‘And when he get on, he leave you ass for a white girl.’
When black men become successful, for whatever reason, they often seem to find themselves coupled with white women or women with a much lighter complexion than their own. This trend has been talked about in black circles since we got off the fields and into the boardroom. And it’s ironic Kanye West mentioned this back in 2008; his partners since then have gone from lighter to ever lighter to white passing matching the pace at which his royalty checks have grown. And yet, Kanye brought up a very important and rarely discussed part of the black and African diaspora that, ahem, colours the collective self-esteem of our people the world over – colourism.
In Kenya, where I spent most of my childhood, we identified children from differing tribes based on their skin tone. The very very dark kids were most likely lake people (Luo, Luhya), the lighter-skinned kids were most likely mountain people (Kikuyu, Kamba, Meru), the tall almost red-skinned kids were most likely Maasai and Pokot, and everyone else sort of fell into a melting pot in between that could have sprung from anywhere. It was not a big deal, in our eyes, it was simply the way we could tell where someone had their roots; the same way our ancestors had been doing for centuries before us.
In the United States, they have very specific terms for the various shades of black… Redbone, High Yeller, Tar Baby, Creole, Po’ Black, Blue Black, White Passin’.
And yet some of my earliest memories of girls I went to school with was hearing the mothers tell them not to spend too much time in the sun in case they got darker. Almost as if being darker-skinned was bad thing. I looked at my paternal aunts; tall dark-skinned women from the Luhya tribe, there seemed to be something almost otherworldly in their very African beauty and was confused. What could possible be so wrong with being darker skinned, after all, didn’t God make them that way?
The answers slowly tricked into my consciousness as I grew older, through school and through talking with my mother and grandparents. Apparently, the darkness of your skin had denoted what kind of work you had done during the colonial era. The darker you were, the more sun you had been exposed to, which meant you were most likely a land labourer – not very smart and not good for much other than doing outside work. The lighter your skin was, the more suited you were to doing house work and trusted chores like the shopping by the colonists, therefore the more valuable you were.
The vivid parallels with plantation life were quite surprising. There seemed to be a running theme in the way white people had looked at the black populace of the world for quite some time. Then again, these were the same people who considered olive-skinned women base and unnaturally wanton and blondes as the paragon of purity and piety so one couldn’t be too surprised. But nevertheless this construct of colourism managed to permeate the black consciousness to disastrous effects.
The language itself is a leftover from the Jim Crow era, but the stereotypes are straight off the cotton fields.
In the United States, they have very specific terms for the various shades of black, with adjoining stereotypes and the internet memes to go with them – Redbone, High Yeller, Tar Baby, Creole, Po’ Black, Blue Black, White Passin’, and on and on. The language itself is a leftover from the Jim Crow era, but the sterotypes are straight off the cotton fields.
Red Bones have the most beautiful children and ‘good hair’. High Yellers are snobby, entitled and chasing white approval. Tar Babies have kinky hair, are lazy and none too smart. Creole think they’re better than everybody else because they’re of mixed blood. Po’ Black are neither here nor there, they just are. Blue Black, or Mandingo, are the physically hard working type, often sexually fetishised. And last but not least, White Passin’, those who if not for a personal knowledge of, you would think were white people.
In Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Mali and Chad, and Tanzania, women invest hours upon hours bleaching themselves with all kinds of chemicals that have noxious side effects ranging from blindness to melanomas. Yes, we’re giving ourselves skin cancer in the pursuit of having lighter skin tones. And what’s the point? In many African cultures, it’s so our daughters can score a rich husband, as backward as that may seem to many others. Because, as ‘everyone knows’, a lighter wife is a better wife. You can take her to country clubs, on holidays, to dinner with your boss and be proud. She’s classier, probably well bred, and will be easily accepted as you social climb your way to the top of the food chain. That last part was sarcasm. Or was it?
And there is also always an element of schadenfreude whenever a black male celebrity marries a white woman.
There is also always an element of schadenfreude whenever a black male celebrity marries a white woman – Hank Baskett, Tiger Woods, and let’s not forget, OJ. We’re waiting for them to fail so that maybe, in the words of a friend of mine ‘they can get right and be with a sister’. I’m personally waiting to see how Kanye makes out with the Kardashian Klan because as far out as he’s gone on his branch (‘They see a black man with a white woman at the top floor they gone come to kill King Kong’ – Black Skinhead), it would be a pity if he were to fall.