If you frequently play in the streets of Twitterville, chances are you have come across hashtags like #teamlightskin, #darkskingirlsbelike, and #lightskingirlsbelike.
While some of these hashtags are sometimes accompanied by humourous memes, beneath the surface lurks a far from amusing issue that has affected people with dark skin for centuries. Colourism, which can be defined as discrimination against members of the same racial group based on skin tone, is a prevalent and pervasive issue that has taught society that light skin is superior to dark skin. This notion favours the former as more beautiful and derides the latter as undesirable.
“you’re too pretty for a dark-skinned girl”
Colourism has its roots in slavery. Dark-skinned blacks, seen as dirty, were condemned to the plantation fields where they were forced to do all kinds of back-breaking labour, while their lighter skin counterparts were frequently favoured and assigned household tasks. The more European you looked, the better things were for you. Fast forward to the 21st century and colourism is still alive, manifesting itself in different ways. Offensive comments like “you’re too pretty for a dark-skinned girl” are something most women with darker shades have had to deal with. Sometimes it’s hard to detect colourism for it has evolved with the times and cunningly morphed into seemingly innocuous hashtags and terms like “yellow bone,” a phrase popular in Southern Africa that praises light-skinned women.
This form of prejudice against people, especially women, with deeper complexion has given rise to the need to celebrate dark skin and its beauty. Cue D(h)ark is a gleaming photo project that aims to highlight the beauty of blackness and uplift women in their varying shades. The project is a melanin fest, featuring striking photographs of the two women behind this initiative, Lerato Mbangeni and Nokuthula Mbatha.
“The fact that I was bullied because of my dark skin motivated me even more to do the project.”
“Aside from being friends, Thuli and I have always admired each other’s work. She’s a photojournalist and I’m a journalist, but we’ve always wanted to do an out-of-work project. One day, we were both free and I suggested we jump in the studio to see what comes out. We soon realised that we both wanted to accentuate our dark skin and in fact celebrate it,” explains Lerato. Nokuthula adds: “The fact that I was bullied because of my dark skin motivated me even more to do the project.”
The piercing impact of colourism is something both women have experienced. “A lot of the colourism we experience is so instilled in us at a young age that we don’t realise that we immediately knew that the girl with the light skin will be liked over us by boys and will be deemed cuter. I’ve been told that I’d be so much cuter if I was lighter,” Lerato shares her story. Nokuthula’s goes like this: “One instance I remember is when I was 17 or 18. I was walking with my lighter skin friend after school when the other kids started shouting ‘mnyamane’ (blackie). There are many instances. I was even bullied as a kid by this boy at school just for being dark-skinned.”
“I think skin-bleaching can’t just be viewed as a body freedom issue because most people do it to fit in with Western beauty standards.”
This horrible phenomenon of colourism has prompted the emergence of dangerous practices like skin-bleaching, which finds people with dark complexion using harmful products to alter their skin tone. While every person has the freedom to do as they please with their body, skin-bleaching is a much deeper issue, an identity crisis driven by the need to live up to the Western ideas of beauty. “I think skin-bleaching can’t just be viewed as a body freedom issue because most people do it to fit in with Western beauty standards,” Lerato shares. “The biggest issue with it for me is that the products are so harmful and poisonous and many don’t know how much harm they are doing to their bodies. This is a big issue for me and is why I’ll be part of a team working on a skin-bleaching documentary shot here in South Africa.”
Although there’s still a lot to be done in eradicating this cancerous problem of colourism, mindsets are shifting as more people become aware of it. Black women around the world are outwardly celebrating and embracing their skin and identity. Harmful hashtags are being countered with more powerful and positive ones like #BlackGirlMagic, which promotes positive self-concept.