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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?