The lightness of being light skinned*

May 6, 2011 § 23 Comments

*originally appeared in the Cape Times in 2010

This is an age-old discussion that has gone on in the black community for some time now. Light-skinned people are automatically considered beautiful simply because they are lighter skinned speaks volumes about the insecurities that we have as a community. When I still lived in Cape Town I was surprised to find that these insecurities were deeply and even more profoundly present in the coloured (mixed race) community. In many respects, its manifestations were worse. If one was lighter, or, if one wishes, looked white, then they were held in higher esteem even within the same family. And this is well after the ending of apartheid too.

I found myself getting angry just hearing that as a coloured friend told me about these nuances within the community. He had been the darker child; his sister was lighter. She got better treatment at home when they were growing up. Often, comments would be made about his darkness, and they were never said in the positive light. He even told me about how most people in the coloured community would always reference their European ancestry, and never, ever touch on their African one. It as if they miraculously became coloured.

“Everybody we rolling. We rolling with some light skinned girls and some Kelly Rowlands.” That’s a line from Kanye West’s Power, in his latest album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Those who do not know who Kelly Rowlands is, she was the darker one in Destiny’s Child, Beyonce was the light skinned one. It has to be said that the line is kinda funny because well, there’s this perception in some sections of the black community that a light skinned black person is somehow more attractive than a darker skinned one. Sadly.

Maybe we should start saying, “beauty is in the skin of the lighter skinned.” Funny enough, while black people are trying to be lighter, white people are tanning to get a couple of shades darker. Of course, this must not be confused with white people wanting to be black. That would be the day. Unless of course they were hoping for a tender.

What does this say? Is this a legacy of the past? I guess when William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never buried. It’s not even past,” he knew what he meant. The past it seems is still light skinned, even amongst black folk. I got nothing against light-skinned folk. I mean, depending on the weather, I too become a couple of shades lighter.

Our communities still have a distorted view of what is beautiful. The views are still shackled to the past. One would think that with freedom, and better-educated youth, these views would have shifted to a more educated and wiser expression of beauty. But alas, even with the new generation, we still feed each other with insecure ignorance.

There is this horrible phrase I keep hearing, “Yellow Bone.” It is reference to a light-skinned black person. And 90% of the time, the expression is used to automatically exclaim that the “Yellow boned” black person is somewhat extremely attractive by the virtue of their yellow-boness.

I think we have gone past the era of blaming the past for the way we view ourselves. It is time we learned how to accept different kinds of beauty in our different communities. Beauty is not yet free it seems. Black is beautiful. And so is white. I would know, I’ve dated across the colour lines. And across shades of blackness.

There is a problem with viewing light skin as being the pinnacle of black beauty. Holding those kinds of views says a lot about the black and coloured people who think light skin is superior. It’s an inferiority complex they are unaware they have.

The one thing that must be learnt is that none is superior to another. Light and dark are equally beautiful. Some day perhaps, we will see the end of the terms, “Yellow Bone.” And accept beauty for beauty and nothing else. Black is beautiful, no matter what shade of black.

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§ 23 Responses to The lightness of being light skinned*

  • ayanda says:

    I can only speak for black people as I am also black and I must say that all the things you said are sad but too true the saddest past is the fact that I don’t think it will change anytime soon,lightskinned people my self included grow up being told how beatiful purely by virtue of their lightskin and in return look down on darker skinned people and even celebrities who are lightskinned are more “celebrated” than others even if they are not necessarilly the best at what they do.

  • Wendalux says:

    Too true and so sad that we haven’t moved on from this. I have friends that have gone through this – brother’s being treated differently by their mother because of eye and skin colour. Too terrible.

  • dark-skinned says:

    So true it hurts.. this made me cry…

  • Tsholo says:

    funny thing: i was watching E! (yes, yes, I know) and Eva Longoria (sp?) was saying how when she was a kid she was called “the ugly one” in her family because her skin was darker than her siblings’. so it would seem this is not just a south african problem…might be global.

    my mom (who is very light skinned) once told me how when she was dating my dad (who is as dark skinned as you can get) she was ashamed of being seen with him in public. she avoided going with anywhere where they might be seen by her friends. she eventually came around obviously (thank God, else i wouldn’t be here).

  • anon says:

    funnily enough, white people in inter-racial marriages have scant regard for deepness of tone. In my experience, in Muslim circles, the whities often marry the ‘gebranne koeksisters” (burnt koeksisters – i.e. very dark), who would normally not get a second look in their ‘own’ communities. So, in a weird way, the only people who don’t care about how fair one is, are the ones who are the fairest….

  • Mixus AfroŠtatic says:

    Light skin does look a bit better than dark in some cases and it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with beauty, of which you right… Its what people are accustomed to, it is what people have grown to notice as beauty….
    In honest fact, most light skinned people do keep themselves well looked after than darker people… Of course it is not always the case and maybe the reason we value them as well is because we hardly see such… So it may be that, that we become fascinated…

    Colour of skin is of own importance or value… Your perception should be what makes you, I wouldn’t feel sad about this topic nor think that it’s as important as such…

    If you can fight simple wording like yellow bone, you might envy them and not understand why… Best be. You… Fuck colour… White is beautiful, so is black and yellow and red, if you feel left out…lol. Were red Indians red? Lol just curious..

    Either way, great reflection of your opinion in this post. Well written.

    • What? says:

      That is not an honest fact. Stop perpetuating self hating stereotypes. And IF light people are more well groomed, it is probably because the are taught to have more respect for themselves than darker people, who are taught to hate themselves.

  • db.18 says:

    A painful read. The truth tends to do that sometimes.
    As long as there are differences among people (colour; race; religion; size; anything), there will always be bigotry or sorts. All the schooling in the world won’t change that. It’s a bitch, but it is what it is.

  • DNJ says:

    I use to be Kelly Rowland skin tone but I have managed to lighten my skin tone succesfully to that of Mariah Carey and I can tell you there is a definite difference in how society treats me. I actually have more dates. LOL!

  • lolitalolita says:

    I have naturally light skin. My maternal grandmother was biracial and my maternal grandfather was arawak native american. My fraternal grandfather was black cuban and my fraternal grandmother was asian indian. My skintone had never been one exact tone. When I was born, I was mistaken for white. This went on until I was about 6 years old. Ever since then, I have have been changing between basically two skin tones. I get dark during the school year (due to sun exposure) and lighter in the summer ( I basically stay home all summer :P) My mother only compliments me on my skintone during the summer months. Yesterday (for the first time in the entire year) my mother said that my skin looks gorgeous. It happens to be July. Sometimes I wish that I had one of those rich ebony skintones so that I could truly say that I am one of them.

  • dark beauty says:

    Indeed I must echo the comments that it’s sad but most certainly true. I am eternally grateful to my mother for instilling in my at an early age that black is beautiful. Other kids use to say that I wasn’t beautiful because I was (and still am) dark, when I complained to my mother about it she told the story of a beautiful black horse that was so precious and loved like me, she continually made me feel beautiful & when kids said I wasn’t it was like water off a ducks. In primary I had a friend who wanted to compare shades of darkness with me who when she realised she was darker was unhappy but I didn’t give a hoot. It saddens that my niece is growing up feeling inferior to her lighter skinned cousin because she is constantly teased by her mom’s family even when she comes over & we reassure her its not enough because she is exposed to the negativity more than the positive!

  • Nthabiseng Mahlangu says:

    Unfortunately this is what many young especially girls that have to deal with. So besides this being a widespread phenomenon, it is the parents responsibility to teach their children self confidence, whether light/darker skinned because confident children will not be phased by terms such as “yellow bone” and “dark dindy” and the rest of them. SELF CONFIDENCE is what needs to be instilled in every black child from home.

  • SLM says:

    I’m an extremely light skinned and I only learned of the word ‘yellowbone’ when I moved to cape town and became friends with people from jhb, who constantly used it all the time. I find the word very objectifying, especially when you are no longer referred to as ‘that girl’ but simply as ‘that yellowbone’. People give you a second look just to analyse if you really are good looking or just a yellowbone, and the one comment that really makes me angry is “she’s only pretty cause she’s a yellowbone” or “if she were dark she wouldn’t be pretty”. Another ridiculous thing people say is “She’s really pretty for a redbone “aka dark skinned girl.” Are we basically just saying its a big surprise if a dark skinned person is beautiful, and that it’s a given that light skinned people will be?

    I also once defended myself for hours when a group of friends said that as a yellowbone I instantly get treated better, I don’t have trouble getting service at restaurants, or being let into clubs because of my skin tone, and I was asked if I would ever want to be darker. I’m happy with the way I am, and I’m not only happy with it just because I happen to be “yellow”. Being light should not be a part of who you are but rather just a characteristic of your physical body.

  • niggas think light skin chicks are beautiful coz when they look at them they see the white women they cant get. niggas are a bunch of uncle toms these days

  • Nika says:

    My skin tone is caramel, so its in between…but i understand this whole saga in our people, the really light skinned people are being made to feel like they are only beautiful cos of their complexion whilst dark people are seen as not so pretty…its really sad, because it does happen even in India and others parts of the country.

  • Amanda says:

    Its sad realy, when i go to church with my two nieces (toddlers) (one darker and other extremely light) i would notice that people were exchanging the lighter baby and never the dark one, they would say she’s adorable and not even once glance at the darker one. I think its the society that is to blame for this.

  • sihle says:

    This is rather interesting timing for me to see this, my friends have been on my case about my skin tone lately to the point where I feel I should apologize for being light!!!

  • Nomonde Mdebuka says:

    Whatever happened to the term black is beautiful white is common?
    We need to revisit those times, thank you Chris Brown and Neyo for appreciating us dark skinned sistas

  • Busisiwe says:

    This is so true!!!! and hopefuly one day we will all learn that beauty is more than about your skin colour….

  • Azola says:

    All this is true but we can’t change the way people see things, since everyone is entitled to opinion. I am light skinned but everytime i see a dark skinned person, i also wish i was dark because of how goodlooking dark people are.

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