A Hundred Shades of Black

27 Apr 2006

How Colourism is Polluting the Black Community

When it comes to skin tones, it''s definitely not just a matter of black and white. As a matter of fact, some of the most damaging skin-tone biases are deeply ingrained in black communities all over the world, even where we least expect them, in the Black continent - Africa. This issue, the politics of the light skinned versus the dark issue, is well-known in black communities, although it is still considered somewhat of a taboo topic.

The skin-tone bias or colourism is a form of discrimination which is based on how light or dark a person is. Most of the people who practice this discriminating act are of African descent.

Under the one drop rule, any individual with one drop of “black” blood is considered black. But with colourism, dark-skinned black men and women are associated with qualities such as criminality, ugliness, unintelligence, poverty, laziness, violence and aggressiveness. Fairer skin, green eyes, blue eyes and long, wavy hair on the other hand are once again synonymous with beauty, which is no problem until is it promoted to the exclusion of other darker skin types.

"Black is beautiful", the sixties mantra it seems no longer applies.

When Did It All start?

Interestingly enough, this whole issue did not take root among black people until slavery, colonialism, and neo-colonialism raped the continent. It started mostly with the advent of slave trade, originating from the slave masters. The Europeans at that time mastered the practice of divide and conquer and those involved with the slave trade employed it very well. Slaves were assigned differing tasks on the plantation based on their skin tone; often lighter-skinned slaves were given the house jobs while the darker-skinned ones worked in the fields. Even though the dark and light-skinned slaves were of the same race, and were both devoid of liberty, the lighter “house slaves” were treated better. This generated a sense of superiority, to the detriment of the darker ‘cotton-picking’ slaves.

In addition, there is evidence suggesting that slaves with darker skin tones were more “affordable” than slaves with lighter skin tone, because, as children of white slave masters and as partly white people, they were thought to be more intelligent, and thus, more “expensive”. Perhaps one of the best ways of demonstrating how the seeds of this poisonous bias were took root in the black community would be to quote parts of the famous Willie Lynch letters. Willie Lynch was a slave owner who crafted a plan to control black slaves in 1712.

"In my bag I have a foolproof method for controlling your slaves. I guarantee every one of you that if installed correctly, it will control the slaves for at least 300 years,” said Willie Lynch “I use fear, distrust and envy for control purposes....

--but before that, I shall assure you that distrust is stronger than trust, and envy is stronger than adulation, respect, or admiration. The Black Slave, after receiving this indoctrination, shall carry on and will become self refuelling and self generating for hundreds of years, maybe thousands……You must pitch the old black versus the young black male, you must use the dark-skinned slaves versus the light-skinned slaves.”

Those words were penned over 300 years ago and yet the whole light skinned versus dark skinned controversy continues to be an issue, not only in North America, but also in the Caribbean and Africa where light-skinned children tend to get preferential treatment over their darker siblings. Light skinned people also share their own form of grief over this controversy, with many people assuming that they – on the basis of their skin colour – automatically think they are better than others.

Many people erroneously think that all lighter-skinned blacks go around thinking that they have passports to special treatment by both whites and blacks. These biases, although passed on by slave masters and colonizers, still live on like a disease. The sad part is parents plant these seeds in their children’s minds by treating their light skin children better than darker skins ones. “Don’t play in the sun! You may darken your skin,” they also say.

The ''Blue Veins'' of America

R&B Singer Angie Stone

Perhaps one of the places where colourism is best practiced is the U.S, among a society who call themselves the ‘Blue-Veins’.

‘Blue-Veins’ are a group of high society, upper class, Caucasoid-looking black people, a group of mixed-race socialites who have lived in places like Georgetown since the early 1900’s. They can pass as white but they do not want to be identified as white. They apparently preserve their status by cautiously marrying other educated light-skinned blue veins. And they are called ‘Blue Veins’ because they are so light, that their veins are visible through their wrists. They can only marry non-black people like Latina/o’s as long as they are not lily white or other light-skinned people. This has been going on for about a hundred years.

How Colourism Hurts a Society

Racist encounters hurt. That is undeniable. However the act of colourism (being rejected by ones own people because of the varying levels of melanin in the skin) certainly hurts more. For black people to discriminate against other black people because they are coloured cocoa, chocolate, mahogany, ebony and not olive, honey or cinnamon and cream is totally unacceptable. When black women think that using harmful products to bleach their skins is the norm, something is wrong with us. When the media constantly promotes one shade of colour over others as the ideal model of beauty, while excluding others, something is wrong with society.

There is no one true standard of beauty – beauty is as varying as the different spectrums of colour in the entire universe.

Colourism and its subtext of self hatred should not be acceptable. Black people should not continue to keep this negative attribute alive. Black people should stop taunting one another about their skin tones and stop using unpleasant names like high-yellow, jungle bunny and darkie. Those terms are hurtful and affect black people’s self esteems for life. Black people should no longer be subjected to ridiculous critical comments about their complexions.

Colourism has even had its ugly tentacles extended to Southern Sudan – where thousands of jet black Africans have been massacred by their light-skinned, half-Arab brothers. This is one of the most extreme manifestations of colourism. In less extreme, more familiar instances, colourism has led to self esteem issues, with many people being ashamed of their colour, ashamed of their blackness and trying to erase it with skin lighteners. Perhaps the best example of a black person who was eager to get rid of his blackness is none other than Michael Jackson. But before pointing fingers perhaps we should consider how all the facts above could have affected him and led him to such sad results.

This colour prejudice must stop.

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