Watching gal-dem magazine’s excellent skin-lightening series gain publicity last week felt, if I’m honest, bittersweet. I’m always pleased when mainstream media discusses things like skin-bleaching in black and brown communities; it feels refreshing that we can move away from broad, safe topics like “racism is bad” towards unpicking the complex nuances surrounding whiteness, and the echoes of colonialism, and what this means for communities of colour today. But it also hurts. These conversations are painful, particularly for dark-skinned black women like myself, and this public dissection feels like my own skin is being analysed by every article or tweet thread that etches the words Too Dark across my face, and arms, and legs.
In many ways, though, I’m lucky. I’m in a place now where I honestly wouldn’t change my skin for the world – I like the way it looks and I’ve never imagined actually using a skin-bleaching cream. I sit in the sun on holiday gladly, knowing the darker shade of brown my hypersensitive face will quickly go will clear up my skin and make me feel happier and healthier, and I genuinely don’t worry about getting even further away from a standard of beauty I know I’ll never reach. But each discussion in print makes me remember so many incidents I’d rather forget – things I’ve had to deal with my whole life – because my already penalised blackness is particularly unpalatable.
I remember the time in school when a girl who, to my eyes, looked exactly my skin colour began telling everyone she was glad she wasn’t “like me”, and how I knew exactly what she meant. I remember the word “blick” – too black, you’re blick – how it would sit heavily on the tongue, how I would use it on myself before so many others could. I remember my grandmother’s funeral in Ghana – my cousins on my mother’s side looking so dark their skin had a blue sheen, and how I knew how beautiful they looked, but I also remember my dad’s cousins. Lighter-skinned and walking and moving just like me, but still telling me I “took after my mother’s family”. I remember make-up counters saying they don’t have my shade, and jokes when people take photographs about remembering the flash, and photographs taken without the flash that show teeth and eyes and hide embarrassment. And I remember a girl at school’s mixed-race friend – a girl who, at a birthday party one September, pulled me aside and stealthily passed me the factor 60 she would slather on every day. Go in the bathroom, she said, her skin already so much lighter than mine, and remember to wash your hands.
I remember make-up counters saying they don’t have my shade, and jokes when people take photographs about remembering the flash, and photographs taken without the flash that show teeth and eyes and hide embarrassment
Like many things, shadeism tends to be gendered. Women are always held to a higher standard, both by themselves and the men in our communities. Grime artist Stormzy stands up and proclaims he likes his dark skin, calls himself a “big black man”, but the idea of a female musician doing the same thing is unfathomable to me. Light skin on women is an acceptable blackness, for both the women themselves and the men who claim to love them. It’s exotic, mysterious and mixed with an other that tempers the voice and hips and bum and tightly coiled hair of the angry black woman. It makes her easy to handle – something I know I will never be seen as being.
The way light-skinned black and brown women are fetishised is, of course, toxic in its own right, and deserves attention. Reducing women to their skin – no matter what shade it is – is dehumanising and misogynistic however we look at it. But, so often, I can’t help but feel a little petulant when I see articles from light-skinned women about this – feelings that I know aren’t useful, but I can’t really help having. "What about us?" I want to yell. "I know it’s hard for you, but what about us?" Last week, I saw a tweet where a guy had captioned a picture with “imagine if she was lightskin”. Of course, the woman in the photograph was beautiful and I kept thinking that, no matter how horrible it is to hear fetishising comments about your “exoticness”, women lighter than her will never hear something so petty about their skintone not being good enough from a strange man on the internet.
But, with more awareness, I hope we will get to a point where we all remember the other side. Whiteness is divisive, misogyny is painful and being free of the standards of both is something I hope happens for all black women. Let’s start with binning the skin-lightening creams, and try and go from there.