I am so completely and utterly bored with discussions about colourism in the black community, and I’m sure many of you are. #teamlightskin, #teamdarkskin, #teamyawn.
But here we are again. Why? Because it hasn’t gone away and unfortunately the biggest barrier to dealing with colorism in the community is that most black men are either in denial about their colourism, or in denial about how negative the impact of colourism is.The proverbial hamster wheel keeps on spinning because the hamster will not get off the wheel and admit that it’s not going anywhere. Black men keep spinning their wheel, and in 2015, in the year of Lupita, we are still having this conversation.
I was chatting with my Mum yesterday on the phone and telling her that while I was examining one of my patients that evening, she stopped me and said,”You really are so beautiful”. Looks aren’t everything but they’re something, and it really touched me that although this lady was sick she took the time out to compliment me in the middle of a stressful shift. When I thought about it, what struck me is that most of the compliments I’ve had about my appearance have been from white people. I regularly get complimented on my looks by patients and colleagues and at first I found it rather unsettling. Mainly because I don’t really think of myself as particularly more beautiful than the average woman with good concealer, but also because up until the age of 18, I genuinely thought I was ugly.
On further reflection, I can remember that most of the negative comments I’ve had about my appearance have been from black men. From being called downright ugly to being told I was “just average”. I don’t have an agenda to make black men look bad – my Dad is a black man, my brother is, the majority of my male friends are, and my preference is that my future life partner will be too. But if I truthfully relay my experience , although I have faced numerous instances of racism and discrimination from white people, the majority of the instances where someone has said the words ‘you are beautiful’ to me, that person has been white, and if they have been black it has been other black women.
I have no doubt that at least part of the reason for this is that I am a self identified dark skinned, milk chocolate woman. (Ironically, also the lightest person in my immediate family, to who my Dad once sniffed his nose at and said “well, you’re not realllly properly dark skinned so you wouldn’t understand”. I look back and laugh only because it exemplifies the often complex and ridiculous obsession black people have with the various wonderful hues we come in.)
As a dark skinned woman I already know that in my community I am not at the top of the totem pole when it comes to desirability. I’m not suggesting that the majority of black men don’t find dark skinned women attractive at all. My Dad is married to my Mum, who is also a dark skinned woman, and my brother has also dated dark skinned women. Unfortunately though, for some men, a light skinned woman who looks like Shrek (who is someone’s beautiful treasured Queen – so no shade to her) is more eligible than an average looking dark skinned woman.
The most ridiculous thing about this is that a lot of black men will either stay denying the colourism that is so prevalent amongst their counterparts with throwaway phrases like “a pretty woman is a pretty woman innit“, or “if you have self esteem then men will be attracted to you” (which is manifest nonsense – Precious can have all the self esteem in the world, but many men will still find her unattractive), or suggest that it’s not that big a deal – ‘it’s just their preference’. Ironically, many of these dark skinned men have a good chance of having a dark skinned daughter even if her mother is light.. I often wonder if, when their dark skinned teenage daughter is upset by her constant erasure in mainstream AND black media or being overlooked by teenage boys her age for her light skinned friend they will use the same redundant phrases to console her as they do for the dark skinned women their age? Will they tell her she needs more self esteem? Will they tell her that in terms of the problems facing the community, colourism is the least of our worries? Will they tell her to suck it up because it’s just their preference? If they have a light skinned daughter, will they appreciate her being treated as a trophy and objectified by younger men with the same attitude they had?
On Twitter, it’s sometimes horrifying to see how colourism and the objectifying of light skinned women spreads even to babies and young children. Grown black men will post pictures of lighter skinned babies with very disturbing statements about how they want their daughter to look. It’s never their sons they want to be light, it’s only their daughters – which effectively suggests that they want to create daughters that appeal to their own sexual preference. It’s just weird, and it shows how deeply rooted it is in some segments of our community.
What I don’t want to suggest is that every man who dates light skinned women does so because he is colourist. I applaud equal opportunity daters – men who date light, dark and in between, because they really do believe that a attractive woman (inside and out) is an attractive woman. And I know men like that. There are also men who simply will have light skin as an honest preference (although I do think it’s extremely difficult to separate honest preference from the constant onslaught of colourism in society).
So what can be done?
Maybe controversially I think black women actually have a bigger part to play in this. Sadly, more black men are brought up by single black mothers than in two parent households. If we want to deal with this cancer in our community, we cannot leave the formation of our children’s mindset on colour to chance. A healthy view of colour in a white supremacist society is the result of deliberate effort on the part of the parent. Yes, ideally black men should be equally involved in this but realistically they probably won’t be as much as women. So as black women (or white women with black/bi-racial sons) , we can make conscious efforts to promote positive images to our sons from an early age. It isn’t just a male problem – if we are the main parents for these men, the clearly we are also promoting colourism even if it impacts more directly in a negative way against us.
Secondly, I’ve begun to realise that on a personal level when a black man admits that he is colourist it’s probably far more useful to approach the conversation with understanding rather than instantly berating him for his preference. Colourism is something that most of us have to unlearn, but some of us do that work earlier than others. If someone admits that they are colourist and knows that it’s problematic, it’s much more progressive than the majority of men who are in complete denial and it’s the basis for some healthy conversation and growth.
Black women, does my experience ring true for you or not? Black men, is my analysis unfair? Everyone else, feel free to chime in also!