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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Misogynoir: How social media abuse exposes longstanding prejudices against black women

After decades as an MP, Diane Abbott finally spoke out about the racist and sexist abuse she faces. But she's not alone. 

“Which STD will end your miserable life?” “This is why monkeys don’t belong here.” “I hope you get lynched”. These are just some of the many messages Seyi Akiwowo, a Labour councillor in Newham, told me she has been sent over the past three weeks. Akiwowo has received reams of violent and racist abuse after a video of her suggesting former empires pay reparations to countries they once colonised (and whose resources they still continue to plunder) went viral. She doesn’t expect everyone to agree with her, she said, but people seem to think they’re entitled to hurl abuse at her because she’s a black woman.

The particular intensity of misogyny directed at black women is so commonplace that it was given a name by academic Moya Bailey: misogynoir. This was highlighted recently when Diane Abbott, the country’s first and most-well known black woman MP and current shadow Home secretary, spoke out about the violent messages she’s received and continues to receive. The messages are so serious that Abbott’s staff often fear for her safety. There is an implicit point in abuse like this: women of colour, in particular black women, should know their place. If they dare to share their opinions, they’ll be attacked for it.

There is no shortage of evidence to show women of colour are sent racist and sexist messages for simply having an opinion or being in the public eye, but there is a dearth of meaningful responses. “I don’t see social media companies or government leaders doing enough to rectify the issue,” said Akiwowo, who has reported some of the abuse she’s received. Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, agreed. “The advice from social media experts is not to feed the trolls, but that vacates the public space for them," she said. But ignoring abuse is a non-solution. Although Onwurah notes the police and media giants are beginning to take this abuse seriously, not enough is being done.

Akiwowo has conversations with young women of colour who become less sure they want to go into politics after seeing the way people like Abbott have been treated. It’s an unsurprising reaction. Kate Osamor, shadow secretary of state for International Development, argued no one should have to deal with the kind of vitriol Abbott does. It’s well documented that the ease and anonymity of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have changed the nature of communication – and for politicians, this means more abuse, at a faster pace and at all hours of the day. Social media, Onwurah said, has given abuse a “new lease of life”. There needs to be a concerted effort to stop people from using these platforms to spout their odious views.

But there is another layer to understanding misogyny and racism in public life. The rapid and anonymous, yet public, nature of social media has shone a light on what women of colour already know to be a reality. Dawn Butler MP, who has previously described racism as the House of Commons’ “dirty little secret”, told me “of course” she has experienced racism and sexism in Parliament: “What surprises me is when other people are surprised”. Perhaps that’s because there’s an unwillingness to realise or really grapple the pervasiveness of misogynoir.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get someone to understand the discriminatory nature of peoples’ actions,” Butler explained. “That itself is demoralising and exhausting.” After 30 years of racist and sexist treatment, it was only when Abbott highlighted the visceral abuse she experiences that politicians and commentators were willing to speak out in her support. Even then, there seemed to be little recognition of how deep this ran. In recent years, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been ridiculed for having a relationship with her in the 70s, as if a black woman’s sexuality is both intriguing and laughable; people regularly imply she’s incompetent, despite having been in Parliament for three decades and at the last general election increasing her majority by a staggering amount; she has even been derided by her own colleagues. Those Labour MPs who began the hashtag #PrayforDiane when she was off work because of illness spoke to a form of bullying that wouldn’t be acceptable in most workplaces.

These supposedly less obvious forms of racism and sexism are largely downplayed or seen as unrelated to discrimination. They might be understood through what influential scholar Stuart Hall called the “grammar of race”. Different from overtly racist comments, Hall says there’s a form of racism that’s “inferential”; naturalised representations of people - whether factual or fictional - have “racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions”. Alongside the racist insults hurled at black women politicians like Abbott, there’s a set of racialised tropes that rely on sexualisation or derision to undermine these women.

The streams of abuse on social media aren’t the only barrier people of colour – and women in particular – face when they think about getting into politics. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of people in the black community who put themselves forward to stand for office, you only have to look at when positions come up the list of people that go for the position,” Claudia Webbe, a councillor and member of Labour's ruling body the National Executive Committee told me. As one of the few black women to hold such a position in the history of the Labour party, she knows from her extensive career how the system works. “I think there is both a problem of unfair selection and a problem of BME [black and minority ethnic] people sustaining the course." Conscious and unconscious racial and gender bias means politics are, like other areas of work in the UK, more difficult to get into if you’re a woman of colour.

“The way white women respond to the way black women are treated is integral,” Osamor says, “They are part of the solution”. White women also face venomous and low-lying forms of sexism that are often overlooked, but at times the solidarity given to them is conditional for women of colour. In a leaked letter to The Guardian, Abbott’s staff criticised the police for not acting on death threats, while similar messages sent to Anna Soubry MP resulted in arrest. When the mainstream left talks about women, it usually means white women. This implicitly turns the experiences of women of colour into an afterthought.

The systematic discrimination against women of colour, and its erasure or addendum-like quality, stems from the colonial racial order. In the days of the British empire, white women were ranked as superior to colonised Asian and African women who were at different times seen as overly sexualised or unfeminine. Black women were at the bottom of this hierarchy. Women of colour were essentially discounted as real women. Recognising this does not equate to pitting white women and women of colour against each other. It is simply a case of recognising the fact that there is a distinct issue of racial abuse.

The online abuse women of colour, and black women specifically, is an issue that needs to be highlighted and dealt with. But there are other more insidious ways that racism and sexism manifest themselves in everyday political life, which should not be overlooked. “Thirty years ago I entered parliament to try and be the change I wanted to see,” Abbott wrote. “Despite the personal attacks and the online abuse, that struggle continues.” That struggle must be a collective one.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.