When my beautiful daughter was just eight, she corrected me when I described her to a friend as ‘black’.
“Dad, I’m brown”, she explained. “You’re black, mum’s white and I’m brown”.
While I couldn’t fault her logic, her words caused a strong emotional reaction in me.
It was a mini panic, unexpected and violent. I caught my breath and tried to explain that:
“Although races don’t really exist, the world we live in has conjured them up and the shared life experience you will have with your darker skinned cousins and friends defines you all as black, regardless of skin tone.”
Good luck explaining that to an eight year old.
No argument I came up with, would convince her she was anything other than brown and so I gave up.
Now she’s 22 and would define herself as mixed-race.
I’ve grown up too and realise almost everything I said to my daughter back then was wrong.
It’s still true that race is an invention, a false division of humanity, but the effects of this belief are very real and blight, not just individual lives, but entire communities.
What I now realise isn’t true is that a light-skinned ‘person of colour’ like my daughter will have identical life experiences to my darker skinned sister.
I use the term ‘people of colour’ because I’ve grown to accept people have the right to define their own race (since it’s all made up anyway). If my daughter doesn’t want to call herself black, that is certainly her prerogative. If Tiger Woods wants to say he is ‘caublasian’ that’s his prerogative too.
Looking back, I realise being black has always been a massive part of my identity. When my daughter said she didn’t share this identity, I was upset because it made me fear she was distancing herself from my part of her heritage.
I wasn’t taking into account that the growing number of mixed children in schools had led to some of them, particularly in schools with large non-white intakes, seeing themselves as a group in their own right and not a subset of black.
To much of mainstream white society my daughter, sister and Tiger Woods for that matter, are simply black.
Despite this, they will have different experiences of being non-white in the UK.
An important new documentary, Dark Girls, looks at ‘shadeism’ or ‘colourism’ within non-white communities in the US.
The programme shows moving testimony from dark and light-skinned black people about the power of the negativity which is still associated with having darker skin. In particular the programme looks at the treatment black people in the US have historically inflicted on darker members of their own communities.
The documentary rekindled a lot of debate in the States among black commentators.
It’s far from a new issue though and has been talked to death by many black experts.
- British black social blogger, Lee Pinkerton, looks at all of this in more detail in his blog Bob Marley, Barak Obama, shadism and the shackles of mental slavery.
- J.N.Salters from the US also explores the issue from a personal point of view in her blog “You’re pretty for a dark-skinned girl” for Media Diversity UK.
I still feel though, that most white people have little or no knowledge that this is even an issue.
Why should they? I had no idea about blushing until I had a white girlfriend.
By definition, the mainstream debate on race is seen through the eyes of white people. Through the mainstream prism, if you’re not white, you’re black or Asian – and that’s about it. (although more recently more people have become aware of ‘mixed race’ people.)
On equal opportunity forms I like to tick ‘mixed other’ and then write ‘black Caribbean/ black African’, just because this isn’t offered and ‘mixed’ is taken to mean ‘one white parent and one other’.
There are many black people who think the issue of shadeism should only ever be discussed within minority ethnic communities for fear of handing white people a ‘see, they are even racist to themselves’ card.
I think that societies move forward together when people are open and honest with each other. This way we learn from each others experiences and get a window into other people’s lives. I may not have experienced being gay in a straight world but I certainly want to hear gay people talking about their experiences.
All too many black people still see too many kinds of black.
When my mum first saw my daughter, she was delighted with her ‘good hair and her lovely skin’. My mum loves all of her children and grandchildren equally but I couldn’t help thinking there was extra delight at my daughter’s partial ‘whiteness’.
To this day my sister and I, greet each other in private with a loving “hello blackie!”
Our brother and younger sister, who are both lighter, get called ‘the golden children’ for the extra attention we both believe they have always had from our mum (I’m sure they would argue differently).
As the documentary argues, this is hangover from slavery and colonialism.
For century after snarling brutal century, black people were divided dependent on what volume of slavers’ genes had been raped into them over the years.
The house/field nigger division entrenched itself on the psyche of both slaver and enslaved.
Skin tone, along with the similar but different issue of hair texture, has been massive within the non-white communities for generations.
In the US, by the late 1960s and early 1970s, the civil rights movement was evolving into a movement to encourage black people to love themselves.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that two of the most memorable black pride anthems from that era came from the dark-skinned James Brown and Nina Simone.
James Brown – Say it Loud, I’m black and I’m proud 1968
Nina Simone – To be Young, Gifted and Black 1970
The documentary seems to argue that dark skinned people experience less racism from white people than from within their own community.
I don’t think this tells the full story.
Being light-skinned still improves a person’s chances of success.
This could be because:
- residual racism in society means those who look closest to white still do better
- black people themselves favour the light-skinned and so they get the best of the meagre resources the community holds
- they have an inbuilt confidence above that of other black people, which encourages them to aim higher
The explanation could be any, all or none of these but it’s hard to ignore the evidence that among black people, those with lighter skin succeed more often.
Malcolm X, Muhammed Ali, Joe Louis, Nat King Cole, Rihanna, Will Smith, Louis Farakhan, Tiger Woods, Hale Berry, Beyonce, Michael Jackson, Bob Marley and Barak Obama were all light-skinned or mixed-race.
You can point to Sidney Poitier, Serena Williams and Marcus Garvey but they are the exceptions not the rules.
Despite all of the advances in race relations in the States it’s still hard to imagine a dark-skinned president like 24’s David Palmer and a black PM in the UK just seems like crazy talk.
Shadeism isn’t just an echo from a stagnant past, it is alive and flourishing in the present.
Black and brown people who were not descended from the enslaved (people are people, what happened to my forebears was enslavement, they were never ‘slaves’) still look towards a western idea of beauty.
Hollywood, music videos and the rest of US culture seeps into every available crack and reiterates the message that light is right.
Skin lightening products are a £30bn business worldwide.
That’s an awful lot of self-hate.
It’s important to understanding the roots of a problem but pointing fingers at history doesn’t help the present.
Yes we need to keep pushing for society to change the negative stereotypes. It’s happening but it’s happening slowly.
More importantly we need to love ourselves and teach our children to love themselves.
When the idea of race is revealed for the ludicrous notion that it is, shadeism will die to.
Then it won’t matter what my daughter calls herself.