Thursday, January 28, 2010

Fair/Light Skin and Beauty

A few days ago I was in an office with a colleague of mine who was in the midst of a bantering session with two of the women who work there.

"Why did you not wish me a happy new year?," the woman sitting closest to me said to my colleague who was standing directly opposite to the second woman in the office.

"I was about to get to you," he replied with affected kindness in his voice as he walked over to her station.

"Oh I don't believe you. You like only the white ones," she shot back laughing loudly.

I looked closer at the women trying to remain as invisible as possible.

Both were black. The woman my colleague was initially chatting to was somewhat lighter but not by much.

Before I could finish my thoughts a third woman appeared at the door to the office.

My colleague turned to her and said with produced charm: "And how are you today?"

"You see I was right about you liking the white ones among us," the first lady said.

He was in a quandary. And by himself I might add, I don't roll like that ;)

The playful interaction reminded me of a time at Howard University when I asked a young black woman a question about my loan status by referring to a previous conversation I had with another woman at the same office.

"What was her name," she barked at me from behind a counter.

"I don't remember ever getting her name but she works here," I replied.

"Was she light-skinded or dark-skinded," she barked back without missing a beat.

"She is black," I said with annoyance as the woman rolled her eyes.

We were going nowhere and I limped out of that conversation.

The thing about being fair/light skinned is that it is a marker of beauty among people of color (sorry for the lame term but it is better than non-white).

In India they sell all kinds of cosmetics that claim to lighten the skin of women and men.

I remember an advert like this one below that infuriated the hell out of me:

I also remember the kind young man who sold me my veggies in Delhi. He commented that my skin, after a trip to the cold region of Kashmir, appeared so much lighter.

"You are handsome now and not dark," he said with a smile.

Muslimah Media Watch provides a link to an interesting article in Arab News entitled "Anything for fair skin, even SR30,000 placenta shot!"

The article says that Saudi women want fair/light skin and will do most anything to achieve this beauty standard.

The same is true for the Kimberley community I grew up in.

Fair/light skin and hair texture (straight over kinky) denotes beauty. Skin lighteners, or rather bleaches, are still commonly used even though laws restrict their use.

The quest to be white or to appear more than just a dark "Other" contains a minefield of contradictions that defies easy generalizations about racial identification among people of color.

The contradictions persist even after the colonial fact and often in the total absence of whites.

But perhaps therein lies the rub of the matter.

Inferiority is a socio-political and historical coding that exists/persists despite the presence/relativity of whiteness or white people.

That is what the banter in that office underlined. Black or brown beauty is open to contestation of the 'white kind' even where whiteness/whites are absolutely absent.

Now see this final advert by "Emami Skin Lightening" featuring Indian leading man Shahrukh Khan (an annoying ass and product 'ho in my opinion):

Makes my head hurt something fierce because we are still so preoccupied and enslaved by sexism, racism, casteism, or combinations/intersections thereof.



Cartmanslover said...

My God, I was stuuned by these ads.I actually had my mouth open while they were playing. I knew that "people of Asian origin" had the "skin issue" just like Africans but didnt realise it was that deep. Just as bad as ours. Those ads aren't even TRYING to be subtle in their anti- Black or anti-Brown or pro-White message.
Who approves this kind of advertising? Aren't there laws that ban this kind of thing?

I saw a doccie once about Chinese,Korean and Japanese women increasingly following the trend of having plastic surgery done on their faces to give them more Caucasian features- eyes more rounded, nose sharper and longer. They also weren't shy to admit that they really wantde it as they were convinced that "ideal beauty" is "white beauty".

That ish makes me wanna barf. It's the 21st century? How did we carry this backward, colonial mentality decades into our so-called-freedom?

At first I kept my hair African because I liked it that way- it was just a matter of preference than a political statement. I noticed Black women being very fascinated by it. They'd actually ask HOW I GREW IT? WTF?! Those kinds of questions really pissed me off as they were DAFT! Anyway, I've kept my hair African as a political statement now.

I'm not trying to be anyth...crap, I have to go, I'll finish this tomorrow.

Ridwan said...

Yeah Cartmanslover it hurts my head too ...

I hear ya.


Erica said...

I'm sorry to say but this has been and will (unfortunately)be an issue, amongst different cultures other than white. Being a black woman I can only speak from a black woman's perspective. It's been embedded in blacks, since slavery that the lighter the skin, the better you would get treated, causing a much dangerous rift between our women as a whole. It's more of a self-hatred based upon what history and current media has placed as how "beauty" should be perceived.

I know of many black women who have bleached their skin, wear weave, even wear blue contacts to make themselves look more "attractive" or better yet....more white. This is a sad reality.

I've had deep conversations with most of my white friends who were actually honest enough to tell me that they are more "comfortable" at times being around blacks who look more "caucasion."

This is mostly about insecurities and what the media (white media) has done to preserve the image that "white is right" when in fact this practice is immoral and dangerous, not only to our young black children but all children who are brain washed into believing that they are less than what they are simply because of their skin tone.

Very Complex!

Ridi I'm not going to even comment on the skin lighning videos.......I've cussed enough while watching them. I think my Souther Belle card may have been revoked!

Ridwan said...

Thank you kindly for adding your voice Erica.

I absolutely hear you.

This week marks what would have been the 65th birthday of Bob Marley (February 6).

I remember a line he has in the cut "Redemption Song" where he quotes Marcus Garvey to say: "emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds."

So true hey?

Peace to you.

Mixed Race in Africa said...

I am light skinned by virtue of being mixed race and i have always been told that i should be very lucky that i was born light skinned.

I used to straighten my hair for many years and when i say straighten i mean using that terrible cream they call relaxer. Since then i have been growing my natural hair because i realised i am not being the true and natural me.

Three years ago, i made the same decision to go natural and so many people who knew me told me how UGLY i was.I was told that having an afro is a huge disadvantage and it just makes me look ugly. Because i was so insecure and had low self esteem,what did i do?I headed straight for the hair salon to relax just so that i could be accepted by society. HOW SAD!!

When i look back now, i am ashamed that i did that to myself and now that i am going natural again, i am really happy that im rediscovering myself.

It is very sad that black women have to go through such extremes to be accepted by society and they dont realise what they are doing to themselevs.

Women try dating only white men just so that they can have light skinned babies and whats even more sad is that if that baby is not born light skinned, that poor child is rejected by the mom.

I was dissed for having dated a dark skinned man but i didnt care because most of those women who chased after white men just for their skin colour ended up being hurt and miserable.

Sorry for having babbled on and on like this, i should write a book!

Ridwan said...

MRA thanks for a very valuable contribution.

You raise excellent and very important points.

I am struck by the absence (generally) of debates about hair, politics and identity in S. Africa.

Last term I was going to class when I overheard a student berate another about wearing what looked like a wig.

"I almost did not recognize you with that thing on your head," was the comment.

I bet it was embarrassing and even hurtful to hear those critical words.

I am convinced that to overcome the self-hate will take frontal assaults on the societal and economic pressure to appear 'white' or lighter.

We need to confront the 'essence' of our inferiority complex.

It is a complex arena and I think you should write a book and more.

These conversations are sorely needed.

Now 20 years after the decision to release Madiba we have abused our freedom to confirm our inferiority instead of raising our consciousness.

And thus we are not really free.

Sad truth MRA.

Peace to you.


Anonymous said...


so this is a really old post...but i cant resist commenting, especially because now, in the silence of ramadhaan...i try to understand why i do the things i do..or why some things trigger me.

im indian. my complexion is light brown- fairish..but not what an indian person would call fair.
(you know- the type thats whiter than a white person) extended family are all THAT fair. and growing up amongst them was hideous. it was just this blatant ...wall between us. always the afterthought- if youre lucky. more often than not, you just didnt exist.
and when i went to campus- it was Exactly the same thing.i often cynically remarked to my sister than the only girls who had hayaah were also the only girls who were really 'white'.
i felt that...every good thing of mine was just never recognised, because i didnt fit the required package. i always had to be more to just be some other fair persons equal. and then too- it wasnt quite enough.
more vibrant, more friendly, more creative...because i never had the liberty of just sitting in a room like a corpse, giving one tiny smile, and then watching someone else take over the direction of the one-sided conversation-
cos in my color, its not shyness and modesty...its being bland. its called not having a personality.

so. i sound like a sell out...but quite often, i wish i were fair. just to be liked without the effort, to be recognised, to never be constantly minimised.
so that i dont always have to tell myself im there....i can see it in the other persons face.

Ridwan said...

Thanks for reading and commenting.

This post stands the 'test' of time because it speaks a truth that persists.

Color consciousness among Indian folk in South Africa never ceases to amaze me.

I know of marriages that have been destroyed by bigoted family members who thought one or the other spouse was not white enough.

You would think that we were beyond this nonsense but not so.

I commend you for your honesty and probing.

In the end giving into wrong conventions is not empowering.

Throw the middle finger salute and be who you want to be ... with respect :0)


ps. Ramadan Mubarak


pserean said...

this post of yours stirred up a memory of mine...campus days-

cousin: i met your friend the other day in the bakery.
myself: oh? who?
cousin: raeesa
myself: ah. she's a dear, isnt she?
cousin: yes. what a beautiful girl! Really gorgeous.
myself, confused : wait. she's still in purdah, right? when did you see her?
cousin: oh, i never saw her face. just her hands.
myself: eh?
cousin: they were so white! i just knew she'd be lovely.
*beams happily at me*

i dont know about you, but i crack up everytime i get to the end.
(ahem. though raeesa* IS gorgeous.)

*names have been changed to protect the fair.

Ridwan said...

Salaams pserean.

That is so funny. White hands = beauty.

I am cracking up too.

Thanks for sharing and for 'protecting' the "fair" .... :)

Peace to you.

Anonymous said...

Slms. came across this today. rather apt:)

As I Grew Older

It was a long time ago.
I have almost forgotten my dream.
But it was there then,
In front of me,
Bright like a sun--
My dream.
And then the wall rose,
Rose slowly,
Between me and my dream.
Rose until it touched the sky--
The wall.
I am black.
I lie down in the shadow.
No longer the light of my dream before me,
Above me.
Only the thick wall.
Only the shadow.
My hands!
My dark hands!
Break through the wall!
Find my dream!
Help me to shatter this darkness,
To smash this night,
To break this shadow
Into a thousand lights of sun,
Into a thousand whirling dreams
Of sun!

Langston Hughes

Ridwan said...

Thank you for posting this powerful and telling poem by Langston Hughes.

Hughes' body of work is impressive in the manner that it confronts the 'reality' of being black and made to be 'in the dark' and the unavoidable struggle to be and to exist without denigration.

I am reminded of Ralph Ellison's book, Invisible Man, that picks through similar territory.

Thank you kindly for bringing complexity to my post.


Anonymous said...

Invisible man?
I'm going to hunt it up Ia...

Hughes wrote beautifully. He really did. His stories are even more amazing. There was one about a man who was supposed to rush home to see his sick mother. And somehow- in that way we all procrastinate- he missed the train.Dawdled in the face of her sickness. Mother died- and the man went to a bar for a drink, where a woman came to chat him up. Cant' quite recall- a prostitute probably. Saying they should go home.
And the man looks at her and starts to cry- because he really does want to go home. He wants her to take him home. To his mother.

Ag. It's a poor summary. But that story has stayed in my head ever since I read it. How we burn our bridges or keep still when we should be moving. And then we'd give anything to go back.

Nothing to do with post whatsoever.. just glad to share a story with someone who was aware of the man:)

(sorry. forgot to add my name. but yes. thats me. i add complexity to Hevvrything:P)