C is for Colourism
Graphic artist and writer "R" will be breaking down everyday racism one letter at a time in his series, the A - Z of Microaggressions. This week, the letter C:
#TeamLightSkin vs #TeamDarkSkin vs
#TeamBrownSkin vs #TeamTannedSkin vs
#TeamBleachSkin vs #TeamLillyWhiteSkin vs
#TeamAllSkinsAreEqual vs #TeamButSomeSkinsAreMoreEqualThanOthers
Are some shades more equal than others or is this just whingeing at its finest? Here are a few stories for you to judge for yourself.
THE FIRST CRACKS
She was 6, he was 7.
In family photos, they were the cousins, distant cousins - but you couldn’t tell from looking back at their childhood photos.
Her family lived in a lavish, bourgeoisie four bedroom flat with designer furniture and rich carpet flooring which caressed the feet with comfort and reassurance. Stepping into their place always made him feel as though his single-parent, cold, one bedroom flat looked more like a closet-space for their old clothes, but all that was unnecessary distraction from the fun he had with his dear cousin Lulu.
He and Lulu never went to the same Maternelle (nursery); hers was in the borough of Quartier des Peupliers. Meanwhile, his was closer to the border of Gentilly, but he’d always be picked up by Lulu’s Congolese nounou (AuPair) & Lulu herself on the way back to Lulu’s place where they’d have lunch together and play before his mother would come to pick him up late in the afternoon.
“Is that your mother?” his white Moyenne classmate asked one day, pointing at the nursery gates. “No, that’s Alice, my cousin’s Nounou.”
Jamal didn’t think much of that question. To him it was impossible for a woman like Julie, with a rich, dark umber-brown skin tone to be his family member. Especially since his skin tone was more of a medium reddish-brown complexion like his Comorian mother’s and nothing like the warm sepia of his Cameroonian father. Or according to him, Alice was the dark brown crayon that he hardly used, and his was the light brown he used for almost everything.
Jamal saw his family consisting of people mostly ranging between the skin tone of his mother’s complexion to that of Lulu’s father. Lulu’s father, his uncle, was a fair skinned Arab man of olive complexion and her mother a Comorian woman whose native Comorian and Persian heritage saw her complexion with a tawny-orangey brown colour; this mix saw Lulu embrace her fair golden-brown skin tone.But at the end of it all, to the innocence of a child, skin tone meant little in comparison to the love or reciprocity they received from the people around them.
One afternoon they were playing in Lulu’s room after they’d returned from their Maternelle, as they always did. The air in the flat was thick with the smell of coconut rice and chicken stew. The pattering of running footsteps echoed through the corridor as they ran to the kitchen to see what Alice had cooked for them.
“Okay, go wash your hands now while I set the table -and wash them properly.” she said to the two as they ran towards the bathroom. Alice had already placed a children’s two-step tool down for the two to share. Sharing the step, shoulder to shoulder, the two ran the taps and threw their hands underneath the water.
Unlike every other day where they’d share the soap, make bubbles and play with the water, Lulu ran her hands underneath the water & went to dry her hands. Confused, Jamal asked her, “Where are you going? You didn’t use soap.”
“But I don’t need to use soap, you need to use soap because your hands are dirtier than mine.”
“No they’re not...”
“Yes they are!”
“I’m going to tell Alice that you didn’t wash your hands with soap!”
“But my hands are clean! Your hands are dirty because they’re brown,” she said, placing her hands next to his.
“But my hands have always looked like this...” he said to himself.
“It’s because you don’t wash properly.” she replied. Drying her hands on the hand towel, she walked out of the bathroom and into the kitchen.
Jamal was gobsmacked. Could she be right? Maybe he wasn’t clean. Maybe he was going about it all wrong. He grabbed the soap and scrubbed his hands and ran them under the water. Nothing happened. He did it again. His hands still looked the same. Again. No difference, his skin colour was still the same. Five minutes later, he was still washing his hands.
“Jamal!” Alice shouted. It startled him. “What are you doing wasting water like that?”
“I’m washing my hands because they’re dirty and they’re not getting clean...” he said with tears starting to roll from his eyes.
“But you’ve been washing your hands for the last five minutes, they’re already clean…! Come and have your supper, Lulu is almost finished…!”
“No I can’t! My hands are not clean, Lulu said they’re dirty because they’re brown!”
“She said they’re dirty because they’re brown, not white like hers…!”
It suddenly dawned on her what had just happened.
“Can you help me wash this dirt away?” he asked.
THE ISLANDER'S LETTER
We were at Gare Du Lyon station, preparing for our long train ride back to London. While TK indulged on his third Croque Monsieur of the day and AT was busy picking out what cake she wanted to bring onboard with her, I found myself peeping through some of the local fashion magazines. Pictures painted an image of the lavish Parisian lifestyle with models posing around a regal ballroom overlooking the Eiffel Tower, which was a far cry from the Paris we saw just behind the station close to the bus stops and parking lot. None of us really gave into to the romanticised tales of the city, we just wanted a city break.
Behind me sat a tall man, lean, rich dark skin and reddish-brown hair that looked like it had been bleached by the sun. He was dressed in a plain shirt and trousers, his shoes were finely polished. He carried a leather bag that appeared to be weighed down by the files of papers, laptop and cables he carried. He had his pen and pad on the table and was in the middle of writing something. I noticed him on the way in because he smiled at the three of us as we walked in with the kindest and gentlest of smiles. Naturally, we smiled back and greeted him as we walked in. “He definitely isn’t French,” AT said cheekily.
We had been there a while, going about our business, reminiscing about our journey, when he startled us by rushing for his bag and everything inside. He left a 10 euro note and rushed out the door.
“I hope the brother makes his train.” TK said, wiping the crumbs of his Croque Monsieur from the corners of his mouth.
“Is it me or did he drop something?” AT asked.
“I can’t see anything,” TK replied.
“No, look, on the floor. It’s his pad.”
“It better not be work related, coz that would be some serious shit...” TK replied.
We stepped outside and sure enough, the man had dropped his pad. There didn’t seem to be much of importance inside, a few calculations, doodles, a few French street names and something in a language we couldn’t quite understand. Buried between the pages of the pad were some notes he’d written in English, others in French and a language we’d later come to find out to be Haitian Creole.
We didn’t read it at the time, instead we went looking for him. Unfortunately we couldn’t find him. After we boarded the train, we decided to go through his notes and this was one of the letters we found:
“Ever since birth, I've been cursed to be born on the West of the island - so they said. Which is why I write this to you a tired man seeking refuge in the oasis of a dream. In that dream I see your smile, hear your happiness, dedicate my life to your health and seek the Loa for guidance.
Paper-bags have withstood the test of time and a warmer earth has little effect of Blumenbach's ignorance in people’s minds & hearts. I’ve penned these words in a bid to protect your future from a distant past, to nurture you from the sinister misleading that is A Redenção de Cam, to assure you that you are - in all the world’s nature - beautiful, loved and appreciated.
I haven’t met your mother yet, little do I care about her appearance, because in a significant other, to me, what matters most is the nature of their heart, the content of their mind and the dreams we create together. And in even less regard is my concern for your appearance, but rather the love we have to fill your heart, the content we have to grow your mind and the dreams we can watch you create.
They say the best dreams are free from darkness, so I pray you'll come to see love your father's pigment, the colour of Ray's vision. While my deeply melanated skin has been blackened by the behaviour of humans out of touch with nature, the love that beats in my chest spans the breadth 7926 miles in diameter. Milat pov se neg, eg rich se milat. But I was never born rich, only blessed to find the right souls that helped me travel the globe and see the different people that inhabit this earth.
I’ve seen mothers in Mumbai tell their daughters not to play in the sun or else they won’t get husbands, I’ve seen Amazigh fathers tell their sons not to bring home a woman darker than them. I’ve seen generations of Black families born in Egypt been told to ‘go back to Sudan’ and the dark-skinned Surr people of Oman be denied their authentic claim to the land. I’ve seen Black boys in London call their darker peers Blick and I’ve seen the Black Madonna turn white at the Chartres Cathedral in France. I’ve seen people being denied homes for being too dark and I’ve seen people denied their heritage for not being dark enough. I’ve seen Dr. Mammie & Kenneth Clark’s experiment come to life in schools, workplaces and social spaces, and I’ve seen Dr. Stutoshi Kanazawa’s work taught in lectures and labeled scientific.
My child, the world can be a hard place to pick yourself up when it leaves you in pieces, but the most important peace you need is inside you, that’s one thing I’ve learned. At times it seemed that my only companion was my misery, seeking revenge for what Trujillo's legacy did to my family and me. In life little is promised, but faith in Bondye will make it better, I hope you understand this letter. My dearest unborn.
It is complicated, escaping fate, and a lot of the times privilege can't completely comprehend what it would mean to trade places. I must digress and confess my guilt at staring into the future with a heart that's anxious, because while nobody is born a racist, almost everyone is born into privilege. It’s a shame many on the East side will fail to see this, let alone see the humanity beyond flag, heritage & skin tone.
If your Gwo grann Louicia were still around, she’d tell you how she fled El Massacre de Perejil and how the neighbours found her brother’s dead body stained with American bullets. If you get to meet your Grann Etienne, she’ll probably tell you about how she escaped the election massacre in ’87. If you meet us, we’ll probably tell you how we long escaped the frames of single story lenses and politicking that came with the earthquake of 2010. The more I think of it, the more I hesitate with fear to think what traumatic effects await you coz of what our lineage has endured, the more I agonize with trepidation to think what traumatic effects await you coz of what our pigment endures. I just want to protect and prepare you for this world, I hope I don’t fail you and if I do, I hope you forgive me.
I hope you’ll find your confidence grounded in the roots of yourself, your colour and never step out of tune with your self-love even when cowards who call for things like the Branqueamento because their existence runs on fear. Be wary of those who support these ideals because their tainted truth will make you feel that the world has no peace, no mercy, or no friends, it will have you praying that mirrors never reveal your reflection again.
Dear Obatala & Ezili, can you hear me? Would it be unkind to ask the fate of our unborn seeds? Will we be able to fill our child with love? Or are they forced to live unnatural narratives? Because at times being dark like Ghede hurts. I sometimes catch myself slipping in my prayers. How foolish of me to paint a bleak picture of existence when I have been blessed more than most. The world is a contradictory place because it contains multitudes. And while in this cycle, the world is still recovering from the prophecy of ignorance, I am sure you, my child, will be able to reap the small fruits of change, and maybe in time, sow your own.
Run wild, but be smart. Laugh with dolphins, listen to trees, eat with leopards, rabbits & bees. Find yourself in nature, find yourself whole and be transparent to every single part of you. Non-truths look upon the brimming authenticity of a smile in hideous envy and your self-love is your castle.
Remember: the shades in skin are merely the uniform of humanity, they do not dictate the roles assigned to them by fellow humans, but at the same time, love your skin, love your tone.
My dear unborn.”
- R is an male of African origins living in Europe and writes from the solitude of his hoodie whenever his twitter-fingers get itchy.