The Lighter Shade Of Black

“the fair-toned black elite have been victimized by an unattainable Western ideal” Audrey Elisa Kerr (2007), The Paper Bag Principle (p. 116)

Professor of Anthropology Nina G. Jablonski  in her study of ‘The Evolution of Human Skin and Skin Color’ (2004) expressed that ‘skin’ as a research topic had been overlooked in her field and in human biology ‘because of the social sensitivity surrounding discussions of skin colour and because of the use and misuse of skin colour biological and social concepts of race’. With an average length of two meters square and thickness of two millimetres (Odland 1991), the skin is the largest and most visible organ of the human body. It is very resilient and plays a fundamental role by  regulating our body temperature, protecting us from UV lights  as well as other physical, chemical and microbial attacks. The skin is also a vital source of  information of one’s health, age, race and ancestry. This said,  social importance  and skin colour correlates in many societies where fair- skinned individuals are placed on a pedestal and in better social ranks than their dark-skinned counterparts. The deep rooted problem indicates a degree of sensitivity to the subject of skin colour in human affairs, due in part to history and the complexities associated to it.

Colourism, also known as Shadeism;  is the term coined to describe the discrimination that exists between lighter-skinned and darker-skinned members within the same community. It is a problem among the African, Asian and Caribbean communities which particularly affects women.

Looking back at my childhood, I never felt a desire of wanting to be fairer in order to fit in or to be accepted by others. However , I do recall being fascinated by long, blond, straight hair and blue eyes. My uncle,who I lived with in France, was   married to a Caucasian woman. I was very blessed to have her as my ‘mummy’, she never differentiated between my female cousin and myself; dressing us up in identical clothes and so forth. People often presumed we were twins idiots but our hair differed- as a little girl you notice these things.

in the UK the discrimination that takes place within communities tends to relate to one’s nationality…whereas in  America, skin colour is what people have in common.

During my teenage years in London (early high school days), the ‘cool’ place one had to be from was the Caribbean, namely Jamaica. Being African was looked down upon as though we were of lower rank in the ‘Black race’ categories – due in part to the negative perceptions people have of the African continent and also because of the predominant West Indian population living  in the UK (who, from my own encounters, dislike being reminded that they originate from Africa). Thus, in the UK the discrimination that takes place within communities tends to  relate to one’s nationality (i.e Ghanaian vs Nigerian or Congolese vs Angolan and African vs Jamaican so forth), whereas in  America, skin colour is what people have in common. It appears that this still persists; very recently my six years old niece came back from school praising her Jamaican bestfriend. She was very jovial in her pretence of being ‘from Jamaica  too‘ , crowning this new found identity as if she was a lesser individual for having Congolese roots; so I made an effort  to do the damage control and tell her that being British born from Congolese parents is just as cool as the latter.

What’s the obsession with complexion?

The subject is a treacherous cult of ideals  upon which beauty is measured which sees its  victims being stigmatised and oppressed for not having the ‘appropriate’ skin colour. Bill Duke’s powerful documentary called ‘Dark Skin’ (2010 ) captures the experiences of African-American females recounting their traumatic tales of growing up not being the lighter shade of black.

The obsession placed upon  skin colour is an epidemic in many parts of the world. Dating back from slavery, when light-skinned slaves -products of the slave master’s sexual abuse of certain female slaves – were promoted to ‘better roles’ than their non-mixed counterparts. This set the standard for favouritism of skin colour and social hierarchy among the slaves.

The legacy of the segregation among the slaves has continued to sieve through time, even decades after the abolishment of slavery, the  brown paper bag test was a method implemented by black people themselves to differientiate and exclude one another in various organisations.

Nowadays, it is very apparent in the fashion industry and music industry which models are representative of black beauty. Most videos of African-American artists (even Black-British artists) often portray the light-skinned model as the trophy wife or girlfriend and the dark skinned-model as the friend of the trophy girlfriend or just as an object of sexual desire.

I came across this short documentary which explores ‘shadeism’. It rang a chord because  it reinforces my view that this topic is a problem in many communities. My belief is that imperialism, globalisation and the idea of ‘White supremacy’ (as much as I hate the words) are a big influence in our perceptions of beauty and the way people view themselves in general. Take a quick view (follow the link for part 2)

Let the media do the talking…….

While you do the walking……

Eurocentric features set the benchmark for beauty among black people. We are often in awe when we see an individual in our community with ‘grey’ eyes, green eyes etc – heck; it is what we are taught to aspire to as little girls. The media are key players because they are vessel upon which these ideals are transported and transmitted. From magazines and television, to the work place and within our own communities dark-skinned people are not represented. So as children we do not have anything to remind us of ourselves and tell us that we are worthy of being role models and at the fore front of society within our chosen careers. Beyoncé, Tyra Banks, Rihanna, Halle Berry, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Christina Milian, Meagan Good..the list is endless – ALL ARE LIGHT-SKINNED!! (minor rant over).

Afrocentricity contends that our main problem as African people is our usually unconscious adoption of the western worldview and perspective in general. The sooner we learn to accept ourselves for who we are and not for who we are told we are, the sooner we will be able to define our own values; most certainly our own beauty.  That is when the pain will end and the healing will commence.

Dialogue is good baby! Talk to me!

Do you think that there are  advantages and privileges for lighter-skin toned persons which darker-skinned toned persons are exempt from?  What dictates our perceptions and ideals of beauty as a society? What have been your experiences?



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