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An article recently in an online hair magazine asked whether we had allowed bi-racial women to hijack the natiral hair movement. The resurgence of natural hair ‘movement’ in the early 00’s was a space for black women, specifically black women who had been told and taught that their kinky, napppy, coily hair was not enough to collectively celebrate their beauty. as time has gone on, the article notes that natural hair products and gurus are largely bi-racial  or light skinned women with looser curl patterns. The most popular youtube channels are of women who are either bi racial or, regardless of shade, have a curl pattern that suggests some proximity to a non -West African lineage. There are entire product lines that seemingly have as their main selling point the notion that you can buy a certain curl pattern, namely a pattern that suggests that you could plausibly have “Indian in your family”. Thousands of women with the kinkiest of hair textures drown themselves in a variety of curly puddings,  looking for the magical formula that will transform them from Lupita to Alicia Keys.

The article was somewhat controversial, which I find laughable and similarly upsetting. We are still as a community unable to acknowledge our blatant obsession with venerating mixed race people, more specifically mixed race and light skinned women, at every oppotunity, even to the point that we  confine black representation in black owned and controlled spaces to light skinned or mixed race women.

The natural hair movement is just one small part of a larger destructive w(hole). I can’t count how many times recently I’ve rolled my eyes at a thumbnail or trailer (because I refuse to watch most them for a variety of reasons) of yet another film or show where the black female romantic interest is, as per usual, no darker than  a brown paper bag or has wavy hair and features that conform to a European standard of beauty. Inevitably there will be a sidechick dark skinned friend who is always there in every film  as the wing woman and proverbial mammy for the light skinned woman to be comforted by. It’s imperceptible to some but glaringly obvious to me, that in the UK in particular (less so in teh US perhaps) dark skinned black women are pushed out of spaces and black female representation in media is almost exclusively mixed race.

I don’t blame the women themselves for it. On the contrary they are as light skinned black  or mixed race people, both victims and beneficiaries of a vicious system of colourism that we can no longer blame exclusively on white people for creating and promoting when we also uphold and perpetuate it in our own community. As dark skinned women, we have been emotionally and mentally disenfranchised from ownership of beauty – we are told that for us, it is only a commodity that we can purchase instead of owning innately while at the same time seeing others celebrated for features we naturally own. However, we cannot wait and expect others to do the work of acknowledging our worth.Whilst appreciating that society is invested in creating a narrative that we are less desirable, we cannot wait for society to change and beg for inclusion. Mainstream media will do what it wants but in our own spaces we must demand to be at the forefront and refuse to be under and unrepresented.

We are scared of being exclusionary maybe because we know the pain too well of being excluded. We do not want to be seen to be saying to mixed race or lighter black women with loosely curled hair that they do not belong, that they can’t sit with us, that they are not one of us.They too experience racial prejudice and profiling.  Rosa Parks, with her near straight hair and light skin sat on the bus and endured abuse for our sake too.But even her presence in the civil rights movement was one of privilege – lighter skinned black people had access to education and social circles that their darker brothers and sisters were more frequently denied access to. It’s not a wonder that many of the leading civil rights activists in the early and mid 1900’s passed the paper bag test. But it is no longer 1952 and it is backwards to demand justice and equality from those outside of the community while continuting to uplift the race based hierarchy inflicted on us by them within our community. This is not a work of exclusion, but one of inclusion. Dark skinned women, who make up the majority of black women are being disproportionately excluded from black controlled spaces. It’s beyond ridiculous.

The reason why we allow ourselves to be erased from our own spaces is because many of us simply do not yet believe in our own worthiness. We empty our pockets to give our hard earned cash to Miss Jessie’s in the hope that their curly pudding will allow us some proximity to the racial ambiguity that is continually celebrated in and outside the community. Whiteness is still so aspirational for us that in many aspects of our lives, beauty aesthetic being only one of them, we desire to assimilate to it.

Black women are berated for so many things,and I don’t want to add to the list by screaming “you don’t love yourself enough, why don’t you love yourself, your kinky hair, your round nose, your full lips??!!! Why don’t you love yourself??!!” We know that it is hard to love yourself when so many things militate against that love, but is possible. And its difficuly does not negate its absolute imperativeness. We must learn this love, for the sake of ourselves, our children, the men we love, even the black men who don’t as yet love our or their own blackness.

It is possible. I know it is because I’ve done it. I absolutely love my skin colour, I absolutely love my curly, coily hair, that does not look like Tracee Ellis Ross’s (although her hair is beautiful too). I genuinely think I’m beautiful, and it did not happen overnight. It happened with some good contact lenses, youtube tutorials and a relationship with God that gave me a God-fidence that defied anything any magazine, BET show or ignorant man can say to me. It also happened with looking at a few pictures of beautiful women who looked like me on Instagram and Pinterest and rarely, on TV. It happened through my Mum and the fabulous women I saw in my every day journeying who had a sdilent confidence that refused to be diminshed.

That is why I demand to be seen and I demand to be acknowledged. I demand to write and tell other women, to remind myself, to create a memory, that I am present and I am more than enough.I won’t be silenced by those who claim that speaking about this is redundant or divisive or hateful, becuase I know I am motivated out of a great love for myself and for others. I write this because, in the words of Zora Neale Hurston, “If you are silent about your pain they will kill you and say you enjoyed it”.

I am a dark skinned black women. I refuse to be erased.

colurism

Pic copyright: www.madnewsuk.com

I remember when my brother age 13, sauntered into the kitchen in the middle of me venting to my Mum my frustration at the fact that black boys my age seemed intent on ignoring anyone who wasn’t the same shade as Beyonce. “Light skinned girls don’t even have to be pretty”, I sulked. “All they have to do is be light skinned!”. My brother then perked up “Mixed race girls are prettier than black girls though” (ignoring the fact that mixed race and black aren’t clearly defined parameters anyway). Me and my Mum both stopped. We turned and looked at each other. And then we both exploded in a tirade of shock, annoyance and disbelief, that my brother, who had been brought up by parents who constantly affirmed us in our blackness, who told us that we were a beautiful people, that dark skin is not a slur but a sparkling declaration of melanin, who had a dark skinned mother and sister,would say something so ridiculous.

He is older now. He is better now. And I know he is reading this and cringing that he would ever say anything so regressive. In fact his track record of love interests have all been closer to Lupita N’yongo in shade than Beyonce (maybe my Mum did some intensive counter brainwashing after his little outburst).

The sentiments he expressed age 13 are not unusual though, and unfortunately there are many black who men don’t escape them after their teenage years have expired. There are a disturbingly high number who, even if they won’t admit it, will only see beauty in light skin, occasionally giving a pass to a dark skinned girl if she is exceptionally attractive. In fact, the ever increasingly shining star of Lupita has brought these men out of the woodwork for their prejudices to be seen in plain view. On one of my frequent twitter travels, I came across a tweet where a young man stated ‘Lupita looks like a skinny Nigerian boy..that ain’t attractive’. He was cosigned by a higher number of black men than I would have liked to believe. 

Now before you get your Primark knickers in a twist, I understand that everything ain’t for everybody. Lupita isn’t going to be attractive to everyone, and there are going to be some who even consider her to be ugly. That’s the normal distribution curve of humanity, and I accept that. It’s dangerous when we accuse people of being self hating or colourist just because they don’t like the one particular famous dark skinned girl that the media has decided to parade at the moment. 

What is uncanny to me though, is the vitriol that I’ve seen over the internet directed at Lupita by some black men that I haven’t seen with any other black female celebrity. It’s as if they are upset that they are no longer the vanguards of what is seen as beautiful for black women, that their universal adoration of Halle Berry has been usurped by someone who completely challenges their beauty standard, and left the rest of the world in awe, while they are left uncomfortable and aware of their own internalised racism. I mention Halle Berry, because she was the media darling for a while also. She also had short hair. She was also ‘overexposed’.  But I didn’t see the same amount of men negate her beauty, or say that she was average, or state that her short hair made her look like a boy, or state that they could pick up women on the street every day who looked way better than her.

Black men have serious issues with colourism. There are men I know who are a few shades darker than me, who I have never seen with anyone who isn’t whole colour chart lighter than them. I’ve heard of people say things like “I don’t know any light skinned girls who aren’t pretty”. (Yes, seriously.) The level of insanity is intense, and very scary. Most of us know that it’s a result of social conditioning – the history behind the house slave, field slave, colonial master thing is no secret in the black community. What isn’t acknowledged by us is how strongly that line of thinking prevails with the current generation, to the point that it’s now completely normal for a black sitcom on television to have all the women in the family portrayed by light skinned or mixed race women, and all the men in the family portrayed by darker men. Sure, the wonder of genetics allows black families to have children of varying shades, but it’s hard to believe that all the girls look like Alicia Keys, while all the men look like Denzel.We’re really reaching into the depths of scientific brilliance for that one.,

Sadly, I can probably say that any insecurities I had about my particular shade of brown came as the result of comments I heard from black men in particular. There were white people who were racist, no doubt, but funnily enough they didn’t seem care too much whether I was coffee with cream or espresso – brown was brown. Some black men, on the other hand made it clear that my brown wasn’t quite good enough for them. This is not to say my whole life was crippled by underlying feelings of inferiority – I don’t subscribe to the ‘all dark girls have underlying insecurities’ narrative, because many of us are perfectly secure in our skin, have families and social groups that affirmed us, and live most of our lives happily avoiding ignorance where we can. I cannot deny though, that growing up there was a quiet knowledge that my skin was not the ideal.

Some men are reading this and thinking..’but what about the ladies?’. I couldn’t honestly say that colourism is a male only issue. We are taught colourism from our grandmothers, sisters and female cousins as much as we are from male family members. I could honestly say though, that I know few women who allow colourism to affect their romantic choices to the same extent that many men do. And I know fewer women who openly make statements about one shade of brown being more attractive than another.Not only that, but in terms of images and representation, the typical couple in entertainment targeted at black audiences, and even in white media is that of a light skinned woman with a dark skinned man.This has been the overwhelming narrative about what is attractive in a man and what it attractive in a woman.

What is more worrying though, is that for most men colourism is not a concious, vocalised decision. This is an insidious poison that has dripped through the psyche of our community for generations. If you asked most dark skinned men whether their mothers, or sisters or cousins who looked like them were ugly, they would adamantly deny it. Their Lupita look alike sister, is obviously beautiful, and why would any men not want to date her? Their actions though, belie their words.

Colourism doesn’t only negatively affect dark skinned people. It affects us all. Light skinned women have to deal with being seen as ‘trophies’ for men who are ignorant enough to prize their hue as something to be ‘gained’. Some develop superiority complexes where they expect a certain level of male attention simply because of their skin colour. The ones who don’t have superiority complexes can be unfairly labelled as being arrogant, or thinking that they are superior. Light skinned men are stereotyped as ‘pretty boys’ or ‘weak’ in comparison to their dark skinned counterparts. In past generations, siblings were alienated from each other because one was treated more favourably based on their lighter skin tone.

It is not good enough to accept that light skin is simply a ‘preference’, or to ignore your own internal pathology. It is not good enough to allow your little cousins, your friends, your sisters to see that in a line up of beautiful women they would be last choice. It is not good enough to read this blog post and then cite Kelly Rowland and the dark skinned girl from Pharell’s video as evidence against the overwhelming tide of light skinned woman that are touted as the shade of black that is acceptable.

I know that there are men who do not subscribe to this. I also know though, that there are enough who silently do that it still begs being spoken about.

What are your experiences?