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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Let's face it: supporting Spurs is basically a form of charity

Now, for my biggest donation yet . . .

I gazed in awe at the new stadium, the future home of Spurs, wondering where my treasures will go. It is going to be one of the architectural wonders of the modern world (football stadia division), yet at the same time it seems ancient, archaic, a Roman ruin, very much like an amphitheatre I once saw in Croatia. It’s at the stage in a new construction when you can see all the bones and none of the flesh, with huge tiers soaring up into the sky. You can’t tell if it’s going or coming, a past perfect ruin or a perfect future model.

It has been so annoying at White Hart Lane this past year or so, having to walk round walkways and under awnings and dodge fences and hoardings, losing all sense of direction. Millions of pounds were being poured into what appeared to be a hole in the ground. The new stadium will replace part of one end of the present one, which was built in 1898. It has been hard not to be unaware of what’s going on, continually asking ourselves, as we take our seats: did the earth move for you?

Now, at long last, you can see what will be there, when it emerges from the scaffolding in another year. Awesome, of course. And, har, har, it will hold more people than Arsenal’s new home by 1,000 (61,000, as opposed to the puny Emirates, with only 60,000). At each home game, I am thinking about the future, wondering how my treasures will fare: will they be happy there?

No, I don’t mean Harry Kane, Danny Rose and Kyle Walker – local as well as national treasures. Not many Prem teams these days can boast quite as many English persons in their ranks. I mean my treasures, stuff wot I have been collecting these past 50 years.

About ten years ago, I went to a shareholders’ meeting at White Hart Lane when the embryonic plans for the new stadium were being announced. I stood up when questions were called for and asked the chairman, Daniel Levy, about having a museum in the new stadium. I told him that Man United had made £1m the previous year from their museum. Surely Spurs should make room for one in the brave new mega-stadium – to show off our long and proud history, delight the fans and all those interested in football history and make a few bob.

He mumbled something – fluent enough, as he did go to Cambridge – but gave nothing away, like the PM caught at Prime Minister’s Questions with an unexpected question.

But now it is going to happen. The people who are designing the museum are coming from Manchester to look at my treasures. They asked for a list but I said, “No chance.” I must have 2,000 items of Spurs memorabilia. I could be dead by the time I finish listing them. They’ll have to see them, in the flesh, and then they’ll be free to take away whatever they might consider worth having in the new museum.

I’m awfully kind that way, partly because I have always looked on supporting Spurs as a form of charity. You don’t expect any reward. Nor could you expect a great deal of pleasure, these past few decades, and certainly not the other day at Liverpool when they were shite. But you do want to help them, poor things.

I have been downsizing since my wife died, and since we sold our Loweswater house, and I’m now clearing out some of my treasures. I’ve donated a very rare Wordsworth book to Dove Cottage, five letters from Beatrix Potter to the Armitt Library in Ambleside, and handwritten Beatles lyrics to the British Library. If Beckham and I don’t get a knighthood in the next honours list, I will be spitting.

My Spurs stuff includes programmes going back to 1910, plus recent stuff like the Opus book, that monster publication, about the size of a black cab. Limited editions cost £8,000 a copy in 2007. I got mine free, as I did the introduction and loaned them photographs. I will be glad to get rid of it. It’s blocking the light in my room.

Perhaps, depending on what they want, and they might take nothing, I will ask for a small pourboire in return. Two free tickets in the new stadium. For life. Or longer . . . 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times