"Oh thank God, at least he's light skin."
And with that I had been whisked into the wonderful world of colourism; and what an ugly world it's turned out to be. Let's delve deeper, but before I take you forward, one must take you back.
I was brought up in a household with a dark skinned African-Caribbean mother, and was thankfully blessed with many of the elders around me being inadvertently African centred. At no point were my brother or I taught that the lighter pigment of our skin meant we’d be favoured within our community, or in the world at large. I only began to consider my hue as being perceived as a higher social currency when I began socialising as a teenager, outside the confines of my family. The main colourism pedlars around me were almost always highly melanated male and females who'd say things such as, 'You’re light skin, I bet you get nuff girls'. Or as I got older, 'I want to have your babies so they can have light skin and light eyes’ or 'You're uh sweet bwoy'. Even in adolescence and in the absence of a name for, or knowledge of shadeism, I felt deeply uncomfortable with having bits of my self, be it skin or eye colour idolised and placed on a pedestal. After a while it began to seriously jar me, and I began to feel marginalised, like a subsidiary of black, and found it difficult to deal with what was beginning to rival the reality my family had diligently built for me. It quickly become clear that there were major differences in mindset that I had not been made privy to at home, and I slowly started to recognise that there appeared to be a hierarchy of beauty within us.
When I look back to my secondary school years I can recall a playful argument within our posse, that had slowly grown into something sinister. Both light skinned and dark skinned boys had said that if we split into shade factions, one shade would beat the other up in a fight (imaginative I know). So for the next couple of days we went around school in small gangs based on skin tone kicking the shit out of each other. I think back now at how embarrassing and corrosive that was for our image. We went to a very multicultural school in west London and where there were other groups of boys from other ethnicities - Moroccan and Bangladeshi groups being the two main others. What seeds had we just planted in their young minds? What must they have thought of us? Immediately they understood that there was division in our family, a divide that has historically and is presently being used to exploit, fragment and destroy the little unity black people have. They would have also realised that some of the biggest perpetrators are unfortunately - us.
"Oh thank God - at least he's light skin." The words of a mother seeing her daughter and I ‘going out’ at the (too young) age of 13. I couldn't believe what her mother had said. I felt so embarrassed for the girl, she had held my hand and paraded me into her living room like a show pony, her eyes wide as if she had just received a doctorate and her mother were in attendance to watch her collect her accolade. When I look back at the way they stared at each other, it was as if they wanted me forever, bound in their attic for future reference (sounds like a plot, ha?), I digress. Looking back, I know for sure her mother had obvious issues with her own skin tone, issues she had projected onto her daughter, a self-demeaning, destructive worship of anyone lighter than she was. I cannot begin to tell you how dangerous it is to teach your children that above an education, positive attitude, ambition or a desire to live a good life, the one thing that a potential life partner must have is light skin. We didn't discuss the incident, at thirteen you don't discuss much more than music, films, fashion or pop culture. I began to question her motives and was considering calling it quits. Thankfully I didn't have to act at all, as she disappeared during the six week school holiday and re-merged a year later with another fella. The pair of them moseyed on past me and my friends one evening, wearing matching tracksuits and trainers, and that as they say was that.
Being black British in the late 80s / early 90s was a whole lot different to being black British in the late 00s till now. The slew of positive black imagery in music and film put the negatives to the sword, and it could be argued, that the negative effects of family endorsed shadeism could somewhat be countered by the popular, positive, black narratives in the media at the time. The Cosby show championed the beauty of black excellence, the Fresh Prince painted black opulence and made the black family warm and selfless, (regardless of the changing shade of aunt Viv). A different world made education cool. Desmond’s encapsulated black ownership and self determination, Soul 2 Soul were not just unapologetically black but unapologetically African, Des'ree, Heather small (M People), Sade, Gabrielle, Lauryn Hill to name a few were our icons and effortlessly displayed how to be beautiful, black, a women with class, dignity and self esteem; a stark, steep, contrast to how I see famous or popular black women being paraded across our screens today, over social media, or main stage.
I have observed a rapid and somewhat disturbing deterioration in black classical femininity. Judging from what I read and see, young black women seem rattled and at a loss for direction, with their only viable sources of cool and (supposed) success coming by way of entertainers who push the boundaries of taste and decency off a cliff. City girls, Nicki Minaj and co are obnoxious, obscene and present themselves as completely lacking in self respect. Unfortunately black women in entertainment have allowed themselves to become the parody many protest. To illustrate my point, look at the grace of Angela Bassett compared to how Megan The Stallion carries herself. And consider the sentiment of the music scene when Queen Latifah sang U.N.I.T.Y. and all the ground work laid, for black women to run around today proudly asserting that they are ‘bitches’. It is true that black men in entertainment also project questionable images, but why does the crumbling image of black women in and out of entertainment concern me more?
At school it was the girls that would prevent boys fighting, and raise the standard of conduct. You could rely on girls being the voice of reason. I wonder if gender fluidity has killed that? And I also wonder if it is unfair of me to expect more of women than men? Maybe I have experienced black women to be more dependable in their conduct and wisdom…who knows?
Nevertheless, the game has changed. Young people would struggle to find five popular, positive - pro-black artists today, be them male or female. Young black men or men at large, for the most part, find no issue with the slack imagery and attitude running rampant throughout the industry especially within black entertainment.
We now have to question how darker men suffer for their skin tone. Colourism effects black men in an entirely different manner. For the most part darker skinned black men are fetishised above all other men. They are the men white and Asian people are told to be careful of, and as a result the aforementioned people can harbour unfounded, irrational fears harking back centuries (there is more to this but I'd like to stay on topic). Unfortunately too many black men, especially those in public view, desire popularized females (light to white), regardless of the female's culture. In contrast, we see many other men from other cultures such as Asians and Arabs, who value dating, building with and marrying their own. Although darker skin can be a point of marginalisation, the negativity becomes a positive from a sexual standpoint for men, but not for women. And it's this point of exoticism that young ignorant black males celebrate and run with, at ease with being reduced to a reproductive appendage.
Worse still, some of these men, happy to ride the exoticised-sexualised-and-carefree bandwagon, appear to have little-to-no care for the negative perception of black people, especially darker skinned black women. Some, unfortunately, are content to use their platforms to degrade darker females (pink elephant: they were most likely raised by a dark skinned woman!). As a result they get handsomely rewarded with scraps (subscriptions, likes and views) from a table built to prioritise the majority over the minority. In a nutshell, the tragedy is that darker skinned women can fall victim to shadeism in the home, suffer micro aggressions from other groups, as well as outright disrespect and denigration from a minority of black men whom happen to have the choice, loudest voices, biggest platforms, freedom and sadly, the will to distance themselves from darker skinned females. Needless to say, this is not the experience for all, but the experience is real for many. I have felt lonely in my outrage, like watching something from the twilight zone, as darker skinned men stress their dislike of dark skinned girls, and idolise white to lighter skinned females shamelessly. A narrative accepted as the norm in their circles.
It’s horrific that these black men pine for the firm pat of their sponsors and are so desperate to be included, they weirdly become the mouthpiece of white supremacy, whilst escaping backlash that would be received by a white person making the same comments. These black men directly empower White, Asian (or even mixed race or lighter skinned black women) by placing them on pedestals, whilst simultaneously feeding dark skinned black woman to the wolves.
Where does this leave young black women trying to find their feet in the mya, where being loose and light-skinned gets you further?
For black women looking for appreciation and respect within the world of popular culture, a world that finds it's foundation in a skewed perception of beauty, a foundation no deeper than the superficial, eurocentric surface it lives on. Their celebrated formula being;
Money + expensive possessions + light skin & plastic surgery = happiness.
Couple this with generational shadeism being passed down and upheld - and you have a concoction almost fatal for young black female minds.
We cannot ignore the process that led to colourism. Shadeism is a manifestation of the impact of years of slavery, colonialism, neo-colonialism, racism, bigotry and oppression leading to cascading trauma that effects not only the way we think of ourselves, but the way the wider world perceives black people (which was not always with an inferior eye). Bottom line is we live in a Euro-centred world that favours certain skin-tones, features and all. People forget that on the plantation, lighter skin equated to better treatment and it doesn't seem like much has changed.
With regards to lighter skinned black people, you can find some horrendously ignorant parents that fetishise their mixed race or lighter skinned children. We all know of elders who say things in a celebratory tone when referring to how “light skinned” or ‘fair’ he or she was. Appalling business when you think about it. No balanced person sees themselves as greater than, or below someone else purely on the bases of skin tone.
So what about the effects of shadeism on lighter skinned men. Does it affect them? Lighter skinned men find themselves in a funny space. A lot of light skinned guys I know tend to favour darker skinned women but in my experience are not always well received. In my youth I had heard black girls say they don’t want a light skinned man because they want a “real black man” - before going on to describe a darker skinned brother. I first discovered whilst at school that light skinned guys were somehow perceived as less masculine than their darker skinned counterparts (There are loads of memes pandering to that view point, many involving Drake). Alas-what-uh-f@%king mess we black people have found ourselves in ay?
So moving forward? Lighter skinned black people need to accept they have a margin of privilege relative to darker skinned black people. Regardless of our wish for things to be equal, the acknowledgement is important. Elders need to stop poisoning children with colorism and start celebrating their child’s complexion! We need to teach children that black comes in many tones and they are all equally beautiful - period.
Black people need to stop allowing foreign standards to create and dictate our standard of beauty and parameters for success. Otherwise that success will ultimately not be ours. One example of “controlling our narrative” is the way black women took back control of their image with regards to natural hair over recent years. They changed, controlled and defined the narrative - born out of pride and education. With the flow of natural hair products made by the global black community skyrocketing and hair tutorials on Youtube booming, a broader dialogue regarding well being for black hair took hold. This sent hair straight perm kit sales plummeting. So when we push, we know we can win.
My black utopia, would mean a return to elevating the status of intellect over insecure purchases, character over colour, love over designer loafers, ambition and attitude over unnecessary displays of abundance. Black men...we have a responsibility to our mothers, sisters, aunties and daughters to make sure we are their keepers. And they should know they can rely on us, as we know we can rely on them.
So use your platforms to uplift, be kind and show love and adoration. Unfortunately, I know my words may not change most, but - if I can reach one, then maybe they can reach more.
Written by R.P. Falconer (edited by wife K Falconer).
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