Colourism / ˈkʌlərɪz(ə)m / noun
prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group.
If you’re on Twitter (Black Twitter more specifically), then you probably saw the fiasco that was the unveiling of tons of old colourist tweets from influencers a few weeks back. I signed in one innocent morning and it felt like a deep purge was taking place. I wrote one or two Tweets about it, liked a few more, and that was it until it died down. I had no intentions really to write a blog post about it, but I was scrolling through my Tweets this evening and the topic popped back into my mind; more specifically – my actual experience with colourism growing up. I think it took the topic flaring up on Twitter for me to even really deep the impact it had on me growing up in my awkward early teens.
But rewinding first – a bit about the circumstances under which I grew up…
Truth is, being a dark skinned woman was unfortunately the most uncool, unattractive thing in the early 2010s/throughout my time in 2ndary school. Don’t think things started to change until 2013/14 ish…
— Kemi (@_skylish) April 27, 2020
I was born and raised in South East London, at first in the depths on South East London and eventually out to the suburbs of South East London where my parents moved in 2007 to get myself and my brothers closer to our secondary school. We moved to an area that is almost as middle class as it gets (and no complaints about this – we started in a council estate when I was a baby so I’m proud of my parents for their glo up). My school was a grammar school around the corner. The consequence of all of this is that I really didn’t grow up around many black people other than my family (inc. cousins etc). My area didn’t really have many black people and quite honestly when I go and visit my parents it still doesn’t really. There’s a black family that lives somewhere on our road but otherwise in terms of immediate vicinity… nada. In school, I was one of 2 black girls in my year group at school (of probably 200ish people), and the amount of black people in my year in total I could probably count on two hands. My older brother had an even more extreme experience – he was one of 3 black people… in his entire year group.
I learned very quickly when I went to school that my “look” wasn’t in style. My hair was in braids and my skin was dark – this is just not what the boys in my school were interested in – and this was the boys of any race, including my own. I remember one always telling me that “black girls in America are so much better than here!” and emphasising that black girls from the UK were “crusty”. In general, “racial banter” was also just part of the vocabulary… it wasn’t really funny.
Whilst I was always for the most part happy in school – I had a lot of friends and I felt like I could talk to anyone I wanted to – I can’t say it wasn’t upsetting to realise I was so undesired. There was a night I remember in Year 7 going to bed and praying to God to make me better looking. Eventually, I accepted what I believed to be my shortfalls and focused on factors I could control, which was smashing my school work and enjoying myself – desired or not.
Later down the line in my early teens I started to realise if you were going to be a desired black girl, then you had to have light skin, that seemed to be the requirement. I never bleached (or know anyone in my family that has), but I did try at a young age a few (what I thought were) natural tricks that I hoped could bring me more into that “caramel complextion” territory. This included putting lemon on my face every night, and washing my face with only cold water (YouTube/Google told me it’d work…) Funnily enough, I totally forgot about this until the Twitter topic popped up the other day, I realised that damn – growing up – I really was a victim of this colourism! What eventually got me to love my darker skin when I was younger was actually a young Meghan Good – I think we can all agree she’s absolutely gorgeous and whilst she’s not quite dark skinned, at the time I didn’t consider her to be a “lighty” – it was the first thing that made me start to love all of my chocolaty-ness (and this is why representation matters – especially for young people).
One thing I knew for sure is that growing up, I had a lot of resentment for black boys (in general) for being our biggest criticisers. We’re older now and I can’t say this resentment remains – my boyfriend is black after all. But even before the Twitter topic I’ve spoken to Levi on many occasions about the fact that black boys (in general) caused a lot of pain to black girls when we were all growing up in terms of how we felt about ourselves, and I’m not sure the majority of them even realise (maybe they do now that this topic has been brought to light on Twitter).
Things started to change for me in Year 12 – so when I around 16/17 years old. You could say it was because I was growing out of my awkward teenage years, and obsessed at the time with fashion and makeup, so maybe I was putting more effort into trying to look desirable. But I also think a big factor is that my friendship group expanded to include a bunch of girls from outside of my area. It meant that when I was going out to parties that weren’t only in my neighbourhood, I was also travelling back into the real South London. Basically, whilst I lived in the middle class neighbourhood with no black people, that’s certainly not where I was partying from the ages 16-18 (i.e. before uni). And it suddenly started to feel like the people I was meeting – of all races – did not hold colourist views (appreciated some chocolate). And then I moved to uni, I went to uni in central London, and the rest is really history.
What is interesting that, amongst many black boys, black girls suddenly became popular around 2014. I think a lot of this was down partly to our generation growing up – physically and mentally, and also just social media. With hashtags like #blackgirlmagic and easy access to the Instagram pages of absolutely everyone, including tons of gorgeous black girls out of the awkward teenage phases and ready to slay, the narrative changed very quickly.
To be honest, these days when I think back to my absolute lack of confidence growing up and connect it to the reasons why, it does give me a minuscule twinge of sadness. But at the same time, life isn’t a smooth journey and all that I experienced has got me to the person I am today. I definitely do not go to bed and pray to God to make me pretty anymore.
I think it’s good that these tweets were brought to the forefront – a good way to get the conversation going and to open the eyes of all those that didn’t see (but probably perpetrated) what was going on in that 2008-2013 era.
After all is said and done – we learn, and we move.