“Is this your ugly dark skinned friend?”
Black women come in all shapes, sizes and shades. Yet for centuries the lie that ‘light is right’ has shaped how, as black people, we relate to our complexion and how non-black people judge and treat us based on our complexion. While society is far from being post-racial, as ‘woke’ millennials we know that our melanin content in no-way reflects our value, worth, potential or beauty. We’ve done the #BlackGirlMagic revolution, our melanin is very much on fleek, yes #darkgirls do rock and skin bleaching? That’s been banished to our mother’s generation – today we’re proud to be #UnfairandLovely. Right? ….right?
Walking through up-town Nairobi last week I came across this poster. At first glance everything is on point. The model, her head thrown back in careless joy, teeth bared is absolutely #slaying. Her #glowedup skin is definitely giving Lupita, Viola and Alec Wec all a run for their money. Even the little baby boy in her arms is bringing me all the feels. Yaas #AfricaRising with the hand clap emoticon says it all. At least that’s what I thought, until I took a closer look at the caption below. ‘Two good to be true’. The marketing strategy seems innocent, but then I look back at the image and something insidious appears. A dark skinned woman, holding a light skinned baby, with the implicit double entendre – too good to be true. It’s too good to be true, she, a dark skinned woman, was able to have a light-skinned baby. She stepped up her game. She’s done better.
The devil’s advocate will say ‘you’re reading too much into this’, but the devil is always in the detail. Despite our advances in dismantling white supremacy and the racial hierarchies which have oppressed black people across the world, from the transatlantic slave trade to the Indian caste system, the treatment of Australian aborigines to the indigenous people of South America and East Asia, we cannot deny that the lie ‘light is right’ has been fed and nurtured for centuries and still penetrates our societies and cultures today.
The idea that we accrue more value – that we get better the closer we get to white is a pernicious and dangerous lie. Without the caption the picture shows the glorious variety of black people. With the caption it turns that variety into a hierarchy.
Throughout history, language has been used to both demonise and value people. In regards to racism, where the colour white is associated with purity, fairness, goodness etc. those positive attributes have been accorded, indiscriminately, to white-skinned people. Because racism and racial hierarchies require difference, the antithesis to these values were given to darker skinned people, associating them with evil, ugliness, corruption etc.
Part of challenging racism, is acknowledging that these racist ideas are not true and therefore need to be challenged. Being dark-skinned doesn’t make you ugly or less worthy. Being light-skinned doesn’t make us better or worse. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder then we need to fundamentally change the eyes with which society looks at its people. That starts with dismantling the lie that our value is only skin deep.
So keep your melanin on fleek, stay unfair and lovely, be cool and caramel or charming and chocolate, embrace your shade no matter its hue. As black women – both magical and real – our pigment, whatever it’s shade, is great, just as it is.
Words by Justina Kehinde
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