Like so many other little girls, I used to watch my mom intently while she got ready for a night out, like her beauty routine was my favourite TV show. I would sit on the side of her bathtub while she admired herself in the mirror, combing through her soft, long, curly hair. She hated putting on makeup so when I got old enough, I did her makeup for her. I’d smile while I applied her honey-hued foundation, secretly seething with envy. My mother is mixed race, Jamaican and English, with a skin tone similar to Sade. On a shade scale that ranges from, say, Meghan Markle to Lupita Nyong’o, I’m closer to Kerry Washington.
Now, I have a deep, unabashed love for mycol skin and the story it tells of my ancestry but for much of my youth, I felt betrayed by my genes. They hadn’t given me my mother’s “good hair” and fair skin. Instead I got my Ghanaian (on my dad’s side) aunties’ noses and darker complexion. I got their kinky hair that I never saw portrayed on screen or in magazines as beautiful or even normal. I dealt with constant petting by my white peers who thought my hair was more fascinating than our second-period science experiments. It’s not that I wanted to be white like them, I just wanted to be the kind of black that mainstream culture had deemed beautiful.
I didn’t learn the term “colourism” until high school, when I was searching for texts to stay woke, before staying woke was a thing. Colourism was coined by famed author Alice Walker to explain the prejudice placed on black people with dark skin and the privileges afforded to those with lighter skin. The ramifications of this prejudice have been felt since slavery when light-skinned slaves were given preferential treatment until now, when dark skinned men and women are predominately depicted in pop culture as damaging stereotypes like gangsters or hookers or conversely, as asexual, one-dimensional caregivers. They’re rarely the love-interest or the flawed hero.
If we never see anyone darker than Halle Berry (or younger actresses like Zendaya, Yara Shahidi or Amandla Stenberg) in these roles, is it any wonder why black women are the least preferred women on dating apps, according to a study by OKCupid? Is it really surprising that black girls as young as five are perceived as older than they are and more likely to be seen as guilty when they are suspected of a crime, according to a 2017 study by the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality? The images that we grow up with matter. I don’t think it’s a stretch to connect the injustice happening in real life to the representation we see in pop culture. Representation affects how people view us and it also affects how we view ourselves.
When I call Sharon Lewis, the first woman of colour to host two national live TV programs in Canada, and now an accomplished director, she tells me that colourism is still plaguing the entertainment industry, an industry in which I work as a TV producer. “I grew up with — I call it shade-ism — where lighter was better, straighter hair was better,” Lewis says. “I really wanted to redefine what beauty looks like.” Lewis says that this bias in casting is why she made a point to cast a dark-skinned black woman, Mouna Traore, as the lead in her sci-fi film Brown Girl Begins.
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Over the phone, Traore, shared anecdotes about growing up with dark skin that were heartbreakingly relatable. When Traore was around 10, she saved up money to buy a skin brightening cream. Now, she’s less appalled by the little girl who desperately wanted to change her skin colour than by the older Jamaican woman at the counter who encouraged her to buy the cream. I’m appalled that in 2015, a report by Global Industry Analysts found that the skin lightening industry was expected to be worth $23 billion by 2020. It’s not just black women buying these products. Cultures all over the world perpetuate the myth that beauty is defined by the lightness of our skin.
“A lot of my issues and insecurities came because I saw what other people responded to,” Traore tells me. “I don’t know if I, necessarily, thought that dark skin was ugly. I think that I thought other people thought it was ugly.” I’m so overcome with recognition of this sentiment I nod so hard I almost drop my phone. But while I may recognize the emotions Traore felt, my experience is not the same. I know that black women darker than me have faced colourism worse than I ever will, and that I benefit from own medium-skinned privilege. I can at least find my shade of foundation (usually) at the drugstore. Traore tells me that her favourite Japanese beauty brand discontinued the one shade that matched her dark skin. Both Traore and model, Alluad Deng Anei, share stories about the disheartenment of discontinued makeup (and praise Rihanna for created Fenty, a line which offers 40 diverse shades and finally makes them feel seen instead of erased). Anei says she didn’t wear makeup for years simply because she couldn’t find her shade.
Now, Anei’s act of rebellion against the colourism she faces in the modelling world is to stop bringing her own foundation to shoots. If a makeup artist doesn’t have the tools to paint her face, she says it’s on them. “It’s unprofessional [for a makeup artist] to show up to a shoot and be like, ‘I don’t have your shade.’ You have to hold people accountable for what they’re supposed to do.”
Jayd Ink, an independent artist who just garnered national attention on CTV’s The Launch is hoping to hold people accountable through song. She wrote a song called “Darkskin” with lyrics inspired by her own experiences with colourism like, “I wear weaves and rock my natural/ Can you believe he says I’m pretty for a dark skin/ And he was dark skin?”
“Men who were trying to give me compliments would say, ‘you’re pretty for a dark skin girl,’” Ink explains. “It was confusing at first being a young girl, you think, is that a compliment?”
Hint: It’s not a compliment. Ink’s song speaks to all the little girls who never see themselves reflected in music videos or at the top of the pop charts. She’s hoping it sparks a conversation. “[The song] is not about pitting light skin and dark skin women against each other. It’s about educating people, to let them know that all races are beautiful.”
I wish I had Ink’s songs, Lewis and Traore’s movies and Anei on the cover of magazines when I was growing up, envying my mother’s skin on repeat. I wish I had Danai Gurira and Lupita Nyong’o in Black Panther or Viola Davis in How To Get Away With Murder to look to as reminders that every kind of blackness is beautiful. Maybe I would have believed my mother when she’d look up from her mirror to tell me I was beautiful too. Maybe the next generation of little girls will too.
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