Complex Complexions: What’s black, light and has yellow bones?

By Siyabonga Mchunu - 26 June 2018Views : 839

By Devan Moonsamy, CEO of The ICHAF Training Institute

On an otherwise lovely holiday in Southeast Asia, I experienced something I am not entirely unused to – racism.

But, being on holiday, and shopping in the beautiful surroundings of Thailand, it caught me by surprise. I was in Asia and as a person of Indian (Asian) descent. Why did I experience racism? The simple answer is that I am dark skinned.

I know this because shop owners and staff would go to my fair-skinned travel companion and ask him if he needed help. But I seemed invisible to them. Our tour guide confirmed my suspicion that it is because I am dark skinned, which to them is the same as me being poor.

While it is true that India remains a low-income country, there is a large economic disparity. The poor are very poor; the rich are very rich. If I were from India, it does not automatically mean I am poor, especially considering that I would have been able to afford the four-hour flight from, say, New Delhi to Bangkok.

I should have stood out as a tourist. Yet my presence at a shop in Thailand was taken as pretty much irrelevant. If I was lighter skinned, not necessarily white, just a bit lighter, might I have received a little better treatment?

It is incidents like this that can make skin a very sore point for people of colour (black, mixed race, Indian, etc.). You do feel like you are being told you are ‘less’ – less important, less valuable, even as a customer, less attractive. And this hurts people of colour so much. It can start to make one feel an urgency to change oneself rather than resisting the influence of such unjustifiable racism.

What this further goes to illustrate is just how rampant racism is worldwide. We sometimes think we as South Africans are unique in our racism problems. But we need to be aware that such problems are by no means singular to any one nation. From London to Lusaka to Los Angeles, racism continues to fester.

It makes breaking news often, but we also know that racism is subtle, and subtle racism starts in the home and other ‘single-colour’ social environments. It festers there until it spills over into the community, creating terrible feuds and divisions that last generations.

Some of the problems we face and which people are voicing concern over are that lighter-skinned people of colour are treated better in schools, including township schools, and in work environments. ‘Whiteness’, or being somewhat closer to, or associated with it, is seen as prestigious.

The label ‘yellow bone’ refers to black people who are relatively light-skinned, and it might be used to show approval or praise. However, it is illustrative of the treacherous and bewildering nature of racism. Natasha Msonza explains that yellow bone is also a ‘derogatory and callous phrase… used in reference to light-complexioned women when they are compared to “black cherries” or dark-skinned women, as they are disparagingly referred to themselves.’ How perplexing and hypocritical the skin colour issue is!

Young men of colour often have a desire to find a light-complexion lady to date, seeing this as an image or ego boost, and a more valuable ‘conquest’ in terms of romantic relationships. ‘Look, I have a white girlfriend, so I must be special,’ seems to be the attitude of some. On the other hand, some might comment, ‘She’s cute… for a darkie…’

Even in the family structure, we see lighter-skinned relatives having a measure of status higher than darker-skinned family. Sometimes it is expressed as a joke. An Indian person might say, ‘I don’t spend too much time in the sun, or I will go dark blue…’ This still shows that there is a concern over the possibility of ‘going darker’. Some black people believe that if one’s complexion darkens it is a sign of ill health, stress, or even bewitchment. It may be a sign of illness in some cases, but we should never jump to conclusions or make comments which can be very hurtful.

The booming business of skin-lightening creams is another piece of evidence which we should be troubled by. Some use treatments to even out their skin colour, which is understandable. But I am opposed to wholesale skin lightening. It is not a solution. It definitely is a problem, especially among celebrities whose habit of trying to go white has a negative effect on darker-skinned people. It is seen among South African and American celebrities of colour, as well as Indian Bollywood stars.

Western notions of beauty have had an ugly effect in countries like India, and Bollywood is also to blame for keeping certain trends alive in the postcolonial context. Fair and Lovely is a popular skin ‘care’ range in India. Their ‘Best formula ever’ is claimed to be an ‘Expert fairness solution.’ Does the terrible irony here not bother consumers? Sadly not... One study found that nine in ten Indian girls believe skin lightening is a priority. There are even harmful deodorants promising lighter underarms, as well as so-called supplements and IV drips to lighten one’s skin.

Recently, Ghanaian authorities have expressed serious concern over pregnant women using dangerous, illegal drugs to lighten their unborn baby’s skin! There’s a very big difference between going to such extremes compared to playing with different hairstyles, hair colours, wigs, nail polish, clothing etc., because it’s creative and fun for you as the individual. But don’t do something to harm or change yourself because of unfounded notions of whiteness vs colour.

Looking at this in a purely cosmetic light, celebrities’ before and after photos are not a great advert for the practice of skin lightening either. Some celebrities look sickly and artificial after bleaching themselves. Fortunately, it is reversible. Healthy melanin production continues despite skin pigment being stripped away, and the individual can allow their skin to return to normal by stopping the use of skin-lightening products.

It seems skin lightening may ultimately stem from damaging notions of white superiority which have infected us all to an extent. Even as we reject these notions and strive to shed them, vestiges of them remain in our society which must be resisted. The black youth, particularly girls, are vulnerable to what translates from bleached celebrity as ‘beauty’ and ‘prestige’ into negative views of themselves. In other words, the desire to be lighter makes some women and girls think they are less beautiful and that they must change themselves. Darker-skinned people are just as beautiful and worthy of committed relationships and good treatment. We must honour them with exactly what they deserve and no less. For African people to thrive, they must have a positive image of themselves as individuals and as a group.

From another angle, we can see how the situation becomes increasingly complex when we consider, for example, that people readily assume Michael Jackson lightened his skin to be more popular and that he encouraged the trend. However, it has been confirmed he had the condition vitiligo that causes patches of skin to lose all their pigment. Darkening vitiligo-affected skin is very difficult, probably not possible when Jackson developed the condition over three decades ago. Jackson used heavy makeup and possibly skin lightening to even his skin tone.

Michael Jackson did this for appearance's sake, but one can easily imagine that he, being firmly opposed to all forms of racism, would much rather have remained dark skinned than have to battle vitiligo and the world’s harsh criticism of trying to ‘go white’. Jackson suffered psychological distress as a result of the condition, and it is thus critical that we consider how skin colour and our emotional well-being are related.

We also see many white people religiously using bronzers, spray-tans and sunbeds in a quest to be darker. One white woman has gone all out and changed herself to look like she has a 100% African heritage (as well as the ‘biggest boobs in Europe’). She says she has a black identity. Some black people have not reacted well to this claim and to her extensive physical transformation, while others say they understand her desire to be black. Still others point out that she has had a huge amount of ‘work’ done over the years, which indicates a poor self-image. People who go to such lengths may never be happy with their body no matter how much they change it.

What these contrasting skin colour debates show us is that we must firmly resist beliefs that any one skin colour is better because it damages our social structures and our self-image. With a poor self-image, it’s hard to give your best and to care for yourself the way you deserve to. We might take risks, such as using harmful chemicals, to force ourselves into a certain artificial mold.

In some cases, the anxieties over skin colour are so great that they extend to the unborn child, with mothers placing the baby’s health at risk for the chance that they might turn out lighter. How much further are people prepared to go just to change shades? I hope this alarming trend dies out soon and goes no further. It is becoming increasingly dangerous and unjustifiable, and we need to see government working to protect our citizens in this regard.

In the end, it only hurts us by reaffirming that we aren’t good enough as people of colour, or for whatever other physical characteristics we may have. It also sends a message to others that we don’t accept them either if they are dark skinned unless they change themselves too. We must love the skin we are in and cherish our diversity or risk damaging ourselves and others.

Self-acceptance is critical here as well as a refusal to change oneself because of others’ imbalanced views about how one should look. As long as you look for validation in others, you will be giving them power that rightly belongs to you. Don’t ever lose your personal power and agency for the sake of meeting the expectations of those who can’t see the beauty in all people. When you start changing yourself for others in an extreme way, you can deny yourself enduring happiness and good health.