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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle