The colour conversation

Recently a relative decided to try their hand at children’s book writing. I had the pleasure of reading a few of their manuscripts, and I was quite pleased at the fact that the characters she used were based on her own two little black girls.

I expressed my delight at this and told her how exciting it would be to have a franchise of children’s books that featured little black girls as the main characters.

She was in full agreement with me and expressed how happy she was to champion such an important milestone in children’s books. But then to my dismay, she added ‘But for the front cover and the book, the images of the girls will be mulatto (mixed race/light skin)’. Now, this relative and her daughters are black and not by any means light skinned. So I probed her as to why she would do that, to which she responded, ‘Because if they are light skinned characters, they will be more aesthetically pleasing and therefore more marketable’. I was blown away by that response. Shocked that she would say something so demeaning, but also shocked at her blatant honesty and the fact that what she was saying was spot on.

The reality is that within the black race, there is an unspoken hierarchy. Light skinned black people at the top and dark skinned black people all the way at the bottom.

Light skinned black people are generally accepted more in society, they are deemed to be more attractive and more marketable. Thus, being a light skinned black person in our world today has its economic benefits. Take black feminism for example. The faces of this movement just so happen to be light skinned black women. In hip hop music videos, light skinned women are paraded around because that is generally seen as the pinnacle of black beauty. Zoe Saldana is set to play the legendary dark skinned songstress Nina Simone, simply because, Hollywood responds better to Saldana due to her light skin. In Africa, there has been an unwavering trend of lightening one’s skin, in an attempt to have a lighter hue. Within our blackness, we are constantly being told that light is right.

But digging deeper in attempt to suss out the root causes of this division within the black race, we must ask ourselves,

(1) why is it that we are so insistent on compartmentalizing ourselves in a hierarchal structure when we are all black and

(2) why are we so obsessed with light skin?

The fact that we are all too willing to partake in this skin colour compartmentalization, shows how uncommitted we are to ensuring the solidarity of black people. We would rather allow what white standards of beauty dictate to us -which is that dark skin is threatening and unappealing – and slowly we have incorporated that into our own society. This has in turn created a division within our race.

We have created and encouraged an unequal dynamic within our own race. I believe that we are so obsessed with light skin because subconsciously, the minds of many black people are still very much colonized.

The lighter skinned black people are closer in resemblance to white people, than dark skinned black people. In the colonized mind, the features and appearance of white people, is still what is ultimately desirable. White people have an upper hand in societies worldwide, and the light skinned black person is the closest association to them. In our minds, we deceive ourselves that this closeness in association will equate to receiving the same benefit and privileges that come along with being white. Our obsession with light skin and encouraging this colour divide, is simply a projection of our own internalized racism and inferiority.

However, despite the fact that the black community has instituted this divide, and lighter skinned black people tend to be at an advantage in most spaces, this is not to say that they are welcomed with open arms, by the white community. White privilege unfortunately does not extend to them and in terms of societal positioning, lighter skinned (especially mixed race) black people, are in somewhat of a limbo. The darker skinned black people sometimes feel a certain amount of contempt for their lighter counterparts, due to the numerous advantages that are packaged with having light skin. Additionally, light skin is often a basis for claims that one is ‘not black’. This in turn causes lighter skinned people to feel ostracized from their race. Then on the other side of the spectrum, light skinned black people are still black, so they do not fit into the white community. There is a common misconception within the black community, that light skinned black people have a smooth ride in life, however, the limbo that light skinned black people face, is a testimony to the fact that this is not so.

We must remain cognizant of the fact that white people still set the tone and dynamic within society (unfortunately). And in that context, light skinned black people only benefit when juxtaposed against dark skinned black people. However, when we remove that juxtaposition, the light skinned person is still the black person in relation to the white person. And we all know what that means! So ultimately, no one is benefitting from colourism.

So why continue to encourage it?


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