Defined as a legacy of slavery; ‘shadeism’ is a form of skin tone bias, one that identifies groups and individuals on the basis of their degree of pigmentation. This distinction between shades of brown is thought to be much more pronounced within communities rather than between those of different ethnicities. To this end, shadeism is not particularly thought to be a form of racism, but rather a form of disunity; one that through mainstream ideals of beauty promotes self-hatred and low self-esteem.
“Going back to slavery and all that, if you were lighter, you were in the masters house, whereas if you were dark you’d be out in the field to do more work,” said Juliyaa, on how she believes these distinctions between shades began. “You’ve got a whole culture, three, four, five generations where shade is pivotal.”
Being judged on things such as the shade of your skin seems to have trickled down through the ages, resulting in ideals that are seemingly ingrained in individuals of all shades, cultures and nationalities.
These ideals are arguably forever perpetuated by the media, one that tends to – on the whole – embrace races which are predominantly white, or lighter. “It’s always the Beyoncé’s, the Halle Berry’s, the lighter versions of the black community that are portrayed in popular culture,” was the resounding argument made by every single one of the various shades of brown that were spoken to.
This is arguably further perpetuated by the beauty industry who have recognized people’s insecurities surrounding the colour of their skin and have been steadily releasing a multitude of products aimed at helping people to change this aspect of themselves.
Bleaching creams are, as a result, a phenomena that is by no means limited to the black community, but rather rears its head in a variety of countries across the globe.
“It seems to be an ingrained way of European beauty,” suggests Juliyaa, a half Ghanian, half Welsh woman who defines herself as light skinned. “I think maybe in ancient cultures a different form of beauty was idolized,” she added. “But now it’s very much European-looking people at the top – that’s probably why popular culture has shifted to European-looking black people or people of colour.”
Haris Adu, a man who defines himself as dark skinned suggests that this may be due to the fact that magazines “like that” are predominantly for the mainstream. “Mainstream being the white audience,” he went on to clarify.
“Not to say that black or Asians don’t pick up an ‘OK Magazine’ but the majority of people who read any of those magazines will probably be 18 to maybe late 20’s or beyond, and they’ll probably be women of a white, British nature. So obviously if that’s your target market then you have to appeal to them… and portray things in a way which they feel is not going to alienate any of their readers.”
“Maybe it’s a reflection of a more deep seeded, cultural, accepted racism that a lot of people aren’t aware of,” he concluded.
This is arguably inherent in the media, with Isha Victoria- a girl who defines herself as dark skinned – further advocating that the majority of girls who appear in music videos, films and magazines in general are often lighter skinned. She went on to add that although there does tend to be a dark skinned friend, in much of these instances she appears to be portrayed as more quiet and studious.
Juliyaa suggests that this may be due to the fact that even the word ‘black’ as a concept “inherently leaves us at a deficit.” She argued that ‘black’ is associated with darkness, with blindness, with evilness, while ‘white’ is associated with light, angels and happy things. “A lot needs to be expanded upon to really get us to a place where we can see black as a positive thing.”
This is something that author Marita Golden also picked up on in her book “Don’t Play In The Sun – One Woman’s Journey Through The Colour Complex,” in which she suggested that at its root, the colour complex is about words. She went on to cite the “Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary,” in which, among other things ‘black’ was defined as “soiled or stained with dirt, evil, wicked, marked by disaster or misfortune” whereas ‘white,’ among other things, was defined as “auspicious or fortunate, morally pure, innocent, without malice.”
This idea that the lighter the better is suggested to be ingrained from a young age, with Isha suggesting that low self-esteem based on the shade of ones skin often comes from childhood or playground bullying.
“I think from a young age if you hear ‘oh you’re so dark,’ or ‘oh let’s turn off the lights so we can’t find you,’ I think if you hear that for a long time from when you’re young you’ll start to believe it.”
This, for women, is arguably perpetuated by the images portrayed in the media, as well as the difficulty in finding make up to suit your shade – in particular items such as foundation or lip-gloss. “All that kind of stuff impacts on why people resort to skin bleaching,” she suggested. A solution that is often very easy to come across as a lot of beauty suppliers sell such products under the counter. “If you ask for it, they’ll give it to you,” she revealed.
Isha went on to add: “if you only see certain girls being held as pretty then you’re thinking ‘oh okay, I can’t possibly be then.’ And then if you combine it with simple things like make up I think it makes it a lot more difficult.”
This is made all the more so by the ideals of beauty that are portrayed in the media, ideals that are often very hard, if not impossible to reach. “I had a friend who felt she was fat,” revealed Thaniya of her size ten friend. “She thought she was fat because she didn’t have that gap that white girls have in between their legs.”
In addition to the ideas that people may have of themselves based on the shade of their skin tone, the stereotypes that surround each different shade also speak volumes.
“I haven’t heard any derogatory things about light skinned people like you would about blonde people,” said Thaniya, before going on to add that despite this, they’re often thought to be easier to get into bed than darker skinned girls; a stereotype that Isha is also familiar with:
“I’ve heard light skin girls are easy,” she said, “whereas dark skinned girls have attitude, they’re hard to get with.” She went on to give an example of the multitude of times she’s been told, “you’re pretty for a dark skinned girl,” adding that both guys and girls have been found to say and think things of that nature.
Thaniya, another girl who defines herself as dark skinned, as had similar experiences. “I’ve never been discriminated for being dark skinned,” she reveals, “but yes, the lighter girls do get a) more attention from boys, and b) more opportunities. I don’t know why,” she added. “That’s just been my experience.”
These stereotypes are often supported with real life instances, with black men such as Haris conveying that often they don’t find the darker skinned girls attractive. “To say that maybe myself and people I know would find more light skinned people attractive, that would probably be true, he said. Although he was unable to provide any concrete reason as to why that may be the case.
Isha sees this in a different light, however, arguing that often, when black girls say that black men don’t find them attractive, they tend to be talking about the musicians, footballers and basketball players who arguably tend to marry women of lighter shades.
“I don’t think that’s got anything to do with them going out and being like ‘I’ve just signed a five million dollar contract, I’m going to go scout for white girls,’” she said, but it rather being a case of where these types of men socialize. “They’re more likely to come across European women… strictly because if you’re in America or in the UK you’re a minority as a black woman.”
These distinctions between shades of brown are thought to be much more pronounced within communities rather than between those of different ethnicities, with many of the girls revealing that they were often complimented on their complexion by Europeans, rather than ever by African or Caribbean people.
“When I went to University quite a few people were like ‘oh my God your skin looks so good,’” revealed Isha, “and I was like ‘really? Nobody’s ever told me that before.” This is something that Juliyaa also experienced, revealing that her main difficulty has often been feeling accepted within the black community.
Representation in the media is argued to be an important facet in terms of shadeism and, within that, an individuals self esteem, with many, such as Juliyaa suggesting that it must be hard for people to see that they are not represented in mainstream culture.
This is an aspect that Isha also picked up on, suggesting that artists like Beyoncé are often role models to young girls, and that the fact that they are often thought to be lightened in magazines and advertisements is sure to have consequences on the youth who look up to them. “I think if people are going to cut their hair, or get extensions, or dye their hair red because Rihanna or Beyoncé did it, if they see them as lighter skinned they’ll also wish to follow suit.”
“It’s all to do with the media,” argued Thaniya. “What people want to see, or what they think people want to see. And also what they want to sell. Do they want to sell this big dark skinned person? I don’t think they really do.”
Juliyaa went on to suggest that this lack of representation of different shades is less pronounced in an American context. “I don’t think mainstream UK media know that it’s an issue within African and Caribbean communities,” suggests Isha. “I think it’s just like ‘oh you guys are all black anyway so it doesn’t really matter.”
The presence of black people of varying shades in the US media is argued to be much more prominent, with Juliyaa, Isha, Thaniya and Haris all suggesting that the US tends to give a much more balanced view.
“I think there’s probably more black middle class and darker women who are quite pro-blackness and stuff in America,” Juliyaa suggested, “but I don’t think that’s really happened here yet. I don’t think Britain has had its revolution yet.”
She went on to suggest that this may be due to the fact that colour is so enmeshed in American history, generations of fighting for equality and progression that hasn’t particularly occurred in the UK – “that’s probably why we don’t have a sense of blackness, a sense of heritage like they do,” she concluded.
But shadeism isn’t only an issue within the black community, but one that is prevalent in various cultures. The colour complex is arguably a massive concern within other cultures, such as the Asian community. Sahar, a half Iranian, half Kenyan girl explains how her Iranian mother remarried into a Pakistani family for whom shade was a massive issue.
“They believe fairness represents wealth and beauty, whilst dark skin tones do the complete opposite,” she revealed, going on to add that when her male step-cousins got married “all they looked for was skin tone… they would go for the fairest girl with the most ugly features, yet still deem her beautiful because of the shade of her skin.”
This just goes to show that the media aren’t the only ones responsible for people’s perceptions of themselves. This argument is supported by Juliyaa, who suggests that the shade of ones skin isn’t really an issue for those who have been “affirmed” by their families or by their cultures. She went on to add, “If your dad says that you’re the most beautiful girl in the world you will believe him, hands down… And then as the person grows up they become conscious of what the outside world is trying to project, but their inner being is comfortable with who they are.”
This, of course, can have the opposite reaction if families are the ones perpetuating the belief that the lighter, the better, as in the case of Sahar,
“The women of my stepdad’s family are unbelievably pale,” she revealed. “In comparison to that I am of course, seen as dark, and they’ve let that be known since I was a young age. My stepdad’s mother used to refer to me as “kaali” which means ‘black’ or ‘dirty’.”
Sahar went on to reveal that she was gifted ‘fair and lovely’ cream – a bleaching cream – for her 15th birthday. “[My stepfather’s sister] would scrub me with papaya and lemon juice then make me sit with the cream on for an hour every single day for about a month,” she revealed, of the measures the family would go to in their belief that the lighter, the better.
Arguably these ideals of beauty are thought to be changing, aided partly by the fact that we are living in an increasingly globalized world; one in which we are six times more likely to be of mixed heritage than our parents are. The United Kingdom in particular is said to have one of the fastest growing mixed-race populations in the world.
This is further facilitated by the advent of technology. “I think once Africa goes super speed broadband, fiber optic cables, we’ll all be changing all over the world,” suggests Juliyaa. Increased communication and with it an increased understanding for different cultures and beliefs sure to arise as a result.
Finding make-up to suit all shades of skin – a facet that was raised as an issue for those suffering from low self-esteem based on the shade of their skin – has also arguably become much easier over recent years, with Isha citing Mac and Bobby Brown as the top two brands who supply make-up for varying shades.
One question that requires some attention is; what could be done to speed up this process and give more people the belief that the shade of your skin does not comprise who you are as a person.
“Education in terms of enlightening people – that this is what they do to make you look lighter and stuff like that,” suggests Haris. “It’s not necessarily what beauty is, it’s just part of it – but if you’re not this, then don’t think you’re not beautiful or not attractive.”
At the end of the day “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” – but are these the far-reaching consequences when the beholder’s eye is tainted with a bombarding of images carefully tailored to suit a specific ideology and dynamic?
“I am a black girl in a culture that convinces even the white girls I once fantasized about being that they are never quite enough. White, yes, but never ever thin or pretty enough,” wrote Marita Golden in “Don’t Play In The Sun.” And, arguably, this is the whole crux of the problem.