In my early teens, I was bullied by another girl who was lighter-skinned than me – and thus apparently felt she could demean me for my looks.
Her abuse added another layer to the shame and ridicule I already felt about my dark skin. And her colourist name-calling caused me such pain that, one day, my fury manifested itself in an emotional rage – and a hard slap across this girl’s face.
You know the saying ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’? It’s a load of bollocks. I had never been in a physical fight before that day, and it remains the only physical fight I’ve ever been in. But years later, her words leave a mark in my memory, a symbol of how harmful colourism can be.
Colourism has its roots in the same seeds as white supremacy: that whiter and brighter denotes better. It’s deeply ingrained in our culture, so much so that we even see young teens like my bully internalise that privilege over their peers.
Growing up, I saw how fetishised light skin defined who society sees as more attractive, more worthy of employment and relationships. I saw how light-skinned friends were the one to be asked out, while guys told me they “like me a lightie”. Even now, there is an unspoken, unrecognised social preference for light-skinned people, who are viewed as the acceptable versions of blackness, viewed as the ones to be heard, listened to, and held up as beautiful.
Look at our prominent successful Black people – from Beyoncé Knowles and Mariah Carey to even Barack Obama – and you will see the truth of light skin privilege. Growing up, I don’t think I could name a single black celebrity that I admired that looked the same shade as me. The Black women I saw idolised were always lighter, and always validating the false narratives I told myself.
And the results of that? Colourism makes dark-skinned individuals hate their own skin. I know I did. It strips away your confidence, and makes you feel even further toward the back of the line in an already marginalised and isolated group.
Of course, it’s important to say colourism has not been the only issue in my life. I am a Black woman of African descent, and that alone comes with a myriad of intersectional hurdles I have had to jump over – and sometimes fall under – in the course of my life.
But as the Black Lives Matter movement and the battle against systemic racism continues, I believe it’s important our own community’s issues with skin colour are checked too. The race issues we fight for on intimate and systemic levels can be just as harmful in our own Black and brown communities – and addressing racial injustice must come hand-in-hand with addressing colourism.
We’re making gradual progress from what I was exposed to as a young girl. We have come to celebrate the melanated goodness of women like Lupita Nyong’o, Nyakim Gatwech, Alek Wek, Adut Akech – darker-toned women that have paved the way for the needed representation of women who look like me. I will never forget the first time I saw Lupita in conversation with Oprah, who said in the most genuine voice ever: “you are beautiful “ With tears in my ears, I remember thinking: Yes, she is. We are.
As the Ghanaian proverb goes: Aboa bi beka wo a, ne ofiri wo ntoma mu – the people who harm you are often those closest to you. It’s bad enough living through the systemic racism that still determines our opportunities in life without having to deal with this destructive enemy within.
Tina Charisma is a writer, activist and social entrepreneur. Follow her on Twitter at @TinaCharisma and Instagram at @verostina