Society always says, “Love the skin you’re in,”. I’ve used the phrase countless times myself, but the reality is that it’s hard to love the skin you’re in when it is constantly being antagonised, mocked and made to feel like it is worth less than any other.
I like to think that my complexion is the core of my identity. I get quite passionate when I talk about dark skinned women because I feel like one can not truly understand what it is like, especially in our time, to be us. The marginalization, rejection, sexual objectification and colourism that dark skinned women face can not be understood unless it is personally experienced.
In the days of slavery there were two types of negro slaves. There were the house negroes who were lighter in complexion and closer to white therefore they were given more privileges and regarded as being more appeasing and superior. The field negroes were labelled as dirty, stupid and unappealing. This treatment created and prioritised certain types of blackness and led to the creation of colourism where light skinned negroes were given preferential treatment over dark skinned negroes. The negroes with a lighter complexion were given advantages academically, seen as more favourable when it came to employment and were always prioritised in social settings where dark skinned negroes were involved.
Although slavery may be over, the issues of intra-racial discrimination still exist. The problem is that we live in such a colouristic society where we seem to be encouraging the idea that a certain type of black is ”better” than the other. We make it seem as though having fairer, lighter skin is better than having dark skin. The issue also lies with the interrogation of one’s blackness, where if an individual is succeeding academically, acts, speaks and is dressed a certain way they are labelled as “trying” to be white or “acting” light skin. This then creates conflict between women of colour as they are being subjected to mentally and physically compete with, and hate each other and hate who they are as a race simply because the shade of their skin is different.
I would be lying to myself if I didn’t say there were times I prayed and wished my complexion was lighter, or my nose was narrow and had more definition like my light skinned sisters. At the time it seemed like being light skin was so much easier. I had this mentality that if I was lighter maybe I wouldn’t have to work so hard to prove that I was just as intelligent, just as beautiful or just as worthy. I wouldn’t be colourised or seen as less favourable, I wouldn’t have to be chosen last or be the one taking the pictures all the time because I felt insecure about how my dark skin would appear standing next to someone who I thought was more beautiful simply because their skin was lighter than mine. I wouldn’t have to go through the struggle of finding the right foundation to compliment my complexion because they didn’t have it in my colour. At a young age I had knowledge and understanding that the fear of rejection and not being accepted because of my dark skin had left a psychological scar on my mind. I was not mentally prepared and had not been educated enough about feeling comfortable and loving my skin.
I started realising that I was always going to be at conflict with the world. The world wanted me to create a genetically impossible, yet perfect version of myself so I could prove that I was just as worthy as my female counterparts. I had to create a version of me that was more pleasing to the naked eye. I was being brainwashed and showered with advertisements of how to get fairer lighter skin. I would walk into an African store and there would be every skin lightening product available and you would see dark skinned women stocking up their trolleys with little to no knowledge of the toxic chemicals and effects these creams would have on their skin. The worst part was that they weren’t just using it on themselves, but also on their children. These women and even men were exchanging the natural complexion of their skin for a container of toxic chemicals. In return these products were executing the message that if your skin was too dark you were seen as dirty, stupid and unappealing.
It seemed everything around me was telling me who I was wasn’t enough. I had to change and recreate everything about myself in order to be the ideal woman. Society was telling me that the complexion and features of my ancestors were not worthy of recognition and they were just another stain of black ink in a world of white dominance. I remember a friend telling me that she wanted to marry a man with European features and a very light complexion because she feared and didn’t want her future son or daughter to go through the struggles of being black. The struggle of being ridiculed because their skin was not the average, being told they’re ”pretty” or ”handsome” for a dark skinned person. Their intelligence being questioned because you can’t be that smart unless you’re raised in white surroundings or brought up with white people, right? Although my brain was consumed with all this negativity about my skin, I still physically loved it regardless. I used the negativity to fuel and educate myself about myself and the roots that defined me. I looked up to women like me, women I could identify myself with, women who had my complexion or something close to it and still succeeded. Women like Lauryn hill and Condoleezza Rice who weren’t afraid to speak up for themselves and their rights. Women like Serena Williams who redefined the standards of beauty. Women like Naomi Campbell who oozed confidence and rocked the runway of success because they accepted who they are. Women like Viola Davis who were taking on leading roles and making it the norm for dark skinned women to be recognised in roles of power, dominance and intelligence instead of always playing a masters slave.
I started to learn and found that I had to be my own heroine. I had to be at least one confident dark skinned woman so other dark skinned women can feel they are valued and respected in a society that dehumanizes and has little respect and appreciation for them. I had to learn to have a voice for my diversity and my kind of beauty. I had to give myself the freedom to listen to my own self cry and accept that the world is cruel so I could stitch up the emotional wounds that had been created by society and heal my own pain.
So the question then becomes, how do we change the psychological wall that has been built in our minds about accepting our skin? They say black is beautiful but they are not willing to teach us to accept it. It’s a psychological warfare whereby we are told one thing but taught to do the opposite. As women of colour we need to realise and understand that we are being subjected to mentally and physically hate who we are as a race. If we are able to teach one another about the importance of our roots, our traditions and the beauty of our skin it makes it so much easier to realise and see the beauty within us and the power we possess. It will take time to heal the mental and emotional wounds that have been inflicted on dark skin women. For so long they have been educated by society to hate the way they were naturally created and envy their lighter female counterparts, but the reality is that there is no shade of black that is better than the other. We are all one in the same.
Illustration by Sophie Morada.