Why We Need To Treat All Skin Tones Equally
The story of colourism is deeply anti-feminist. It is the story of femininity diminishing with skin darkness, romantic rejection by men both black and white and a society that denies women of colour agency and fullness of emotion. I argue this because the elevation of black women of lighter skin tones indicates a society with minimal respect for the black woman, in that it actively ignores a significant proportion of women within the social group.
Although it is clear that black women have gotten much more media representation in film, fashion, art, literature and publishing, there is an obvious disparity in the demographic for this representation. Furthermore, more often than not, light skinned women appear to be at the forefront of this representation. Nonetheless, it is encouraging to see talents such as Chimamanda Adichie, Viola Davis, Lupita Nyongo and Leticia Wright as evidence of dark skinned black women receiving deserved critical acclaim.
Black women are more than just a quota in the name of intersectionality — whether for advertising campaigns, organisations or the runway.
The problem is not that light skinned women are being represented, but the darker skinned women that are less represented. I don’t believe that dark skinned women are inherently invisible in the public imagination, but it could be argued that this representation is limited and has negative repercussions for the mental health of darker women of colour. It seems that the mainstream black icons — such as Alicia Keys, Beyonce and Rihanna — all appear to adhere to Eurocentric beauty standards in terms of their skin tone, features and hair style. Additionally, dark skinned icons such as Naomi Campbell have had to wear their hair in a Eurocentric manner to be deemed acceptable.
Growing up as a dark skinned girl, observing the negative rhetoric surrounding darker skin can be an extremely unsettling experience. It leads to feelings of self-loathing and frustration at not meeting beauty standards. Furthermore, the constant negative commentary surrounding dark skin may have the devastating effect of the individual seeing their skin, and even worse, themselves, as a problem. The behavior of men worsens this issue within the black community in that many claim that they just ‘prefer’ light skinned women, or they don’t want their children to be ‘too dark’. It is therefore unsurprising that many women feel pressured to lighten their skin, despite the health risks involved. We must therefore work as a community to eliminate this harmful pressure.
Moreover, many are quick to judge people of colour who lighten their skin, quick to disapprove of the action rather than interrogating the system from which it derives. The appetite for skin lightening products is evident in Nigeria where it is observable that many choose to lighten their skin from market sellers, to socialites, CEOs and musicians. Furthermore, the framework within society encourages an obsession with skin lightening by making darker women of colour hyper aware of their skin tone and resentful of it. A lot of this dysphoria can be traced to the media and the lack of representation visible for darker women of colour.
Therefore, the selective nature of representation of black women limited to those with lighter skin holds a worrying social message — one we must strive to reject. Let’s reject the social conditioning that leads to young dark skinned girls being scrutinised for their skin tone. Let’s stop the incessant comparing of skin tones to see who is ‘darker’. Let’s stop telling girls, “you’re pretty but would be prettier if you were lighter”. Changing patterns of social conditioning at home is instrumental in breaking the system of colourism. I believe this because the close-knit communities we feel proud of as black people contribute to the negative rhetoric surrounding colourism.
Colourism depends on the language of separation and categorisation of skin tones. As a community, we have much more to be concerned with than how ‘dark’ or light’ people are. Despite the fact that colourism could be understood as internalised racism, we should not ignore the role we play in limiting our progress. We therefore limit our progress by perpetuating the team light skin and team dark skin narrative. Either way, we are all black and it appears to be a distraction for major issues we must fight, such as racism.
For the light skinned girls reading this, this article is not the equivalent of a diss-track in written form. It is simply a critique of the power structures that limit the progress of black women as a group. When looking closely at the issue of colourism, it indicates the unstable position of black women regardless of skin tone. Dismantling colourism is an attempt to reclaim the narrative surrounding light skinned women, and take it away from the language of fetishisation which occurs. We need the help of men in destroying the language of fetishisation because obsession with how ‘yellow’ or ‘light’ a girl is likely to be belittling. Therefore, as women of colour, we should not become redundant in a fantasy of increased representation if it is incomplete.
Darker skinned women of colour deserve to see increased media representation and this is neither an unrealistic or imaginary issue as many would like to believe. After all, there’s no such thing as too much representation, if it is all-inclusive and sensitive in its approach.
However, too often it appears that black women are made to feel content when representation is present with little interrogation of how far we need to go. Black women are more than just a quota in the name of intersectionality — whether for advertising campaigns, organisations or the runway. Intersectionality is a work in progress that is only complete if the full diversity of black women as a group is recognised. Therefore, attempts to dismantle the toxic system of colourism is one step in the right direction.
Words by Funmi Lijadu. Illustrations by Maia Boakye