I originally wrote about this topic for my University newspaper during my final year at Brunel University, in 2014. Now I’m re-visiting this deep-rooted issue from a fresher perspective.
Our society is forever telling us that lighter skin is more beautiful. Why? Because it’s closer to white skin, and white skin has been established as the pinnacle of beauty, and continues to be today. Look around you. What do you see? When you watch TV, music videos, when you’re browsing magazines, or glancing at billboards and adverts, what do you predominantly see? Faces with what skin colour and what skin tone?
Colourism – the prejudice or discrimination based on the relative lightness or darkness of the skin, was born from the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Willie Lynch, a British slave owner in the West Indies, came up with a cunning and destructive plan to destroy unity between our ancestors, and all concepts of self-love they had, before being kidnapped by the Europeans. He advised other slave owners to segregate the Africans based on their skin complexion. This lead to what was known as the ‘paper bag rule’. African men and women who had skin as light as a beige paper bag, would be put to work in the house, as servants or maids. African men and women darker than the paper bag would be forced to endure the strenuous tasks in the fields.
Let’s take a moment to fully understand the sheer depth of the evil ways Willie Lynch. Imagine, generation after generation of internalising his ideology to point where you don’t even have to be told, because you believe it. You think it. You know it. It becomes so locked into your psychological complex, you don’t know anything else.
“… I HAVE A FULL PROOF METHOD FOR CONTROLLING YOUR BLACK SLAVES. I guarantee every one of you that, if installed correctly, IT WILL CONTROL THE SLAVES FOR AT LEAST 300 HUNDREDS YEARS…
… You must use the DARK skin slaves vs. the LIGHT skin slaves, and the LIGHT skin slaves vs. the DARK skin slaves. ” – Willie Lynch
The result today? Black people are still divided because of colourism. I’ve seen and heard of how black men, dark-skinned in most cases, gravitate towards lighter black women with the hope that they will have ‘lighter’ children. A black man once said to me “You’re kinda peng for a dark girl, you know” – as if to say that I shouldn’t be attractive because I’m dark… I’ve had light skinned sisters give me and my boyfriend funny looks, because he’s a red skinned Jamaican black man, and I’m a blue-black Ghanaian woman. They look at us as if to say ‘what is that fine light skinned black man doing with this dark girl?’ Nearly three years one, we still get funny looks.
But, on the other side of the mental ‘colour line’ – I say mental because this is the state of our mind-sets. We’re so divided psychologically, we sub-consciously draw a line between dark and light without even realising. Stop. Think. We are all black – technically a diverse spectrum of melanin, and white people are pink… So let us support our sisters who bear the pain of not feeling ‘black enough’ just because their skin is ‘too’ light’. I’ve seen a young black man’s face fully drop in disbelief, when he learnt that another friend of mine was fully black and not mixed… The way I had to repeat and explain that blackness comes in different shades…
We’re all black because we’ve been given this label, ‘I am black because the white man constructed black to be as different as possible from white.’ – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Black and white are nothing but binary labels which seek to confuse and divide us. Black is the opposite of white yet being a lighter black is being closer to white…
Colourism is damaging to black sisterhood because it generates jealousy between us, which ultimately leads to division. Black girls might even choose to form friendship circles based on their skin complexion. Sounds silly I know, but I’ve seen this happen myself. Look at the stupid #team light skin, #team dark skin nonsense. This is Willie Lynch all over again, twitter style. He made his speech in 1712 yet here we are continuing to divide ourselves using social media. He must be laughing in hell at us. One of my friends told me about her time at a club, when she saw a group of dark skinned women fight a smaller group of light skinned women. Why? Because they were getting all the attention from the black brothers at the club. Instead of learning to respect our melanin diversity, and to humble ourselves in the face of ignorance, we fight each other like our ancestors were forced to fight on the plantation.
Just as colourism affects our women, it affects our men too but in a different way. Yes, there are black men who despise their dark skin but it’s more to do with them despising dark skinned women, even though they are dark themselves. I’ve seen this too many times. It’s a projection of the non-existent self love these men have for themselves… I remember reading an article based on the experience a model shared, via Fashion Ghana, about how Wiz Kid only picked light skinned or mixed women to star in his music video…
Colourism isn’t just affecting our men and women. It’s our children too. Our children are being born into a society which judges their skin complexion and it needs to stop. Instead of learning to love the essence of their identity, they learn to devalue and loathe who they are. In a psychological study featured in the Dark Girls documentary, a child is presented with five cartoon drawings of children based on a skin colour scale. The scale is presented from white skin to black skin with a spectrum of skin tones in between, which appear to be a mixed race tone, caramel, milk chocolate brown, and then dark chocolate brown.
The aim was to see how early a child’s mind is influenced by the colourist ideologies embedded within the black community. “Show me the ugly child”, the psychologist asks. The little girl points to the darkest black child. The psychologist asks, “Why is she the ugly child?” The little girl, who points to the darkest black child, answers, “Because she’s black.” The little girl is also told, “Show me the good looking child.” She points to the white child. When asked why, she responds with, “because she’s light skinned”.
The division between light and dark skin has become so prominent in the black community that the degradation of what it means to be black has become internalised on a global scale. This is made worse by the media which perpetuates the problem. The wider portrayal of predominately white beauty in fashion, predominately light skinned women in black music videos and increased advertising in bleaching creams, are all feeding off the historically embedded insecurities. In America, the Caribbean and the UK, black people are using bleaching creams to lighten their skin despite knowing the dangers. Even in some parts of Africa, where nearly everyone is black, people desire to be lighter.
So what can we do to change this narrative?
We need to overcome this psychological legacy of slavery by understanding where colourism comes from, and how it has been carried like unwanted trauma, for so long by our people. Remove the Willie Lynch syndrome from your mind. Replace it with a mentality where we learn to love the essence of who we are, just melanin rich and beautiful.
- Dark Girls, directed by Bill Duke and D. Channsin Berry –