“Nobody loves a black girl. Not even herself”― Nicole Dennis-Benn
The recent and ongoing Black Lives Matter protests have acted as a catalyst for necessary conversations that are long overdue. Conversations about institutional racism, the effects of white supremacy, the dangers faced by black trans people, white privilege… and so much more. There is so much to unpack when it comes to racism and discrimination, but I wanted to write about one aspect in particular that is often overlooked.
Colourism is a type of discrimination that typically exists among people of the same race/ethnicity. It is a prejudice based on skintone, with preference being shown to lighter-skinned people. It is rooted in white supremacy and can be traced back to the days of slavery, when lighter skinned black slaves were treated better than darker skinned slaves. Often these lighter skinned slaves had white ancestry as the white masters would rape their black slaves. The preference was there because these light skinned black people were closer to white than black.
This prejudice has transcended time and is evident in today’s society, where young black children are told to avoid the sun so that they don’t get darker. Black women and men alike are being told they are “too blick”, that they are undateable because they are dark-skinned or told the back-handed compliment that they are “pretty for a dark-skinned person”. Within the black community, light skin, straight hair and light eyes are worshipped and aspired to. This leads to black people spending enormous amounts of money on harmful skin lightening creams and toxic hair chemicals to straighten their hair (skin-lightening is a $10 billion industry worldwide). People with darker skin are often bullied and teased for their complexion, which can result in lower self-esteem and feelings of shame.
My relationship with colourism and my blackness started from a young age but my blackness was not really apparent to me until I moved to the UK when I was a child. I became more aware of my surroundings and what it meant to be black in a space that was predominantly white… or rather, spaces built for white people.
I was astutely aware that I was different. I had a thick Jamaican accent, my skin was dark, so were my eyes and my hair was kinky-curly. I soon grew to hate being in the sun because I didn’t want to get darker, even though I had spent the first several years of my life growing up in Jamaica where there was no hiding from the sun. It took two years before I begged my mother to perm my hair straight, I wanted to be pretty like all my white friends and all the other pretty people I was seeing on TV. At the time no-one on TV had my curly afro, even the black people. To my young mind, that meant that my hair had to go because all I wanted to do more than anything in the world, was fit in.
The process of perming my hair was painful. You’d have to mix this powder with a liquid and then apply it from the roots down. The longer it stayed in, the better because then you were guaranteed dead-straight locs and no wavy bits. But the longer it stayed the more it itched and burned. I remember each time I did it my scalp would always burn, and I was told to keep it in for a bit longer otherwise it wouldn’t work properly. I would cry but over time the tears stopped and I gritted my teeth, because it was the price I was willing to pay to look beautiful. The first week of the perm I would be picking out burnt bits of scalp from my hair and oiling my tender head furiously to soothe the pain… long after the cream was washed out. Then I’d repeat the whole process six weeks later.
I decided to stop perming my hair when I was 16 years old, I’m not sure what triggered that decision but I’m glad I made it. My decision was met with some resistance from people I knew. I remember one friend telling me that she thought I looked better with straight hair. I was told my hair looked “tough”, meaning that it wasn’t manageable and looked difficult to style. I was questioned a lot about why I would give up my long straight hair, and told that it wouldn’t take long before I returned to perming. I’m happy to say my hair has been chemical free since 2013 and I am way happier for it, even though I have broken so many combs in the process!
I was 16 years old when I made another important decision. I made the choice to actively try and learn to love the skin I was in, to embrace my melanin. At the time I had been lightening my skin with creams for just over a year. It was another way to try and make myself prettier, to get as close to white as possible. I had the straight hair, so my skin was the next logical step. There were many people around me who were doing it, so it seemed normal and I was determined to do it and get my hands on those creams by any means necessary… Fortunately or unfortunately I wasn’t met with resistance when I asked my mum to buy them for me.
By the time I was 16 and made the decision to stop, my skin was red raw and there wasn’t much of a semblance of my blackness left to see. I had thought my blackness was a stain to be removed and I was prepared to do anything to get rid of it… even if it meant burning my skin daily. Luckily, I hadn’t reached the stage where the effects of the cream were very damaging. My skin returned to normal after several months and I no longer looked to those creams for validation.
For most of my life I have always been striving to be desirable in a world that told me that I was not worthy of that. I know this is not the same experience for every black girl out there, but it is for a lot of us. When you’re constantly seeing these messages – that your blackness is something to be ashamed of… not just from other races but from other black people too, it’s hard not to internalise them and start behaving in ways that are harmful.
It was small things like having straight hair for important life moments… like prom, birthdays, school photos. Or saying things like I wanted to have mixed race children but the right kind, meaning they wouldn’t have my dark complexion or difficult hair.
It has taken a long time to get where I am today, where I love the skin I am in even when there are people all around who hate me for it. One thing that makes me incredibly happy is seeing the increased visibility of dark skin women and natural hair all over social media because I know if I had seen that growing up, I wouldn’t have tried so hard to be someone I wasn’t and I wouldn’t have tried to erase my history.
I now make more conscious choices to show off my blackness and my natural beauty. I made a point to have my natural hair for my graduation pictures because I wanted to change the narrative. I wanted to create an association between important moments and my natural self… not just for me but for my sister, my cousins and for any young black girl who saw my pictures. I wanted to continue the unlearning of seeing my blackness as something to not be proud of by acting in the same ways of the influencers who encouraged me to embrace my natural self.
The effects of colourism are ongoing but I am happy to see that the conversation is still happening and as a result changes are being made in the discourse within the community.
Thank you to @mengwe on Instagram for the inspiration behind this post
Listen to my poem ‘See me, see you’ which was inspired by my thoughts and experiences of colourism. You can read more of my poetry here.