Like many middle-class kids growing up in the late 90s and early 2000s, I grew up watching animated Disney cartoons and romcoms that told clichéd stories of white fairy tale princesses who were always waiting to be rescued by an equally white prince on a horse or in a nice car. Our screens brought to life the unrealistic lives of these pale girls and women with silky long hair that black girls with coarse hair and brown skin could personally never attain. We would all sit and watch in admiration as they go through trial and tribulations while we cheer for them to get whatever their heart desired.
In a patriarchal and Hollywood fashion, many of these damsels in distress were in search of a man who could save them to live happily ever after. In those stories, I saw a world where women’s narratives were always told through the male perspective, and women’s beauty was constantly being defined and displayed for men’s pleasure. These white women that I couldn’t relate to were only worshipped for their beauty, they never seemed to own their narrative because they had no power to self-define.
Back then we were young and impressionable, and so such imagery implanted subjective notions of beauty into our psyches. They served as the foundations to a struggle with an inferiority complex about being a black woman in the world, and this insecurity about where I belonged. Indeed, our fight for visibility survived long into adulthood. Many of us learnt about notions of beauty from watching these Disney princesses who had men devoted to their worship, and jealous women, siblings and evil stepmothers who were willing to kill them for their beauty. I saw women being pitted against each other as though one woman’s beauty took away from the beauty of other women around her. In those stories, there could only ever be one of us shining at any given time.
But also part of the tragedy lay in the realisation that at no point during my childhood was I ever able to imagine myself or any other brown girl as the type of beauty that could ever earn the pursuits and admirations the girls on my screens received. I didn’t have the ‘right’ flawlessly pale skin tone, thin enough body, texture of hair and the mainstream beauty to pull it off. These subtle images were symbolic of a greater culture that subconsciously implied that such depictions were representative of what was considered ‘normal’ or ‘acceptable’ features for human beings (Glenn, 2008; Hunter, 2011). This was an act socially and institutionally enforced by a white supremacist system that set Eurocentric features as the default for mainstream beauty.
Those were the images that made me aware I belonged to something called a “race,” that made me realise the world saw me as a “black person” as opposed to just a human being. Although I couldn’t fully appreciate what it meant to be black at the time. I knew simply that it wasn’t something that would make the world look at me as they did those white girls. I knew then that I could never measure up, even to fictional characters that weren’t fully human. In the world of princesses, it didn’t matter whether I was dark-skinned or light-skinned because in that context I was just black. Whiteness and Eurocentric features were the utmost measures of beauty, providing a standard I physically couldn’t attain as a black person. I was always going to be the outsider looking in, the one who did the admiring instead of being admired.
In the midst of these dominant white princess narratives, however, I remember watching one cartoon after school that stood apart: “The Ugly Duckling.” It was a story about a mother duck who got the shock of her life when one of her newly hatched ducklings looked unusually dark in comparison to the others’ fluffy yellow feathers. The mother duck’s conclusion of her duckling’s supposed ugliness was based solely on its darker colour. The ugly duckling challenged expectations set for it and challenged the norm in a society that had set linear notions of beauty. As such, he was portrayed as an unlikable character. His entire life was portrayed as one “ugly mess” as we watched him fumbling through life alongside his ‘perfect’ and well-disciplined siblings: He was always the subject of jokes and was alienated by other ducklings within the community, and there was also an inference of him being ‘dumb’ because he looked the way he did.
I didn’t realise it then, but “the ugly duckling” realistically reflected the essence of colourism. The term itself was coined and defined by Alice Walker as the “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people solely based on their colour” (1982), but we need to be mindful of the fact that the act has a long-standing history dating back to the colonial era. It is a form of prejudice, borne out of institutionalised racism as a way to divide people of colour by making it seem others had a better social standing because of their proximity to white supremacy. Colourism manifests within communities of colour when light-skinned people are favoured at the expense of darker-skinned people just because their lightness makes them more ‘palatable’ to white people. A number of researchers have found that the effects of colourism go beyond the aesthetic privileges, thus the prejudice affects dark-skinned people of colour in areas like education, income gap, access to housing, and marriage prospects (Hunter, 2007).
Thus, colourism wasn’t an issue I thought about at all growing up. I didn’t interrogate the way Ugly Duckling was treated by the people around him because of his darker feathers. Back then, I didn’t even have the language for it. I also realised later in life that because of my lighter skin, I appeared to be on the “right” side of the colourism spectrum. The existence of the hierarchy of black skin tones seemed to swing in my favour, so I never got to experience its harsh reality growing up. I didn’t feel like I could relate to this fictional character’s suffering because I laughed along as other white swans and yellow-toned ducks bullied the duckling. As a result of my own light skin privilege within the black community, I never once thought to think that he embodied the experiences of black kids who grew up dark-skinned within the black community. That they too were alienated and mistreated because they had a darker shade of melanin.
As a black person with light-skin privilege, it took me a while to understand that society treats dark-skinned black people with a similar indifference and insensitivity to that which the ugly duckling experienced.
Colourism in South Africa shows up in different ways, much of which is subtle daily micro-aggressions. Growing up in South Africa I can recall that there was always a child who the elders nicknamed “mantsho,” meaning the dark one, meanwhile the light-skin one was referred to as “mashwanyana or lekgowanyana”, meaning the white one. Although it was never directly said, it was always implied that lighter is better, hence being referred to as ‘the dark one’ was never meant as a term of endearment.
This comparison of children’s skin tones, which in turn fostered a culture of animosity and rivalry, was a subconscious projection of apartheid trauma suffered by our elders. Weighed down by their internalised self-hatred of all things black, they projected it onto children whose physical appearance served to remind them every day that they were black. Their blackness was a daily reminder of their failings and shortcomings as people who grew up in a country that socialised them to believe white people were superior.
To this day, there are still many black people in this country who aspire to ideas of whiteness. So the result was another generation of kids who grew up with low self-esteem and subsequently became adults taking measures to erase their darkness because of a cycle of anti-black self-hate. Some try to bleach their skin, perpetuating a culture of institutionalised racism that benefits the beauty industry. According to the World Health Organisation’s 2011 report, more than 60 million people are using lightening products on a ‘daily basis’, with over 70 per cent of Nigerian women said to be using such products even though such products are not legal in that country.
Despite the warnings and health consequences of using such products, they would rather risk their lives than show up in the world as the type of blacks who get ignored and marginalised. Within the African continent and other developing markets, like India, there is said to be a spike in the use of the different types of products that aid in the skin bleaching. Hence, local South African celebrities have been rumoured to have lightened their skin, with a former child star, Mshoza, openly revealing that she was a brand ambassador for a skin bleaching product that she herself was using.
We have also watched as Khanyi Mbau, a socialite and television personality South Africans love, transformed into a paler version of herself before the public’s eyes. In spite of public criticism and outrage, she openly speaks about bleaching her skin amongst other cosmetic surgeries she has gone through in the last few years. This trend also came into international spotlight recently when Blac Chyna, an American reality star, flew to Nigeria to do publicity for a bleaching agent she was a brand ambassador for. Nigeria is regarded as one of the biggest markets for such products, even with global brands like Nivea and Dove positioning themselves in that market as products that give their users ‘fairer skin’ because that’s what the consumers are looking for.
This kind of mainstream showcase of skin bleaching normalises this culture by almost romanticising those who pursue such procedures. There hasn’t been enough critical discussion aimed at uncovering why the people in question and the many who do it secretly still feel so strongly about bleaching. The current conversation around this serves to demonise those who do it, while on the other hand continuing to promote a culture that marginalises darker-skinned people of colour.
There is still a desire for lighter skin because there is lack of diverse representation when it comes to the personalities that come onto our screens, lighter-skinned people seem to gain favour and get more opportunities when it comes to getting the television, modelling and movie roles. Lighter-skinned black people are seen as more acceptable, so they are the ones most likely to be seen spread out on the front covers of popular fashion magazines as celebrities and influencers.
Even as a child, I remember seeing black elders in Limpopo—North of South Africa where it gets very hot, who used to put red mud or shoe polish, or a white product called “colour-mine” on their skin to avoid getting “burned” when they were outside to substitute for bleaching products. Others would wear plastic bags beneath their clothing in the midst of blazingly hot summers in an attempt to “sweat out” their darker complexions.
Colourism is an intersectional feminist issue we should care about and address because its existence continues to feed into a racist system that has convinced black people they are inferior. It’s also an issue that mainly affects women when they are already being marginalised by a systemically patriarchal society. We see this even in the way brands that market within the skin lightening space target mainly women, contributing to a culture that makes women feel like they need to change who and what they are for the pleasures of the male gaze. We therefore have advertising that gives off the impression that lighter skin would make them more sexually appealing because of their proximity to whiteness.
But the reality is no matter where we imagine ourselves to be in the hierarchy of blackness, we are all still fighting for the crumbs at the bottom of the pit while those we aspire to look like, live lavishly above us.
Rebone Masemola is a 28-year-old digital marketer, activist and writer. She has a Masters’ degree in Anthropology from Wits University and currently works for an international television network in South Africa. She founded a digital activist platform called Woke Project, and an offline event called Woke Saturdays in an effort to contribute to the creation of collaborative spaces that distribute diverse narratives reflecting the faces and lived experiences of the people around her. Rebone is a TEDx Speaker, has been featured as a ‘Young Leader To Watch’ by Fast Company ZA 2018/2019 and was nominated as a Top100 Disruptor in the SADC region for 2018 by The Young Independents. She may be reached via her email address, masemolarebone69@