By Ellie King
It’s been 400 years since the first Africans stepped onto North American soil and were brought to Jamestown, Virginia. Robbed of their freedom, families and what they called home; African men, women and children were confined by the shackles of white supremacy.
Though the physical shackles of slavery may have been released over time, the deep rooted psychological, emotional and physical scars of abuse have gone on to impact generations of Black families to this day.
One of the most sinister forms of psychological abuse to stem from slavery was a practice called “colourism”, which is a hierarchy based on skin tone; putting lighter skinned Blacks on some sort of pedestal, which eventually led to Blacks of all hues being pit against each other.
During slavery, several female slaves suffered sexual abuse at the hands of White slave owners, which often led to pregnancy and resulted in a “mulatto” child. Although said lighter skinned Blacks and/or “house slaves” had preferred treatment from better food, to learning to read/write than, darker skinned slaves who worked outside; “one drop” of Black blood and ancestry meant that regardless of their hue, they were still Black.
The “one drop rule” was used as a social and legal construct to segregate Blacks from Whites and this concept then lead to other forms of segregation, including the “brown paper bag test” and the “comb test” in the 1960s. The 1960’s was a prominent time for racial inequality, segregation and discrimination which was not solely between Blacks and Whites, but also within the Black community. Black sororities and fraternities began implementing the “brown paper bag test” against new recruits, only considering their eligibility if their skin was lighter than a brown paper bag and if they had primarily European facial features and hair.
It is important to remember that this insidious form of racism originated solely at the hands of the White supremacist ideology, and the lasting effect has been detrimental to the way Black children, and even adults, view themselves in society.
Church, often seen as a haven for virtue, morality and acceptance, was and has at times continued to discriminate based on skin tone as well. Black churches not only implemented the “brown paper bag test” but the “comb test” as well –a fine tooth comb being used through the hair and if the comb could not pass with ease; said person would not be granted fellowship into the church.
Colourism is also the emphasis of relating Whiteness to holiness, purity and the European beauty standard, which is often why lighter-skinned Blacks are fetishized for their hue.
Leanne Christine, a youth worker born in England, and a Canadian resident since the age of sixteen, shares her experience in the church. She says: “My friend is a brown chocolate skin tone, I am about two shades lighter and her sister is a dark chocolate hue. A White woman in the church whispered, looking at me and then my friend: ‘Especially you two. I love your skin. It’s a pretty brown.’ ”
Leanne continues: “It was a modern day brown paper bag. She went on to say how she preferred brown skin to dark skin, and justifying it simply as her ‘preference’.”
Leanne says this is unfortunately a common experience the Black community faces at the hands of the White gaze, as “Whites see themselves as individuals, while they see Blacks as types.”
“White people have placed this European standard of beauty for centuries; so many Black/Brown people are taught to hate their skin, hair and more. What would society look like if we never had to unlearn that hate?”
Kevin Yeboah, a photographer and DJ from Toronto, says: “I remember visiting either family or friends’ homes and seeing all kinds of lightening creams in their pantries, seeing stars on TV in music or sport that reflected the apex of a young Black mind’s imagination, ruined by their own pillaging of what makes them so great.”
Kevin, like many other Black children growing up, has had or has known others in the community to use skin bleaching.
Dr. Christopher A. D. Charles – Professor, University of West Indies, Mona - Jamaica explains: “Skin bleaching ads encourage women to bleach their skin because light is beautiful, sexy and attractive, and that skin bleaching will create a miracle complexion that leads to success.”
The implication is clear, and although Black people have prospered and continue to oppose the invisible shackles of White supremacy, the effects have still tarnished the way the community views each other, how colonialism has attempted to pit the Black diaspora against each other and how darker skinned Blacks have to work twice as hard.
Camille Forsythe - Regional Administrative Coordinator, Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), explains how she goes about uplifting her children and combating racism and colourism. She says: “My cousin and I came up with a chant for my daughter and son, exclaiming how Ava (her daughter) has ‘Black girl magic’ and she was hesitant to say it at first, but we reinforced it.”
Camille continues: “It’s important for us to tell her how all of the beautiful Black women and men in her family have the magic and that’s what makes us all amazing. It’s unbelievable to realize how much the effects of slavery are still woven into the fabric of society today.”
These conversations are necessary for Black children and adults, to reject and unlearn colourism. The struggles and effects of this form of racism towards darker skinned Blacks has been significantly more difficult than the other hues. That is why it is essential for the community to embrace, and appreciate each other; protest those who perpetuate colourism and support anti-colourism media and understanding your roots for a better future.
For more information on how to combat colourism, check out this link.