Beyonce was crowned most beautiful woman in the world by People Magazine this week and that resurfaced the skin colour topic with many debating whether the light skinned Beyonce is an accurate representation of “Black Beauty”.
The skin colour conversation is important, crucial even, for similar reasons that I think we should upkeep the hair conversation. It’s one we absolutely must keep having until society changes and there is no more need for it. That isn’t the case right now. Colourism is a problem. What we could call “Light-skin Privilege” enables black people of lighter complexions to more easily fit into the rigid boxes that society allows us to be human within. I’m not saying easily. But more easily. Why is that? This simple question should lead the query because it exposes the intention behind these hierarchies.
If we define our human value by the parameters of society, then the darker the woman the less her capacity to self-realize. If she furthermore is queer, or living in financial poverty, then there are even bigger obstacles. Why do we allow this insanity to continue?
However, whilst refusing to stop discussing and exposing the ways in which society works against or for us, we should also actively oppose that a society which we know is skewed defines our parameters of humanness.We should love our skin whether it’s mixed race yellow-brown or Latin American rosy-bronze or African deep brown or white as milk. Or red-black. Or palmoil-brown. Or ivory-blue. And so on. Skin is skin and there are endless shades of it. Some say 3000.
That said there are two things that make the topic of women and skin colour a sensitive one. The first is our collective memory of trauma. Memories that include histories of racism, genocide, shame, humiliation, misogyny, violence and so on. Whether its Swedish politicians laughing at caricature cakes of African women or French ones raping black hotel staff or male rappers saying that they only like women with light skin, these collective memories are often triggered by media, social institutions, everyday racism etc. and they pick on a psychological wound that we have been plastering and renaming and not letting heal.
However, there is a difference between being traumatized by history and being a prisoner of history.
To stop being prisoners of history we must seek to “un”traumatize our minds. To do that requires first of all that we acknowledge that we still need to decolonize our thinking, to stop being the “other” in order to become the “self”. So what if some (white) magazine says that this is what (black) beauty looks like. That does not mean that we must measure ourselves against their choice. As long as we are having these conversations the psychololgical decolonization process that Franz Fanon and Ngugi Wa Thiong’o have written about isn’t complete. We should engage but ask if our contribution to the conversation will help to complete the process or move it backward.
We can talk skin tone politics either emotionally, coming from that place of collective hurt, or we can address it from a desire to turn it up, down and around and understand it with clarity. The two need to exist but in separate spaces. An example of an intellectual dialogue about skin colour is the (1)Drop project. And a seeming example of an emotional dialogue is “Dark Girls”. Seeming, because I haven’t seen it yet so I’m guessing from the trailer.
In 1934 Ernest Hemingway wrote in a letter to Scott Fitzgerald that the latter needs to forget his personal tragedy to become a better writer. He said:
Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt use it—don’t cheat with it. Be as faithful to it as a scientist—but don’t think anything is of any importance because it happens to you or anyone belonging to you.
When it comes to discussions on skin color and identity, I think those words can guide the conversation. No matter the skin-colour related personal tragedies we all have, we must use the hurt, not let it use us. I hope. Pray.
The second thing that makes skin colour a sensitive topic for women is gender. Making women believe in an idealized type of feminine beauty is a business and it’s supported by copious amount of money. But if we can see the absurdity of this, it becomes impossible to engage in that debate in a way that affects our self-image.
The absurdity is this. At some point in history some of our dear ancestors decided that uniformity was the way forward. The ideal became that we should all look the same, live the same way, marry at the same age in the same format, define success in the same terms and so on.
Take for example carrots. In their original form may take any of the following shapes
But with some help from modern day farming technology most carrots look like this.
Women, who are also human beings, nowadays look something like this in their thirties
Women, as commodities in this same system of endless consumerism and infinite self-improvement, at any age, of any race, strive to look like
Why? Because Barbie-girl sells. She sells music. She sells movies. She sells cars , she sells perfume and she even promotes animal rights. So every year, recession or no recession, plastic surgery stats keep increasing giving more and more clout to the singular comatose feminine ideal.
This may all sound quite obvious but to be honest most of the skin colour debates I read makes me think that we actually need to go back to basics. We need to find a way that we can neither sweep this conversation under the carpet nor attach to it even more trauma for future generations. What do you think? Is there a progressive way to discuss the topic?
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Hi! I’m Minna Salami. I’m a writer, blogger, columnist, lecturer and speaker and the founder of the feminist blog, MsAfropolitan, which connects feminism to contemporary culture from an Africa-centred perspective. I’ve been listed alongside Michelle Obama and Angelina Jolie as one of “twelve women changing the world” by ELLE and my work has been used as a resource and case study at universities around the world. Like what you just read? Sign up above to receive new posts directly in your inbox.