Black like me

Posted by: Belinda Shange | Date: October 21, 2013 | 8 Comments

In a “post-racial” era one would think that colourism — discrimination based on one’s skin tone — is no longer an issue. You would think that such a phenomenon is a childhood memory where one was relegated to the periphery of the playground having been marked as mnyamane (blackie), tar baby, nkwishela (equivalent to a grotesque creature) etc. When I was growing up children chanted (as per the 1990s shoe polish advertisement) “Kiwi keeps your shoes protected for a long, long time” at the sight of another child of the same “race” but of a slightly darker hue.

The funny thing about colourism is that it feels harmless until one rightfully understands it as what Dawn Turner Trice labels as intra-racism in “Complex issues of complexion still haunt us blacks”. In this article she states that colourism or intra-racism is “a value system that goes way back to slavery days and said that light skin was preferable to dark skin” as labour was divided along colour lines, hence the derogatory terms “house n****r” and “field n****r”.

Unfortunately this value system that constructed conflict between light-skinned and dark-skinned individuals extends all the way to contemporary society where light-skinned and dark-skinned women are pitted against each other without their consent. The “yellow-bone” syndrome not only equates light-skinned women to carnal residue but it also normalises the idea that men are inherently driven by their voracious libidos that has them uncontrollably salivating at a piece of left-over something.

When I heard and saw a male peer mockingly point to a group of light-skinned women from a distance and unashamedly utter “Look, yellow bones!” I became upset. Perhaps he thought his twisted idea of humour did not apply to me as I fell under the “blackberry”/”dark chocolate” (yes I have been labelled as such) categories. At his surprise I suggested he abandon his obsession with women’s looks as it dismisses their spiritual, emotional and intellectual identities. He probably thought it was a compliment to label women as “yellow bones” because that of course means they are attractive and “easy on the eye”. The “you’re beautiful for a dark-skinned girl” syndrome is proof enough that people of colour have internalised the dehumanising colonial and racist values that aimed to divide and conquer based on so-called “ethnic aesthetics” (among other things).

When a friend told me about a light-skinned black boy (aged about 9 or 10) who refused to associate himself with dark-skinned black girls because “they are the colour of dirt” I knew for sure that our value system is f****d up. Where in the world could a young boy born in a supposed “race-free” South Africa get these ideas? Could it be the proliferation of popular images that reduce women (of colour) to the status of objects? Could it be our painful and unshakeable colonial and apartheid historical realities?

What is going on with what Trice calls the “mental brown-bag test that you ha[ve] to pass” in order to be deemed worthy? Since when does my dark skin mean I am asexual and more in touch with my proverbial “roots” while women of a lighter hue are equated to hypersexualised, self-obsessed and mindless beings? The Mammy and Jezebel stereotypes are extreme dichotomies that do not capture the diversity that is women of colour.

Have you listened to what women of colour have to say about themselves lately?

Have you really heard us?

If you listen carefully you will indeed be reminded of why (to borrow from Professor Pumla Dineo Gqola’s term) we are RENEGADES!

Image – AFP


  • Kalahari Doringboom

    Sort of reminds me of some ritual in my way distant primary school past when even youngsters chose (or would not choose) according to gradations of colour:

    Spring King and Queen

    How could it be that Auriel and Brian
    became school lioness and lion?
    Whereas I with frizzy mop and skin less pale
    was made to bow and hail
    the pair with fragrant sprigs and toss
    these at their feet to crown my loss.

    Her plaited locks formed ringlets
    underneath the crown.
    Her milky skin spoke volumes
    and graceful nape, soft down.

    She stared at me with pure disdain –
    across her cheek I’d left a pollen stain.
    Fifty years on and I’m still unbowed
    to tell the truth, won’t march with the crowd.

    I doubt she thinks of me today
    as I might think of her.
    Still, with those spring days in mind
    I too now may see
    why Auriel, so long ago
    was chosen our Queen Bee.

  • toby

    I always think of my future kids whenever I read/deal with this topic. Then i get this sadness deep within cos no child deserves to go through feeling inferior or less worthy to anyone else’s child due to the colour of their skin. Being a dark beauty myself; over the years i learnt to deal with it thanks to the awesome people i have in my life. …but you know how it is in reality -you think you’re good till someone mockingly calls you something – and we’re back to square one. My perpetrator was a coloured lady i knew-she said something awful to me and i just thought “wow- i wonder why its so important to her to make me hate myself?” Anyway point is its important to keep talking about such maybe those who discriminate will see the wrongfulness of their actions and accept that people were made different, no one should be punished for their skin tone. For our generation, we dust ourselves up, pump up our own egos and own your identity. For the next, can we be cautious not to dent burgeoning confidence and egos with our foolishness and arrogance. Its such an awful thing to endure.

  • Ntombenhle

    Belinda love your article! You are raising an issue that really, really bothers me and the comments favoring “yellow-bones” are increasingly all over the media. It really grates me that popular radio DJs on stations like MetroFM and YFM are referring to women in this manner so easily and so often. And so are South African hip hop artists. And nobody calls them out on doing so when the majority of black South African women are of darker hues and beautiful as they are. Thank you for calling them out! Our concept of black beauty really has to change.

  • Hazel

    Your article is spot. Another dimension is the colonial mentality that is deeply entrenched psychologically in most people particularly the previously oppressed. Some historical information to elucidate: Many people(indigenous Africans) in the 70’s who were lighter skinned changed their surnames to Afrikaans or English so that they could be reclassified as Coloureds. The implications of reclassification was the ability to be able to get a promotion at work, you could be able to work in some jobs that indigenous Africans could not do because of their perceived inferiority. You could also own property in a better neighbourhood. Those in the know say if you repeat a lie for a long time it start to seem to be true. So what that leaves us as the previously oppressed. Even the first citizen of the land makes jokes about Africa because in his sub-conscious mind Africans are inferior to all the other peoples of the world. So the late prophet Bob Marley put it in song:” EMANCIPATE YOURSELVES FROM MENTAL SLAVERY NONE BUT OURSELVES CAN FREE OUR MINDS”.

  • alisdair Budd

    If you’d like to show a modicum of knowledge about the matter and have a look at Brasil, (the second largest African country, despite not actually being in Africa) you would notice that there (and in other parts of Latin America) your skin tone will be used to decide your race.

    To the extent that siblings of slightly different skin tones will be classified (offically/informally) as two different races despite having the same parents:

  • Ade

    By using the term people of colour (as opposed to being white) your perpetrate the same evils you claim to be against!!!1

  • Belinda Shange

    Thank you all for your responses. I appreciate the dialogue.

    @Ade, I find the book “Is Everyone Really Equal?” useful when it comes to speaking about sensitive issues such as race politics. According to the authors ( Ozlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo) the term “People of Colour” (POC) means the following:

    POC is a term used to describe “people who are racialised (seen by dominant society as having a race) based on phenotypical features (such as hair texture, bone structure, and skin colour). The term is useful in that it acknowledges the racial binary that recognizes society under White supremacy (White/People of Color), and the overall shared experiences of racialism and internalized racial oppression for people who are racialized”.

    However, they do acknowledge that the term is problematic in this sense:

    “It conflates the wide range of very diverse groups of people into one group and thus obscures their specific histories, experiences and challenges under White Supremacy. As with all racial terms, the interplay between self-identity and identification within the social political content must be taken into account”.

    And they go on to refer to one’s positionality. I use this term with all this in mind. Again, thank you for your insight.

  • Celesta

    Wow that was odd. I just wrote an really long comment
    but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t appear.

    Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyways,
    just wanted to say great blog!