing

Colourism isn’t a uniquely black ex­pe­ri­ence. It’s part of a sys­temic cul­ture in coun­tries with di­verse eth­nic­i­ties, in­clud­ing those in Latin Amer­ica, east and south­east Asia, and the Caribbean.

‘Colourism in Bol­ly­wood is very ev­i­dent,’ says Devaksha Vallabhjee, a Cape Town writer, dig­i­tal con­tent pro­ducer and strate­gist. ‘Most lead­ing ac­tresses are lighter-skinned, which also per­pet­u­ates the idea that they are more beau­ti­ful. In In­dian cul­ture, colourism is very preva­lent, mostly to­wards women. From a young age, it’s in­grained that “fair” In­dian women are more beau­ti­ful. One rel­a­tive once told me to scrub my skin more when bathing to be­come lighter. There are still many places in South Africa that sell skin-light­en­ing prod­ucts. I’ve seen them in In­dian spe­cial­ity stores and at mar­kets.’

In fact, the global skin-light­en­ing prod­uct mar­ket is pro­jected to be worth US$19,8-bil­lion (about R240-bil­lion). Key mar­kets aren’t just in Africa – they in­clude Asia and the Mid­dle East, too.

Skin bleach­ing: a deadly in­dus­try

‘ The con­se­quences of colourism are that peo­ple per­form acts of vi­o­lence against their own skin, such as bleach­ing them­selves or us­ing harm­ful prod­ucts that eat away at their skin’s pig­men­ta­tion,’ says Matlala. ‘ The mes­sage that skin bleach­ing sends to younger peo­ple about their self-worth is very de­struc­tive. The idea that the darker your skin colour, the less wor­thy you are is false.’

Ac­cord­ing to the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion, 77% of Nige­ri­ans use skin­bleach­ing prod­ucts daily, while 40% of women in Malaysia, China, the Philip­pines and the Repub­lic of Korea ad­mit to us­ing light­en­ing prod­ucts. In­dia has one of the largest skin­whiten­ing in­dus­tries in the world, worth more than US$450-mil­lion (about R5,5-bil­lion).

‘It’s quite dif­fi­cult to say to some­one, “You shouldn’t be do­ing that,” when – quite clearly – colourism is op­er­at­ing in so­ci­ety and you’re able to ma­nip­u­late the dy­nam­ics to get the ma­te­rial ben­e­fits,’

the prob­lem is not with light­skinned or dark-skinned women – the is­sue is with dis­man­tling a colo­nial his­tory and un­learn­ing racism

says pro­fes­sor Melissa Steyn, a na­tional re­searcher in crit­i­cal di­ver­sity stud­ies at Wits Uni­ver­sity. The prob­lem is not with light-skinned or dark-skinned women – the is­sue is with dis­man­tling a colo­nial his­tory and un­learn­ing cen­turies of racism, and with the gate­keep­ers of me­dia for idol­is­ing lighter women.

Ide­ol­ogy aside, the phys­i­cal ef­fects of skin bleach­ing can be hor­ren­dous. And in coun­tries where skin-light­en­ing prod­ucts are il­le­gal – such as South Africa – il­le­gal prod­ucts con­tain­ing dan­ger­ous, unchecked chem­i­cals can cause skin can­cer, in­fec­tions, ir­re­versible pig­men­ta­tion, stretch­marks and thin­ning of the skin.

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