It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white. It is a saying that has been long perpetuated and one would think that, by now, it would be as ingrained in our understanding the same way as basic math. But whilst the statement certainly rings true, there is a whole other dimension to it. What if it matters what kind of black you are?
Despite the fact black people share the same overarching experience of discrimination, the realisation that blackness is not this monolithic entity was beyond me at first, being a child. However, throughout my teenage years when I began to enter a majority white school and majority white environments, I came to realise that there was always a subtle differentiation. I was conflicted in my own identity as a mixed-race girl because, for some reason, I was proud of my lighter tone but disappointed that I was still too dark to catch the attention of boys or to even match the kind of representation I saw on TV. I realised that I hated pictures of myself where I appeared darker, desperately trying to exclaim that “I’m lighter in real life, I promise!” or deliberately avoiding the sun so that I wouldn’t get any more tanned because that would be going “too far”.
Alongside these beliefs, the media did very little to go against my thesis that being lighter was better. Amandla Stenberg, Natalie Emmanuel and Zendaya were amongst some of the black women that were put at the forefront of my screens and whilst I love them all for their work, there appeared to be a correlation in what I was seeing. They were dark, but not too dark yet dark enough to be “exotic”. They could still blend in a white crowd yet stand out in “all the right ways”. Most importantly, they were found attractive by the very same boys whose attention I wanted. Of course, today this all appears ridiculous to me as a person who celebrates diversity in all its shades. I am now slowly shaking myself from the shackles of colourism that has done more damage than simply make women like myself feel underrepresented. Invalidating the way a person looks is one thing, but invalidating that person’s appearance in a society where appearances are everything, leads one to question their sense of self worth as an individual.
Furthermore, another damaging side to colourism is that it has put women within the same ethnicity at a head with each other. The most profound realisation was that I had benefitted from colourism. This was a bizarre realisation to me but the truth of it hit me all the more when a boy that I was talking to said he preferred “light skin black girls”. Being mixed race, in my eyes, had been a burden, but relative to another darker skinned black girl, it was a get out of jail card. The aim to broaden representation and include more people of colour has been a hard-fought struggle that remains ongoing. It is a one step forward, two steps backwards process and over time even the smaller victories have been rendered more harmful than anything else. For blackness to be embodied in a single shade, appearance, hairstyle etc feels invalidating, as if anyone on the outside just doesn’t quite make the cut for being the right kind of black. Despite these limitations, there have been truly momentous steps forward in the fight for greater representation. The first experience for me, and many black people across the world was Marvel’s Black Panther. I remember crying after going to the first viewing (I went several times) and seeing Lupita Nyongo as Nakia. Intelligent, fierce and with darker features being not only celebrated but idolised in the movie. It was something I never thought possible or that I would ever see in my lifetime. I remember being in the car with my mum after the movie and saying, “wow mama, black is cool you know”.
Recently, another creator who hit the nail on the head and the closest I felt to relatable was Michaela Coel’s character Arabella in the hit series I May Destroy You. She was a dark-skinned woman who was not snarky or serious but rather eccentric, a bit all over the place but retained a deliciously glorious sense of humour throughout. She was awkward, like me! Online discussions about her appearance became background noise when I realized that her blackness was very much celebrated. I was celebrating with her. Black is beautiful. But black is not a single colour or experience. There is nothing wrong with the Zendayas of the world. She is beautiful and talented, but she is also one voice in many. The media need to focus on the many that have remained under appreciated for far too long.
Illustration: Alisha O’Brien-Coker