Colourism: Why even black people have a problem with dark skin

When I was a child my skin was praised by both white and black women - but more by black women. A new film, <em>Black Girls</em>, is opening up the conversation on colourism, class and skin bleaching.

Recently, my mother told me a story of myself as a child. When strangers approached me and said things such as: "Isn’t she lovely?" or "What pretty hair you have!" I would innocently answer: "I know". 

My unassuming arrogance would take people aback, then everyone would laugh at the adorable curly-haired prima donna, enough to assuage my mother's embarrassment. It would be easy to dismiss my younger self as a smug, precocious little brat, but it really just showed that when a child hears something enough times, they accept it as merely another fact of life.

As I grew older, I began to realise there were other factors at play, which made me uncomfortable.

Many of these compliments came from white women, but the majority came from black women, inside and outside of my own family. I was light-skinned with long thick hair thanks in part to my father's white English heritage. That was all that qualified me to be considered "beautiful".

It had nothing to do with being funny or smart but plenty to do with physical attributes over which I had no control. The confidence I had displayed as a young girl became insecurity then anger. I didn't want preferential treatment because of something as superficial as skin colour or hair texture. My mother, the first woman I ever knew, loved and admired, was a dark-skinned black woman and, to me, the epitome of beauty and glamour. What was the big deal?

And then I realised and checked my own degree of privilege – it is far easier to resent one’s own skin for giving you advantages you haven’t earned than despising it for what it takes away.

Darker skinned women and, yes, men too, face that reality – an issue brought to the fore in the documentary Dark Girls, directed by Bill Duke, premiered in the UK last week.

Focusing primarily on African American women, the film opens up the conversation of colourism – a shameful discrimination generally against your own community on the basis of skin colour.

It is a legacy of slavery and plantation society that placed white slave-owners at the top of the top of the social ladder, followed by those who were mixed race/lighter skinned (who were given work in the house, with the added bonus of being a plaything for the massa, wahey!), with darker skinned black men and women (who were also raped – hence, the light-skinned house slaves) at the bottom of the pile doing the back-breaking labour in the cotton fields.

While the physical chains of bondage may be broken, for many in the black and Asian community, colourism is still a part of life – a psychological prison of self-loathing and envy. Comments such as, “You’re pretty ... for a dark skinned girl” or “I hope the baby comes out light” are par for the course.

Type dark skin or light skin into Twitter and you will seecolourismin action. One tweet: "Party on Friday. White Girls free. Light skin girls 5dollars. 50 dollars for dark skin girls". Another: "I thought cute dark skin girls with long hair was a myth ... I feel like I seen big foot." (sic) Within the past week, ‘dark-sinned vs light-skinned’ has been a trending topic. As one angry tweeter kindly pointed out, "Is this what Martin Luther King died for?"

Dark Girls makes for a haunting and uncomfortable watch. Listening to beautiful women admit to insecurities thatled them to request bleach in their bath water or putting hair removal cream in the scalps of their light-skinned school peers as an act of jealousy would seem all but ridiculous if it didn’t hit so close to home.

It features men with pixelated faces trying and failing miserably to justify their own prejudices – "I just prefer light skin women". "Dark skinned women just look wrong next me" –to stories from African American women confessing black men would lust after them in private, but opt for a light skinned trophy to parade in public.

Some find it bemusing that journalists, feminists and social commentators devote so much time to discussing the politics of hair texture and skincolour but it is absolutely, unequivocally, political.

Based on these personal accounts, is it a coincidence that 50 per cent of all Black Caribbean men in Britain have partners outside their own race? Or that the majority of high-profile black men– from politicians to sport stars – have a white partner? Are they simply exercising their right to choose, or attempting to exorcise their own demons?

In the Caribbean, such as the Bahamas where I was born, the minority light skinned community forms the majority of the ruling elite – the effects of generations of wealth and privilege and marrying the ‘right’ people from the ‘right’ (and light!) families.

The ugly truth is while racism – whether institutional, structural or ingrained – and inequality persists, so will colourism. It is no surprise that skin bleaching creams are most popular in developing countries.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 77 per cent of Nigerian women use them. In India – home to a third of the world’s poorest people – two thirds of all skin products contain lightening agents. For some, lighter skin is seen as a route out of poverty, creating opportunities to cheat a system engineered to oppress. It South Africa, it is the difference between being black and part of the ‘coloured’ middle class.

The women featured in Dark Girls weren’t born hating their skin, they hated the limited social outcomes it extended, the way they were treated and spoken to because of it. But while colourism differentiates, racism does not. Being mixed didn’t prevent me from being called a P*ki or a n*gger while growing up in the north east. We are all dark girls. 

Perhaps one of the most heart-wrenching moments of the documentary is its opening; when a beautiful cherubbarely five years old, cannot meet the camera’s gaze as she admits to hating being called black.

I hope that by having these conversations and confronting the enemy within, as well as the bigger picture, little black girls of any skin tone won’t ever have to question their looks. Society will learn to tell them they are beautiful, and their response, quite rightly, will be: “I know”.  

Bill Duke's new documentary Black Girls opens up the conversation around colourism. Image: Duke Media.
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The proposed cuts to junior doctors’ pay will make medicine a profession for the privileged

Jeremy Hunt is an intelligent man with a first-class education. This makes his ill-fated proposed contract appear even more callous rather than ill-judged.

The emblem of the British Medical Association (BMA), the trade union for doctors in the UK, symbolises Asclepius, who was believed to be the founder of western medicine. Asclepius was killed by Zeus with a thunderbolt for resurrecting the dead. In the same way, the proposed government-led contracts to be imposed on doctors from August 2016 may well be the thunderbolt that kills British medical recruitment for a generation and that kills any chance of resurrecting an over-burdened National Health Service.

The BMA voted to ballot their junior doctor members for industrial action for the first time in 40 years against these contracts. What this government has achieved is no small feat. They have managed, in the last few weeks, to instil within a normally passive profession a kindled spirit of self-awareness and political mobilisation.

Jeremy Hunt is an intelligent man with a first-class education. This makes his ill-fated proposed contract appear even more callous rather than ill-judged. Attacking the medical profession has come to define his tenure as health secretary, including the misinformed reprisals on hospital consultants which were met not only with ridicule but initiated a breakdown in respect between government and the medical profession that may take years to reconcile. The government did not learn from this mistake and resighted their guns on the medical profession’s junior members.

“Junior doctor” can be a misleading term, as we are a spectrum of qualified doctors training to become hospital consultants or General Practioners. To become a consultant cardiac surgeon or consultant gastroenterologist does not happen overnight after graduating from medical school: such postgraduate training can take anywhere between 10 to 15 years. This spectrum of highly skilled professionals, therefore, forms the backbone of the medical service within the hospital and is at the forefront of delivering patient care from admission to discharge.

Central to the opposition to the current proposed contract outlined in the Review Body on Doctors' and Dentists' Remuneration is the removal of safeguards to prevent trusts physically overworking and financially exploiting these junior doctors. We believe that this is detrimental not only to our human rights in a civilised society but also detrimental to the care we provide to our patients in the short term and long-term.

David Cameron recently stated that “I think the right thing to do is to be paid the rate for the job”. This is an astute observation. While contract proponents are adamant that the new contract is “pay neutral”, it is anything but as they have tactfully redefined “sociable hours” as between 7am and 10pm Mondays to Saturdays resulting in hardest working speciality doctors seeing their already falling inflation-adjusted pay slashed by up to further 30 per cent while facing potentially unprotected longer working hours.

We acknowledge that we did not enter medicine for the pay perks. If we wanted to do that, we would have become bankers or MPs. Medicine is a vocation and we are prepared to sacrifice many aspects of our lives to provide the duty of care to our patients that they deserve. The joy we experience from saving a person’s life or improving the quality of their life and the sadness, frustration, and anger we feel when a patient dies is what drives us on, more than any pay cheque could.

However, overworked and unprotected doctors are, in the short-term, unsafe to patients. This is why the presidents of eleven of the Royal Colleges responsible for medical training and safeguarding standards of practice in patient care have publically stated their opposition to the contracts. It is, therefore, a mystery as to who exactly from the senior medical profession was directly involved the formation of the current proposals, raising serious questions with regard to its legitimacy. More damaging for the government’s defence are the latest revelations by a former Tory minister and doctor involved in the first negotiations between the BMA and government, Dan Poulter, implying that the original proposals with regard to safeguarding against unsafe hours were rejected by Mr Hunt.  

The long-term effects of the contract are equally disheartening. Already, hundreds of doctors have applied to the General Medical Council to work abroad where the market price for a highly trained medical profession is still dictated by reason. With medical school debts as great as £70,000, this new contract makes it difficult for intelligent youngsters from low-income backgrounds to pay back such debts on the modest starting salary (£11-12 per hour) and proposed cuts. Is medicine therefore reserved only for students from privileged backgrounds rather than the brightest? Furthermore, the contracts discourage women from taking time out to start a family. Female doctors form the majority of undergraduate medical students – we should be encouraging talented women to achieve their full potential to improve healthcare, not making them choose unfairly between work and family at such an early and critical stage of their career.

Postgraduate recruitment will therefore become an embarrassing problem, with many trusts already spending millions on hiring locum doctors. Most hospitals are not ready for Hunt’s radical reforms as the infrastructure to supply seven-day working weeks is simply not available. With a long-term recruitment problem, this would also be a toxic asset for potential private investors, should the health secretary venture down that path.

Jeremy Hunt has an opportunity to re-enter negotiations with the BMA to achieve a common goal of improving the efficiency and recruitment to the health service while protecting patient care. Although the decision for industrial action should never be taken lightly, as future leaders of clinical care in the UK, we will do everything in our power to defend against such thunderbolt attacks, by men playing god, the integrity and dignity of our profession and on the quality of care it delivers to our patients.