Dark Girls on Colourism
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.