Shades of Black: how readers responded to our series on the colorism taboo

Our weeklong series Shades of Black explored the strain colorism puts on darker-skinned black American women.

The goal of the series was not just to enlighten those who have never had to confront colorism, but also to encourage conversation about a still largely taboo subject. So we asked readers to tell us about their experiences.

Overwhelmingly, we received a wide range of responses from people of color and of various ethnicities. They detailed the doubt and lack of self worth – and in some cases, privilege – that colorism forces them to sort through every day. Some expressed indifference – they are black and know what colorism is, but it isn’t something they feel they have had to reckon with.

Here are some of our readers’ responses, which have been edited for length and clarity:

Anonymous, United Kingdom

Colourism is a well documented issue in the Indian community. Skin tones vary widely in India, as a result of colonialism and historic migration from Persia and other Asian countries.

As a woman you are judged by the colour of your skin from birth. If you are unfortunate enough to be born with darker skin, your first experience of colourism is likely to come from your own mother. I can remember mine expressing her despair at my genetic misfortune, and the likely challenges that lay ahead for me, as early as age eight or nine.

‘People don’t even look at me’: eight black women discuss politics of light and dark skin – video

Habeeb Akande, United Kingdom

As a medium-tone black man living in the UK, I have experienced and perpetuated colourism several times. As a teenager, many black girls I pursued told me that they were only attracted to light-skin black boys. For many black men, an attractive golden complexioned woman is a sign of success and status, as is evident from the skin tone of highly successful black sportsmen and entertainers in the UK and US. Many won’t admit it publicly, but it’s an uncomfortable truth.

Pariha Laila Begum, United Kingdom

My parents are Bangladeshi and I was born in the UK. One of my earliest memories is being told that I’m darker skinned so it will be difficult to get me married. This meant my entire childhood was wracked with low self esteem issues and to this day I struggle with self worth.

Even though I now love my skin colour, I still live in a cultural milieu that favours lighter skinned Bengalis as more beautiful. The Bengali word for fair-skinned is the same word used for “beautiful” (Shundhor) and the Bengali word for dark skinned is the same word used for dirt (Moyla). Colorism from your own people feels worse than racism – at the very least your own family and people should welcome you, no?

Bill Petrie, Spain

I’m not sure colorism is a legacy of slavery. We lived in Nairobi and Mombasa for many years. Nearly all of my African male friends preferred women of paler complexion. There were many Somali and Ethiopian women in Kenya at the time. Their complexion was blue-black. Some of them were breathtakingly beautiful, the most beautiful women I have ever seen. Yet very few of my African male friends were interested in them. It’s a strange world we live in.

Anonymous, United Kingdom

I am black-skinned and my four sisters are just as dark. I know this issue exists, but I’ve never experienced colorism. I’ve had many light-skinned best friends and when out partying, I’ve had as much attention as them, and even received more compliments than they have. I would never bleach my skin. I am very happy with my beautiful black skin.

Janae Miller, Michigan

I never gave my skin tone thought until I got into middle school and suddenly dark skin was ugly. I spent my teen years being teased, picked on and bullied simply because I was darker. I learned to hate my skin and I, for some period, wished I was white. In some ways I’ve grown out of those ways in others I’m still the same insecure girl I was at 15.

Kristel, United Kingdom

I am mixed-race, but know that the world will always predominantly view me as a black woman. That being said, I am very aware that my lighter complexion and relative proximity to whiteness has also influenced the way I navigate the world, and has given me a relative privilege. While I certainly haven’t escaped racism, I feel my mixed heritage may have acted as something of a buffer against the worst of it.

Maximillian Matthews, North Carolina

My experience with colorism is unique in that I never internalized it until after I accepted my queerness as an adult. In high school, the boys I had crushes on were light-skinned. I did not realize I had been indoctrinated with the belief that whiteness (and proximity to it) was the prototype in terms of desirability.

As a naive and inexperienced queer person, I created profiles on the dating and social media apps. My inbox became filled with compliments from men on how attractive I was, but I did not see what they saw. I focused on the guys who were not complimenting me. Why didn’t they find me desirable? I attributed it to my dark brown skin tone.

I started filtering my selfies by lightening my complexion and deleting the ones where I looked too dark. If a light-skinned man messaged me, I felt affirmed. If a dark-skinned man messaged me, I felt indifferent. I understand now that my desires were rooted in anti-blackness.

Ish, United Kingdom

I grew up being despised for my darker colouring. My mother was ashamed of my skin and I also heard derogatory comments from adults and children alike. I felt burdened with being a failure – failing to meet the minimum expectations and it affected my confidence. I used to stand back, stay away and shrink into the shadows.

I hated myself. If someone was angry or upset with me, they would berate me first with my darkness and abuse me. At school, in mosque and at family gatherings, I was demonised. It’s incredibly damaging to be reduced like that – to a negative construct and one that you cannot walk away from.

Amber Shay*, Florida

Living in South Florida, I continually struggled with colorism. I was the first-generation to grow up as an American from Caribbean parents, who always noted the distinction between dark and light skin tones. The sun was a constant factor of going outside, but avoided, to prevent continual tanning. I came of age acknowledging that having light skin was the highest aspiration of beauty, which continually mitigated my personal esteem.

*The reader submitted a pseudonym

Anonymous, United Kingdom

I have experienced colourism from the time I can remember. I am a South African woman of Indian descent. I recall my mother trying to “scrub” the black off me. It wasn’t done maliciously. But the culture was and still does favour light skin. I was told not to go in the sun. And not to wear dark clothes. I was teased at school mercilessly and everyone stood back and laughed, including children who were ever so “lighter” me.

Kimberly Merejo, New Jersey

I’m not sure I agree that “colorism” is exclusively toward dark skin. I’m from a five-member family with ranging skin tones; I’m the lightest.

Growing up, I was called white, the mail man’s daughter, light bright, transparent and a host of other names to make me feel “not black”. In school, I wasn’t black enough for the black kids and the white kids and their parents made it very clear I was not like them. Even now, as an adult, I am teased about my skin tone because our race now knows it’s wrong to show colorism toward darker skin tones but it is still funny to shame lighter skinned people.

Nonyem Ambrose, United Kingdom

Growing up, one of the main roots of my insecurities was how dark I am. My first experiences with colourism came when I lived in Nigeria, with the prejudice coming from my peers in school. The more people would comment on my skin, saying I looked like charcoal or joking about how I couldn’t be seen in certain photos as I blended in with the shadow, the more it became something I started to resent.

This insecurity is something I carried with me when I moved to England, however, due to the politeness of English society, it was always much subtler. I would hear things such as “you’re pretty for a dark/black girl” or when my friends would get back from holiday they would “almost be as dark as me”. This widespread belief that women of darker skinned aren’t beautiful is the reason why comments such as these can be made so often – westernized beauty ideals are so ingrained in our society, that anything that deviates from them is considered lesser than.

Bridget, Canada

I’m a dark-skinned black woman, born in Ghana, West Africa, but raised in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Although I did have the large and very social Ghanaian community in Toronto, the impacts of colourism did not escape me. Even though skin bleaching has always been an issue throughout Africa, with the rise of social media and especially YouTube and Instagram, skin bleaching has exploded. When I was growing up, Ghanaian men didn’t bleach their skin. Now it’s so common to see both men and women with bleached skin.


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