Sometimes I wonder what’s worse. Being discriminated against by a race that has subordinated me and my ancestors for hundreds of years or discrimination by my own. It's common to hear people say, “Black people can’t be racist towards each other,” which couldn’t be further from the truth. I’ve been told by other Black people, that my natural hair is unruly, unkempt, and untidy. Since my curls are tight, I’ve been told I don't have “good hair.” I grew up insecure about my own appearance. When I was younger, my personal goal was to have straight hair so that I could be “pretty.” Self-hate is a serious issue within the Black female community and disappointingly common in the Caribbean.
With time, I have come to understand the legacy of slavery even to this day and how it affects me. I took it upon myself to unlearn the negative behaviour inherited through colonialist ideals. I’ve heard the phrase, “You’re pretty for a Black girl,” which in itself is insulting not complimentary as people believe. The statement implies that Black women are always inferior to other women and are judged based on the features and characteristics valued in other races. It is like comparing oranges and apples. Both are fruits, but their flavours, composition, and qualities are different. An orange judged for not being an apple can never be appreciated for its citrus qualities. Our different shades of Black are all beautiful.
Many of us grew up listening to stories about the fight and struggle our Black ancestors faced to achieve equality. From the 1950s till now, there has been a great improvement in the lives and opportunities we’ve accessed as Black people. There is still much to be done and many changes must happen. However, within our ranks inequalities are just as prevalent. We contend not just with the systemic or institutional racism in our daily lives, but a racial bias within our own community.
Colourism, it is the hurdle we have maintained in our own communities ensuring the journey to equality is more challenging for others amongst us. Since slavery, colourism is a tool that has been used to divide and conquer Black people. Within the Caribbean, this remains apparent as society is stratified based on factors such as the shade of one’s Black skin. However, colourism extends beyond a dark, medium, or light complexion. It also extends to ancestry. Lighter skin is associated with European ancestry, which means easier access to opportunities and a greater chance at succeeding in white supremacist society.
Have you ever heard this ‘joke?’
“If we turn off the lights, we won’t be able to find you.”
We have all laughed at such statements without thinking about how society has normalized putting down dark complexioned people . Young Black girls aspire to having light-skinned children with straight or curly, but fine hair. This actually influences their romantic choices. Consider this “baby hair” or “edges” craze that has taken over our beauty regimes. Black girls, even those who have embraced their natural hair still strive for wispy curls at their temples. We have created multi-million dollar industries that our own people don’t even benefit from in the long run while stressing ourselves over things that are not natural. We have forsaken our natural beauty for beauty that honours others.
In the Caribbean, in some schools, state or private, there are rules which prohibit certain natural hairstyles. Hair must be “neatly combed in a ponytail,” “no dreadlocks,” and “no braids.” Colourism has allowed for type 4 hair to be demonised and vilified in society. Discrimination against natural hair is something Caribbean women with type 4 hair often face. Imagine, being judged for your natural hair. The key word here is natural, meaning to avoid being judged one has to seek out unnatural and harmful chemical treatments. When I was much younger, I always heard people saying that 4B/4C hair was too difficult to manage and adults would always encourage relaxers or other chemical hair treatments. Not because they were healthier for the hair, but because it “makes the hair easier to manage,” or “makes you look presentable.”
It is gratifying to see “unkempt” hair in more and more spaces these days We must bear in mind that the people who benefit from our insecurities and colourism are the capitalists who offer solutions to problems they created. Hair companies sell millions of dollars of products for natural hair; marketed for the difficult and unruly textures – type 4, but in reality, they don’t deliver on their promise. How much money have you spent on hair products and 100% human hair wigs?
Media representation of the Black community has a lot to do with these racist ideologies. But we must acknowledge our reinforcement of colourism when we consume these things through multiple mediums. As a Black person, I feel a sense of pride when I’m represented in the media. It does a lot for me. However, when we examine who is represented it keeps us back instead of moving us forward. For years, the faces of the Black female community were people who were mixed, light skinned, with loose curls and edges. And that became our standard of beauty.
Makeup lines before the revolution of brands like Fenty only catered for people with almond coloured skin. The darker your skin, the more difficult it was to find products that accentuated your beauty. Black women paid much more for their limited make up products than other women because of the simple economics of supply and demand. There are so many shades of Black and yet the range would have three options. So you either bought several colours and blended it yourself, or you had to do with a shade that was too dark or too light for you, which took away from the whole point of enhancing your beauty. Added to this atrocity, is the practice of skin bleaching, which has also made people outside of the Black community very rich! In the Caribbean, bleaching is widespread. From celebrities to common folk, skin bleaching is a part of rebranding and embracing our “true selves.”
Unlearning these biases we hold against ourselves isn't easy but it’s crucial. Changing the narrative is as simple as engaging in conversation with your friends about it. We sometimes say things without realising the weight our words carry. As we support each other and move towards equality, we must first embrace ourselves. Racism isn’t only Black vs white but it’s something Black people can contribute to as well. We can’t hate ourselves and then want to be accepted by society.
We must first recognise that all Black skin is beautiful and not need to include adjectives like “light” or “dark” as a way of qualifying that beauty. Our hair - its kinks, coils, and curls is part of our identity and maintaining its natural beauty is the best way to keep it healthy. The sooner we affirm this for ourselves, the easier it is to resist racism from society. You will also save a lot of money and put it to good use to better yourself in real and important ways that don’t honour whiteness. Our message to society needs to be consistent. We need to change the narrative surrounding the aspects that make up Black life and identity. We future Black females are beautiful and powerful.