‘What are you?’
It’s a question I’m often asked. What am I? I am Coby, I am a woman, I am a Londoner, I am human. This was never enough.
‘No… I mean where are you from?’
‘No, your parents…’
‘They’re from London too..?’
Oh. My race. Even then (insert race/nationality/ethnicity etc.) never sufficed. My black mum with her light skin, copper hair and steely grey eyes has felt it too. My dad whose auburn red hair, pale freckled skin and ‘white’ features belie his Chinese-Jamaican heritage is the same. Of course I quickly learned not to be so naive as to not assume that the question of what I am ultimately means my race. I have learned to take it on the chin, be jovial, make people guess where my heritage lies, make people bask in their ignorance. It is such an absurd question, ‘What am I?’ My mum and I joke that we must be aliens we get asked it so often, she the ‘mothership’ and I the proud ‘earthling’ bastion of diversity.
Often I am asked what side I identify with more – the notions of whiteness and blackness are such fierce opposing dichotomies that one is apparently incapable of embodying both of these dualities. I’ve never felt particularly one way or the other, I just feel both…
Growing up I never really noticed my race, so privileged growing up in the multicultural epicentre that is London, and I never felt that my appearance didn’t adequately align with those that were prevalent in the media. As I grew older and became a tween fiend for high fashion magazines I started to feel the crippling shame that the models so blessed with appearing on those pages possessed the snow white skin and northern European features that I didn’t. Like the evening shadows cast by the deadening of a summer’s day this feeling slowly engulfed me until I looked in the mirror and did not associate the image that reflected with the image I wanted to be. That faint brown tint to my skin and the ‘black-lite’ features that went with it (the soft, ever-so-slightly wide button nose, full lips, cushiony cheeks…) belied the white media-borne conception that I craved and told a different story all together. Fortunately, this story does not end on a pitiful note and today at the grand old age of 23 I can say that I’m comfortable in my skin, that I champion it and the history that it bore and that I have shed the lily-white dreams for a technicolour future. Yet the ‘dubiousness’ of my race, my background, my heritage still has me second-guessing. In recent years through tireless self-forgiveness and re-education I have become fervently opinionated on black issues and causes, but sometimes I still wonder: do I qualify to speak on these issues? Do I really possess the empirical knowledge to become part of the discourse? Am I black enough? It becomes an especially difficult water to wade through when the notion of blackness is contested within the black community itself.
This thread on Twitter reaffirms that desirable and successful black women are light-skinned. Many of my darker skinned friends have often disputed whether men of their own race will find them attractive for their features are just ‘too black’. As much as I can reassure these friends that that is not the case, it is hard to see the forest for the trees when this idea is perpetuated and reaffirmed through the media. It’s not just light skin either, it’s facial features, hair texture, body type, attitude… The structures of oppression, and repression, can seem indestructible at times. Lil’ Kim, the paragon of black womanhood, has not been quiet on making this totalising fabric known:
‘Guys always cheated on me with women who were European-looking. You know, the long-hair type. Really beautiful women that left me thinking, “How can I compete with that?” Being a regular Black girl was not good enough.’
Not ‘being good enough’ is what it boils down to. The very notion of blackness being contested, colourism still masquerading as ‘personal preference’. Sadly, Kim now looks like a shadow of her former self, in her endeavour to remove these traces of the ‘regular black girl’ she has eradicated a part of her identity in an attempt to console the overriding master narratives dictating acceptable blackness. Black women are so often fetishised, oftentimes by black men, that black women who own their own sexuality, such as Lil’ Kim and Nicki Minaj, are refreshing. Growing up I watched how the original Aunt Viv in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air who was so defiantly independent, strong and dark was replaced by a softer, gentler, lighter version. One of my favourite films is Imitation of Life, not just because it is beautifully acted and tugs at the heartstrings, but because it presents a problem that is a little too familiar in my own life: the light-skinned, white-passing daughter of a dark-skinned black woman abandons her blackness in search of a ‘better’ life.
So my own mother may not be particularly dark-skinned, but my own dubious features have uncomfortably thrown me into the realm of racial contention. Italian, Spanish, French..? All just a small myriad of white European ethnicities that have been proposed to me. For all the issues with dark-skinned womanhood, what is it actually like to be light-skinned? Of course not taking away from the complex and nuanced realities of life as a dark-skinned woman, but my mother and grandmother, both lighter on the spectrum, have experienced marginalisation and critique for being too much like the other and not enough of the same. As a teenager my mum was told that she wouldn’t have been hired for her Saturday job if her manager had known that she was in fact fully black and not mixed-race. Both her and I know of the intricate fixation of presenting as a ‘lighty’ and just a fraction of the blackness from which we derive. I have been told, from white friends no other (!), that my personality is more white than black, and my mum has been looked down upon by darker skinned women for the shade of her skin.
Historically lighter-skinned slaves were considered of higher value and relegated to household duties over those darker; pale, mixed-raced slaves were used as a pawns to evoke sympathy for emancipation. Colourism is so entrenched in history and culture that is it hard to escape.
Sometimes, and sadly, the lightness of skin can be used to triumph and advantage. Anita Hemmings became the first black graduate of Vassar College in 1897, 40 years before the institution accepted blacks and unbeknownst to her professors and peers. Hemmings took this trait and ran with it in defiance, ‘passing’ was critical in Anita’s claim for a better and equal future. Her story, though tragic, is not unfamiliar – she left Vassar after being ‘found out’ and settled with a passing doctor where they lived out their lives as whites, because being white still often equates to a more stable economic, financial and professional life.
‘”She has a clear olive complexion, heavy black hair and eyebrows and coal black eyes,” a Boston newspaper wrote of a 25-year-old Hemmings in August 1897. “The strength of her strain of white blood has so asserted itself that she could pass anywhere simply as a pronounced brunette of white race.”‘
Black is not just a skin colour, it is a history, culture, pride and defiance in a world that wants you to be anything but. Identification with my black heritage goes beyond my features, hair or colour of my skin and is a holistic, unique experience of how I navigate the world. Colourism still exists of course, but inch by inch we’re getting better – Moonlight, a film about a poor, black, gay boy won Best Picture at the Oscars, and Viola Davis took home the Best Supporting Actress Award. When asked what she liked about being a black woman she simply replied, ‘Everything.’ Because despite it all being black is a gift, not a burden.
BuzzFeed Community. (2012). Community Post: Historic Photographs Of “White” Slaves. [online] Available at: https://www.buzzfeed.com/babymantis/historic-photographs-of-white-slaves-1opu [Accessed 4 Mar. 2017].
Hunter, M. (2007). The Persistent Problem of Colorism: Skin Tone, Status, and Inequality. Sociology Compass, 1(1), pp.237-254.
IMDb. (n.d.). Imitation of Life (1959). [online] Available at: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0052918/?ref_=fn_nm_nm_8a [Accessed 4 Mar. 2017].
Johnson, M. (2016). Lil’ Kim & Other Revolutions: A Meditation On Swizz Beats’ #FamilyZone Photo. [online] Okayplayer. Available at: http://www.okayplayer.com/news/lil-kim-colorism-swizz-beatz-family-zone-photo.html [Accessed 4 Mar. 2017].
Mancini, O. (2001). Passing as White. [online] Vq.vassar.edu. Available at: http://vq.vassar.edu/issues/2002/01/features/passing-as-white.html [Accessed 4 Mar. 2017].
Twitter. (2016). Myles E. Johnson on Twitter. [online] Available at: https://twitter.com/hausmuva/status/770395288888573953 [Accessed 4 Mar. 2017].