We cannot blame women for lightening their skin, writes Panashe Chigumadzi. Rather, we need to take a long, hard look at why it happens
‘It’s not my fault, so you can’t blame me. I didn’t do it and have no idea how it happened. It didn’t take more than an hour after they pulled her out from between my legs for me to realise something was wrong. Really wrong. She was so black, she scared me. Midnight black, Sudanese black. I’m light-skinned, with good hair, what we call high yellow, and so is Lula Ann’s father.”
So begins God Help the Child, the latest novel by Nobel prize laureate for literature Toni Morrison. It follows Sweetness, an African-American woman who has no idea how she has brought such a dark-skinned baby into the world.
Repelled by Lula Ann’s darkness, she distances herself from her daughter, who grows up scarred by not having her mother’s love.
Sweetness’ story is a familiar, recurring one whispered at salons, cackled by aunts, blazoned across headlines, trending on Twitter timelines.
Recently, we found ourselves heartbroken over pictures of US rapper Lil’ Kim’s transformation from the “dark beauty” who rhymed sex positivity in the 1990s to the literal figure of a white woman, aided by a heady procedural mix that included skin lightening, nose job, eyebrow lifts, lip thinners and cheekbone implants.
A few months before, we read of local TV personality Khanyi Mbau’s professed love of skin lighteners. That was possibly the same month that former kwaito star Mshoza tweeted a picture of herself at a regular dermatologist appointment.
To this post, her friend, singer Kelly Khumalo, responded with a plea: “Wangishiya! [You went without me!].” In turn,
generously replied: “[S]thandwa senhliziyo yam I’ll make an appointment for us next week is it ok?”
Sweetness is right. It is not her fault. Sweetness – like Lula Ann, like Lil’ Kim, like Mbau, like Mshoza, like Khumalo, like me, like all of us – is scarred by not having the world’s love.
Why doesn’t the world love us? Why does the world hate our midnight blacks and tolerate the high yellows?
I wish, like Sweetness, we could say that we did not know how it happened. But we can; it is not a mystery. It is a banal two words: white supremacy.
If we had to be more thoughtful and delve deeply into the contents of this five-centuries-old bag of white supremacy, we would find the intertwining systems of patriarchy and capitalism that have built themselves on the backs of black women and their bodies, and demanded that they conform to standards of white femininity.
Do I wish Sweetness did not have the desire to lighten her skin? Yes. Do I blame Sweetness for the desire to lighten her skin?
No. Do I think it fair to keep making black women such as Sweetness, Lil’ Kim, Mbau, Mshoza and Khumalo the punching bags for white supremacy that has taught the world to hate black beauty? No.
Sweetness’ desire to lighten her skin is not the baseless pathology the world likes to pretend it is. Rather, it is the logical result of a world that also desires that black skin was relieved of its midnight blacks and saved by high yellows.
Morrison explains that “this is really skin privilege – the ranking of colour in terms of its closeness to white people or white-skinned people, and its devaluation according to how dark one is, and the impact that has on people who are dedicated to the privileges of certain levels of skin colour”.
In a world where a favourite pastime is to hate black women for their perceived deficiencies, I will not reinforce those blows nor make black women like Sweetness the punching bag that we so often love to hit when we lament the use of Brazilian weaves, Yaki hair pieces, Lemon Lite and all other hateful products that erase the midnights from our blacks.
Instead, my punching bag of choice is that 500-year-old bag of global white patriarchal supremacy and capitalism that continues to break black women’s backs.
Until we decide to unburden Sweetness of that, I will wish that she came to love her own black, that she made another choice. But I will not blame her; I will not hate her. I will understand that she too wants relief from that burden of white supremacy and patriarchy.
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