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Africa Speaks

Dealing with Colourism

A Step Towards the African Revolution

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by Leslie
October 05, 2006

The session at the last Moonlight Gathering in September was highly profound and without a doubt, edifying and interesting. Usually, after a period of song, poetry, drumming and other chosen activities, the group at the Moonlight Gathering would engage an issue; any issue that we feel worth discussing and for whatever reasons. However, the last gathering was the first time that the discussion was so heated; so much so, that some chose to 'stay out of the kitchen'.

The issue discussed was the controversial topic, colourism. This subject had never been talked about so openly at the gathering before and some were stunned that it would have ever been brought up. Members of the gathering were knocked out of their positions of comfort and were forced to come to terms with this issue; at least those who were courageous enough to stay within the circle to discuss it. Seeing that many were largely unfamiliar with the term and issues surrounding colourism, I attempted to briefly explain it as I would do now. The word colourism is a recent term that has entered into our vocabulary which has arisen in an attempt to address the deeper complex of race discrimination which is a critical and largely unaddressed aspect of racism.

Colourism is an offshoot or a product of racism and is intricately linked with it. It is a form of discrimination which occurs worldwide and is based on the colour or shade of one's skin and how close or far away it is from the perceived white ideal. It is distinguished by how lighter skin tones are preferred, and darker skin tones are considered to be less desirable. This is a problem within all communities: The Indian community, the Chinese community, the Hispanic community, the Japanese community, the Native American community, the Arab community, the African community and yes, even within the white community. However, because the blonde hair, blue eyed, thin, tall female/male is the accepted aesthetic ideal and the Black, fat, short woman/man is considered unattractive and ugly, it is those within the African community that face the brunt of colourism. This is especially so for the darkest, most kinky haired, flat nose, thick lipped, fattest, shortest African woman who suffers on all levels in this system that one individual in the last gathering wrongly described as "meritocratic".

Some feel that when we talk about colourism that we are diminishing the potency of the word racism. I would disagree whole-heartedly because this word forces us to deal with the intricacies of racism. Now, don't get me wrong, colourism is in no way devoid of racism as some would like to believe but it helps in dissecting the deepest layers of the beast which would normally be overlooked by just labeling it all as "racism". Some believe that colourism is simply a form of Black on Black racism where Blacks discriminate against others based on their skin tone. This is not totally the truth because other races deal with Blacks based on their skin tone as well and do show preference for lighter-skinned individuals within the Black group.

Colourism affects every aspect of society and at all levels: the home, the school, relationships between that of mother/father, brother/sister, friends, husband/wife, boss/employee and the work place which was a factor developed by PhD student at the University of Georgia, Mr. Michael Harrison, in his study on how colourism affects the workplace. To quote him,

"You have two Black individuals going into a job where all of their qualifications and everything were equivalent to one another and the lighter skinned Black would get the job over their darker skinned counterparts."
Even the so-called African revolutionaries within Black organizations treat Blacks based on their colour. People have a tendency of selecting their leaders and members of the upper hierarchy of these organizations based on how close they are to whiteness. Not taking away from the contributions of these individuals, we see examples of this in leaders such as Huey Newton of the Black Panther Party, Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, Elijah Muhammad, Booker T. Washington and others. Even when there are examples of Black African leadership, who are usually males, you are almost sure to find them with light-skinned women at their sides as if the true Black African Queens are not worthy of standing at their sides. Eldridge Cleaver, Al Sharpton, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan, Martin Luther King Jr. and even within organizations in Trinidad and Tobago such as the Emancipation Support Committee and the National Joint Action Committee are clear examples of this.

At the last gathering, someone mentioned W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey in the same sentence arguing that the economic betterment of Black people was critical to the Black revolution. "Marcus Garvey say so…" the gentleman stressed. But he forgot that Marcus Garvey was despised and his message dismissed by other so-called Blacks and Black leadership all over the world. He too was a victim of colourism and size discrimination. The well loved Du Bois even had this to say about Garvey in an article in "The Crisis" which echoed the general attitude towards dark-skinned Blacks at the time and even now, "[Garvey] suffered from serious defects of temperament and training" and went on to describe him as "… a little, fat, black man, ugly...with a big head." Apparently Garvey was too Black to lead a "Black" movement. So stating that we need to gain control of the economy or whatever still does nothing to change the inherent and disgusting attitudes prevalent even within the Black community and these must be addressed if not before, concomitant with these other issues.

As a matter of fact and although few like to admit it, there have existed many so-called 'Black' organizations such as "The Blue Vein Society" which discriminated against Blacks on the basis of their hue. Unless blue veins were visible through clear skins, persons were denied entry into such societies. 'Brown bag parties' which disallowed entry of persons darker than the brown paper bag were also very popular in the 1960s and 1970s. In addition, as one writer pointed out, this type of practice was more common than one thought. The unnamed writer went on to explain, "Even before then, in the 1920s, "color-tax" parties were another means for alienating blacks. At these parties, men would have to pay a tax on the scale of how dark their dates were, the darker the date, the higher the tax." These attitudes continue to live on today and people, whether they are cognizant of it or not, discriminate and treat each other differently based on the colour of their skins. It is also clear, even today, that light skin is preferable; even our heroes seem more heroic when they are lighter skinned.

Now I have met many people within and outside the bounds of the university (UWI) who claim to be revolutionaries/non-conformists or wish for a total or partial overthrow of the system. [Cool.] They talk of economic reformism, change in the political system and even a revamp or the creation of Black based movements to deal with the ills of the system. However, whenever the topic of addressing colourism comes up people tend to back away from the discussions or if involved, distort or distract from the discussions. Some, especially the lighter-skinned individuals tend to personalize the discussions and act as victims of separatism while their darker skinned friends try their best to "tone-down" these discussions to protect the egos of their light-skinned friends. They have accepted the notions of their inferiority and seem afraid to challenge the status quo with the hope that they too would one day ascend the rungs of socio-economic privilege or rather descend into the pit of lies and deception where most are happy to dwell. The funny thing about this is that they deny the truth and their own experiences so as to appease their fellow light-Black friends. Ask them, "When you and your girls/ boys were discussing good looking Black males and females in the entertainment industry, who'd be your pick?" I am certain without any doubt, (because I too engaged in these discussions) Halle Berry, Vanessa Williams, Jada Pinkett, Aaliyah, Shante Moore, Beyonce, Mariah Carey, Rhianna, Tyra Banks, Janet Jackson, Allison Hinds, Alicia Keys, that light skin dude on Soul food, Shemar Moore, and the list goes on. But the question was asked about Black entertainers and so far no dark-skinned Blacks were mentioned. Then they might say, "Whitney Houston with her polished features , Erykah Badu because of her light eyes and maybe Lauryn Hill." They, would even, without proper consideration, boast of their support of media such as BET, MTV, Synergy TV, Tempo, Essence magazine etc. which promote light-skinned people and not dark-skinned Blacks as symbols of beauty, power and leadership.

Some even state boldly that they prefer a lighter skinned or white or non African male or female because they don't want their children to have nappy hair or dark skin or that they could possibly have blue or green or even hazel brown eyes or other fantastical expectations. Some, particularly the females, are not afraid to hide their self-loathe and straighten their hair, add hair extensions, dye their hair (especially blonde) which is the 'in thing' now, grow fashion dreads for the long hair look, bleach their skins, wear colored contact lenses, utilize make up tricks to appear lighter or whiter - take the makeup Oprah Winfrey wears, for example - diet to gain the 'ideal' figure and so much more. Some, like their Asian counterparts, stay indoors and wear long sleeved shirts to avoid the sun; use skin lightening creams just as those in India and Japan do; or like those in China, surgically remove the slant in their eyes to appear less Asian and more European; or like the Jewish and Arab folk remove the characteristic hump from their noses. Members of the Black race who support these actions are enemies of the revolution because their actions also contribute to the genocide of the African race. And the term genocide is quite accurate and legitimate even though many cowards claim that it is too harsh. It is what it is and I refuse to use the language of the conformists and the assimilationists who are insensitive to the urgency of Black Africans addressing their issues.

It is evident therefore, that they too have bought into the system. And if they don't deal with the issue of colourism then it is further proof that it is not a revolution that they want but merely a chance to assimilate into the same corrupt, white, male-dominated capitalist system that oppressed them and continues to oppress them.

I think that some people come here (to the Moonlight Gathering) and expect some type of 'hippie' get-together. If that is the trend that some of you wish to follow, you are free to do so - without my involvement of course. But those who are serious about change for the better must examine their conduct and demonstrate courageousness and deal with the issues that affect us frankly and honestly. Putting the issue of colourism on the backburner wouldn't work either because of the very reason that we deal with each other, even here, based on skin colour biases. Those who are most affected must step up and demand that these issues are discussed. Others should respect our rights and allow us space to work out these issues.

The time for a world-wide revolution is now and it begins with the African revolution. Without first addressing colourism it is impossible to fight racism and without tackling racism then we are nothing but conformists and supporters of the system.