I’ll open with this quote, an African proverb:
“A child that is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth”
Racism, for me once upon a time, was slights against skin colour, physical, or other verbal abuse. As I’ve grown older, and I’d like to say matured, the understanding of racism itself has also matured in much the same way that language and people, hopefully, do over time. We now apply terms such as micro-aggression, diversity and inclusion, colourism, cultural appropriation and others. We also prefix words with ‘anti’ to illustrate a deeper stance against whatever it may be that follows it. I’ve come to understand that racism also envelopes slights against place of origin or native language spoken, now more formally understood as xenophobia.
One of the above terms stands out for me as I remember it often occurring in junior through to high school. I was a dark-skinned, black British boy who, when on the receiving end of ‘banter’ from my peers – the same one’s I’d hangout with and I was often first pick when playing sports – my skin tone was always the easy go-to if ever there was any type of conflict or ‘playful’ comment that just had to be made. Being honest, it did hurt me to know that I was looked down on in some way due to my darker shade. “I can’t help having this beautiful dark skin”, was something I didn’t think of at the time. I disliked it. It made me stand out and feel out of place. Surprisingly, perhaps not to some, the repetitive insults on my darker skin tone came from none other than other black children.
Fast forward to 2012 and beyond, and, oh, how the tables turn… Far removed from short of two decades prior as people around the world celebrate those with a variety of skin tones closer to mine in the likes of Lupita Nyong’o, Idris Elba, and the beautiful Khoudia Diop. This, against a backdrop of traumatic exposure of police brutality against black people in America, we seemed to bond around this. We continued to press on loving and discovering ourselves through black love and black excellence.
The emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement during former US President Obama’s tenure, himself of mixed heritage and touted as the ‘first black president’, appeared to coincide but tell a different story to his achievement in the eyes of many; spoken of as being representative of change in race relations across the world despite the seemingly permissive oppression of black and brown people whether through drone campaigns or signing of the ‘Blue Alert Bill’, the same year Trayvon Martin was killed. We have our own issues in the UK in the aftermath of Brexit and the Windrush Scandal, yet the complexity of having arguably the most ‘racially diverse cabinet’ in Britain’s political history. All this to say, we can be our own worst enemy, and greatest ally.
It seems that there is a stark, contrasting cocktail: an undercurrent of emboldened racial prejudice and hatred; a redefining and reappropriation of lexicon; as well as an embracing of culture, colour and heritage. All of these simultaneously have some bizarre element of exclusion and inclusion contained within.
The focus on racial appreciation could be said to be as short-lived as the hope that Obama would bring a brighter day, and weirdly in addition to this, amongst some black people he was positioned as ‘not being dark enough to be black, but also not light-skinned enough to pass as white’, which could be cause, under the oppression narrative, to hold him back. On one hand we celebrate the huge achievement, yet like the diverse front benchers of the UK, purport that it’s still not good enough. Could he not just be accepted as he is? I would have loved that as a child, to not feel ‘othered’ by my own people. A familiar concept many of my mixed-raced, and lighter skinned black friends and acquaintances have spoken of from experience. Even within groups of white people there is still a form of colourism. What is this colourism we seem to be afflicted with, vehemently adopt with impunity and autonomy, and where did it come from?
On the flip side, not only do black people celebrate the variety and beauty of darker skin, but white, and other races of people too! Hell, in 2018 a predominant cast of black actors and actresses in Black Panther accrued huge acclaim, winning numerous nominations and awards, breaking many records – ‘ninth highest grossing film of all time’ being one. Incredibly significant, and I will never forget the fanfare that came along with it as the now deceased Chadwick Boseman played the lead character. Black people were loud and proud as the movie went on to become the highest grossing film by a black director to the sum of $1.3bn. Nothing to sniff at in terms of the appeal, and let’s not forget that it’s not just black people alone that enjoyed the movie.
Surely this is indicative of some racial unity? A good thing?
Seemingly too much of a good thing. So much so that black people accuse white people of fetishising, particularly white women of black men. I wonder how white women battle with this narrative internally as they attempt to love their black partners through this tumultuous time of accusation. I also bring into question the same for some black women as I, myself, have often heard from black women, “I want a dark-skinned black man”. How do you reconcile a dating desire for a ‘dark-skinned black man’ now, when years before we were ‘bottom of the barrel’ due to our hue. Now we’re being praised in the mainstream, white people are castigated for finding us attractive?
Can we not just love who we love? Can we win, and allow others to win, unburdened by the drawbacks of twisted perception of race or complexion?
There’s a push-and-pull: the countless and obsessive forms of ostracisation lending itself to ‘the foreign enemy’, the ‘unwelcome stranger’. Dark-skinned black men are almost spoken of as treasured possessions. I’ve always thought of myself as being a stranger in some ways, but none more so, ideologically, than right now as we ride this current wave of racial identity politics. For decades, centuries even, race has been used as bait to further agendas throughout history. Whether Transatlantic Slavery, The Opium War, and numerous historical conflicts across the world, we almost forget that there has been (and is), to a degree, some complicity in these atrocities.
We currently have a modern conflict on our doorstep that divides us, oxymoronically excluding and including various races and shades of skin. There is a sense of having a monopoly on race politics that plays directly into the hands of those who have ascended, with our abetting and some of their own accord, into positions of power and privilege to speak on such matters on behalf of a large mass of people (not representative of the whole) who look on in adoration. Some would say blissful ignorance. This is what happens to the marginalised. The echoes of the opening African proverb ring through…
Will humanity overcome with neutrality, racism, colourism, and xenophobia in all it’s forms, and the fascism that seems to infiltrate a spectrum of arguments that go along with it?
Is it possible we could love on ourselves and each other to such a degree that having to point out #conjecture concerning race dissipates, and the barriers to real human to human conversations with each other extend to the deeper depths within us all?
As Martin Luther King Jr inferred, “hate begets hate”, and love begets love.
All I know is that I will continue to love my skin, and I’d like to invite you to love yours too. No matter where you’re from, nor what race or tone you are, love the skin you’re in.