Colourism is an internalised form of racism that values lighter skin and derides black skin.
– Deborah Gabriel in Blackness: Colourism in the African Diaspora
“When I was 12 or 13 years old and I was sitting in a taxi wearing a short skirt, this guy said to me, ‘Dark-skinned girls are not supposed to wear short skirts because your thighs are not appetising.'”
As a result of this encounter, Thobeka Nogxina, a business analyst at CQS Technology Holdings, stopped wearing short items of clothing until she was in Grade 12 because she felt ashamed of her dark skin.
“From Grade 9 until Grade 12, I wore only pants until my legs were light-skinned and I felt I could show them,” she says.
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Words like “blackie” and “Mnyamana” are thrown casually around in conversations between black people, with very little thought of how it will connect with the receiver.
Thobeka says she realised at a very young age that being light-skinned was a good thing and the opposite was true for someone with her dark skin tone.
“At school they used to have a top 10 list of the most beautiful girls, and I made it into the top 10. But I saw that someone had written next to my name that I was pretty for a dark girl,” she says.
When actress Lupita Nyong’o burst into the mainstream in 2013 for her work in Twelve Years A Slave she received a lot of hateful comments about the colour of her dark skin. If a prolific and beautiful woman with many accolades can be the subject of derision, what chance do ordinary women stand?
Still, when pictures of Lil’ Kim looking lily-white with bottle-blonde hair surfaced on social media, the internet exploded with shock. Some called her self-loathing and couldn’t understand her transformation.
Kim, who’s had countless surgical procedures over the years, has been very vocal about her insecurity as a dark skinned woman.
“I have low self-esteem and I always have,” she said. “Guys always cheated on me with women who were European-looking. You know, the long-hair type. Really beautiful women that left me thinking, ‘How I can I compete with that?’ Being a regular black girl wasn’t good enough,” she said in an interview with Newsweek magazine in 2000.
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Research also shows that apart from being regarded as more attractive, lighter-skinned women benefit in other ways.
A Harvard study titled The Skin Color Paradox and the American Racial Order shows that dark-skinned black people are more likely to grow up in difficult circumstances. They are also more likely to come from poorer homes, less likely to get married and when they are married, they tend to have spouses of relatively lower socioeconomic status.
“South Africans are still dealing with the residual racism left after colonisation, [which] is an important factor in understanding some South Africans’ preference for a Eurocentric standard of beauty and lighter skin tones,” writes Nahomie Julien in Georgia State University journal DISCOVERY.
Additional reporting: The Skin Color Paradox and the American Racial Order, Newsweek, Blackness: Colourism in the African Diaspora