"You're too dark, men don't like girls that are too dark."
The above was said to me when I was 20 years old by a dark skinned black male I lived with at University. It was not the first time I had heard this and it wasn't the last but it does stick into my head as one of the more memorable times.
Throughout my childhood and adulthood a flood of instances are etched into my memory that continuously reconfirmed that one of the core elements of my physical acceptability was the tone of my skin. And that my coffee coloured skin tone meant I was never going to be deemed "pretty", "desirable", "sexy", "sophisticated", or "intelligent" in the eyes of many of those around me.
As I got older, I became more aware of the idea of colourism and it's history. Firstly, the caste & class hierarchy in Asia. I, myself, had travelled to Nepal as part of a volunteering group to help build a school, and was shocked by being called a monkey, spat at, and mocked on a daily basis by the people we were supposed to be helping. Also, I can honestly say that the majority of the explicit racism I have faced in the UK, is from people of South Asian (Pakistani or Indian) decent.
Over a decade ago I watched a documentary called "Who you callin' a nigger?" aired on the BBC by Darcus Howe regarding the state of relations between people of colour and the black community in the UK. At the beginning of the documentary Darcus expresses his concern at the change in relations recalling that "...There was a time when West Indians and Asians (worked together)..and would get jobs for each other...". The documentary is eye-opening, I remember the fear it filled me with as a naive teenager. I had always gained some security in feeling like the wider POC community was a support network for all POC. I was young and naive, though, and the Darcus Howe documentary revealed a new layer of racial discrimination that felt- almost- more hurtful than that I had received by Non-POCs.
Although, I believe that British colonialism perpetuated and potentially reinforced the ideas of caste hierarchy and skin tone; this does not explain fully the origins or the continuation of colour and caste hierarchy in South Asian culture. There are plenty of people of Asian origin who, although they do perpetuate the idea of colourism, do not necessarily see being "white" as superior, which demonstrates the complexities of modern day colourism and racism.
In Indian history, the sacrifice of Purusha (part of an ancient Indian hymn and predates British colonialism) tells of sacrifice so that social order could emerge, this hymn is often misinterpreted- according to what I have read - to dictate hierarchy. However, it is actually a metaphor- each class formed from the same body just different but equally important functions.
However, many theorise that South Asian colourism holds its roots in the British colonialism of India; any easy way to control a large amount of people is to create a hierarchy. It is theorised that the British colonialists that landed, created a hierarchy of skin tone with white being the "top of the food chain", the darker skinned Indians tended to be labourers therefore indicating low wealth and education with lighter skinned Indians being the intellectuals or wealthy.
In the 1800s, the British Empire or British Raj began their rule of India. The British had traditionally Western features, and lighter skin tone. They presented themselves as the superior and more intelligent race, who had been born to rule the darker skinned, inferior and unintelligent Indians. The hierarchy created resulted in some shops in British heavy areas hanging signs saying "No Indians, No Dogs", a segregation tool used to dehumanise.
To reinforce this, the British Empire kept lighter skinned Indians as allies, with darker skinned Indians being provided with menial jobs. The East India Company named their Fort St. George settlement "White Town" and their Indian settlement "Black Town". For nearly 100 years the British Empire ruled over the Indian people.
"I hate Indians, they are beastly people", Sir Winston Churchill, 1943.
In modern day India, media glorification of lighter skin tones and Western features is apparent everywhere with "90% of females in India cite skin lightening as a high-need area" (Neha Mishra, "India and Colourism: The Finer Nuances, 2015), highlighting the normality of colourist ideals.
In black history, you have the enslavement of people of African origin by various European nations that lasted over 200 years- this is not to ignore that the concept slavery existed in Africa before European settlers, with such slavery being brought about by rival tribes fighting over territory rather than on the basis of race or skin colour. However, the idea of black being beautiful, post enslavement, was a foreign concept.
In class, employment, wealth and intellectual hierarchies there was constant reinforcement of the idea that being people of African origin were bottom of the barrel-during the period of enslavement. The hundreds of years of enslavement- which as a result had whole generations who knew nothing but the slave trade- had the effect of leading to slavers and slaves alike (for the most part) believing wholly in the hierarchical systems created. Perpetuating the idea and making these hierarchies entrenched and difficult to undo, even today.
During the slave trade, many black female slaves were raped by their slavers- black slaves being property rather than people. The idea that a rape had even taken place was a foreign concept at the time. The mixed raced children produced as a result of these rapes, although still slaves, were seen as having a higher status in the colour hierarchy of the time.
This led to segregation amongst the slaves of African descent, and the "house negro", "field nigger" classifications. The fundamental ideas behind this classification is still, very much, present today. Although, we can, in many parts of the world, trace the roots of colourism to "white supremacy" ideals of the European empires that invaded and enslaved. Today, we see the reinforcement of these ideals, not just by mainstream "white led" media but within the darker skinned races.
Currently, a lot of the "greatness" taught in schools is in reference to great European scientists (Issac Newton, Albert Einstein), revolutionaries (Karl Marx, Georges Danton), and writers (William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens). A lot of black/African history is ignored or dismissed- apart from, of course, the slave trade. It is important to note that I believe the documentation and literature around the slave trade is an important part of black history. It is, however, important to recognise that is not the only important part of black history.
- Mansa Musa; who was the 14th Century King of the Mali Empire. Musa, a Muslim, is said to have made his pilgrimage between 1324–1325. On route to pilgrimage, Mansa Musa was accompanied by 60,000 men, including 12,000 slaves who each carried 4 lb (1.8 kg) of gold bars. Musa gave the gold to the poor he met along his route and to the cities he passed on the way to Mecca, including Cairo and Medina. The gifts he lavished on the nations he passed through were inadvertently ruined economically for years after, due to the sharp influx of gold devaluing the metal greatly. Aside from being noted as one of the wealthiest men ever, Mansa Musa was created for the incredible development of education and architecture during his reign.
- The Ancient Egyptian Empire; One of the greatest empires of all time, and credited for many achievements including the creation of the pyramids (still one of the greatest wonders of the world), advancements in medicine; they provided us with some of the earliest detailed descriptions of anatomy and medical research; the first record of what is commonly known as the "tampon" was in Ancient Egypt in 15th Century BC.
- Lailibela; is a town in Northern Ethopia famed for its monolithic rock-cut churches thought to have been built in the 12th and 13th centuries. The architecture is said to mimic that of Jersualem, as King Lailibela, the ruler at the time was said to have spent some time there in his youth.
Being told that as a young black person, that the enslavement of your ancestors by Europeans is the most important part of your history, is only to continue to perpetuate the idea of dark skinned inferiority.
Today, corporate and social media influence is heavy. There is no incentive to change- acceptance of lighter skinned non-white people is seen by the masses as acceptance of people of colour, full stop. We know this is not the case. One example, would be the trolling with explicit racial undertones of Blue Ivy (daughter of Beyonce and Jay-Z), by drawing on comparisons to North West (daughter of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West). A second observation is the #Naturalhairjourney influencers on Instagram, where it still surprises me how the most popular tend to be light skinned/ mixed race. With very little representation of dark skinned black women in terms of the most popular figures, which I conclude to be related to the greater visual acceptance of lighter skinned or mixed raced women.
I do believe, that over my 29 years of life I have seen some progression, there has been an increase of greater representation of darker skinned black people. A recent example being the rise of Actress Lupita Nyong'o, who has starred in 12 years a slave. Despite some progression, black hair, black skin and black voices are still under represented. The acceptance of larger behinds and thicker lips by Western Society in recent years does not represent an end to the issues of colourism.
Bottom line, there are multiple roots that have created the colourist hierarchy at play in the world all with the common underlying theme of control of masses of people. I have noted change, some progression but colourism is something that a lot of people I have encountered in the UK seem to be in denial about the existence of.
The polluted race/colour hierarchy amongst people of colour in Britain is something I worry about the future generations, a lot of people of colour, at all levels within these man-made hierarchies, choose to ignore or accept the attitudes of our brothers and sisters. We all have a voice, if anyone is for the positive progression of ourselves, our families and the wider society, action is required. Whether you need to look at yourself, or your family and friends.
Colourism is everyone's problem. As long as we continue to ignore it, the greater the impact for ourselves and future generations, and this is applicable to you, no matter where you are perceived or perceive yourself to be in the hierarchy.
Change always starts with you.
Everyone has an opinion, share yours! I have taken every care to ensure that what I have referenced is accurate, if anyone finds anything to contradict my readings please let me know. I am happy to discuss further.