Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall, Who is the Fairest of Them All?

colourism and light skinned privilege

When Elodie Silberstein moved to Melbourne from Paris, she sought out hair products for her Cameroonian-French curls and was dismayed to find a staggering choice of skin lightening products marketed toward women of colour. 

Skin lightening is not a new concept for Silberstein, who grew up in a culture where 'milk chocolate' skin can lead to more opportunities. In this piece Silberstein explores the social and economic impact of this privilege, and our shared responsibility for its continued existence.

Elodie Silberstein is a PhD candidate investigating representations of girlhood, and the geopolitics of beauty and black femininity.

THINK with Elodie Silberstein.

- Elodie Silberstein 

Footscray station. Fifteen minutes by train from the city centre and here I am, in the multicultural melting pot of Melbourne. I feel thrilled. I want to sense the buzzing atmosphere of the market, and to replenish the stock of hair products that I use to enhance my natural curls. Some friends advised me to look for the requisite articles in the numerous shops of the East African community. Being new to Australia, I struggle to find products in mainstream stores that are suitable for my textured hair inherited from my Cameroonian father and French mother. The first beauty salon I encounter sets the scene. The flagship products in the window display immediately grab my attention: skin-lightening body lotions, whitening soaps… you name it, they have it. Smiley models display their charms all over the packaging promising to women of colour a lighter skin tone. A few applications, et voilà! Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of them all? Faced with this extravaganza of skin-whitening products I am suddenly brought back to my childhood in Cameroon, and I cannot help but feel my heart sinking.

Growing up mixed-race in Douala was a peculiar experience. Interracial unions were rare in the 1970s. My parents were a bit of a curiosity. I became used to being called chocolat au lait (milk chocolate) by my neighbours. It did not take me long to realise the obvious advantages that my lighter hue provided me over my dark chocolate counterparts in the white, but also in the black community. I was entitled to more attention and more opportunities. Teenagehood widened the gap. I was exotic enough to spark the interest of white boys while sufficiently light to conform to Eurocentric beauty standards. I remember a particularly confronting comment when one boy confessed to me that he would never date a black girl but that I ‘was ok’. I also easily attracted the attention of black men who often compared me to light-skinned African American singers. Black women despised me, but who could blame them? One needs a historical lens to understand the roots of their animosity.

Since the institutionalization of slavery in the 17th century American landscape, black skin has carried the perception of racial inferiority and unsightliness. Slaveholders favoured black slaves with lighter pigmentation and children of interracial unions. Such slaves faced less hardship and had more training opportunities. As a divide and rule tactic, this ranking system was particularly useful in raising tension between blacks and perpetuating white supremacy. In his essay, ‘The Origins of Colorism in Early American Law’, Paul Finkelman highlights the fact that in the mid-18th century, the majority of emancipated slaves were of mixed ancestry. Children born from a slave mother and a white father more easily won the favour of their masters who were often related. They benefited from preferential emancipation from a life of servitude. Mixed-race children of white women were born free as they had the same legal status as their mothers. Consequently, light-skinned African Americans began forming a privileged elite distinct from white rulers, yet willing to dissociate themselves from people with a darker complexion. According to Howard Bodenhorn, one of the strategies involved to ensure the retention of wealth was to marry people of similar skin colour and socio-economic status. Offspring faced familial pressure to intermarry in order to preserve their entitlement in the hierarchy of power. In the 19th century, a mixed-race household could accumulate thirty to ninety percent more wealth than a household with at least one black spouse.

Today, the term ‘colourism’ describes the contemporary classification that grades people according to skin pigmentation within the black community. One’s ranking in the skin colour spectrum determines one’s level of (un)privileges within one’s own ethnic group. While colourism applies to both genders, women are more impacted. In a patriarchal society, women socially defined as attractive have a socio-economic advantage. In her study ‘If you’re Light you’re Alright: Light Skin Color as Social Capital for Women of Color’, Margaret L. Hunter demonstrates that dark-skinned women of colour have faced two burdens: racism and colourism. On one side, they have been the victim of a dominant social order which associates light-skin with racial superiority, beauty and marital desirability. On the other side, they have been stigmatized by their own community who have internalized these skin tone biases. Black men often express preference for dating and marrying girls of colour with a lighter pigmentation. This double alienation directly impacts their romantic, but also social and economic lives. Hunter’s finding confirms that light-skinned women are significantly more likely to marry high-status men, receive a better education and earn higher wages.

By pointing out the continuous privileges of light-skinned people, my goal is not to give a saccharinised account of their experience of racism. Yes, they face their share of discriminatory behaviours. But they are still highly privileged in comparison with their black peers. Light-skinned persons of colour could not genuinely denounce white privileges without first acknowledging their own. An understanding of how socio-historical forces have crafted the complex current reality is quintessential in setting the foundations of the future. It allows people of colour to reflect on their individual responsibilities in sustaining daily colourist practices. Thinking of my childhood, I just wish I could turn the clock back to tell my darker-skinned girlfriends that I found them beautiful, inside and out.  

Image credit: Island Boi Photography
Image is of model Khoudia Diop, self proclaimed 'Melanin Goddess'.