io’ve been building a profile as a writer and broadcaster long enough to know that there will be public storms. Some creep up on you, others you sense brewing, and some have been lingering in the background for a lifetime.
A couple of weeks ago, I posted on social media about having “lost out” on hosting a documentary to a lighter-skinned black woman. The subject of the documentary was maternal mortality in the UK, and the harrowing fact that black women are five times more likely to die in childbirth than white women. This is something I have campaigned on for several years, wrote about in my book I Am Not Your Baby Mother and experienced first-hand when I almost died a few days after the birth of my first child in 2013.
I had been in talks with a production company about developing a documentary on the subject for much of last year, so I was hurt (but not entirely shocked) to learn that a similar film, from a different company, with a light-skinned, mixed-raced pop star as the host, had already been commissioned. Perhaps their show got the green light for unrelated reasons, but the sensation of losing out to a lighter-skinned person was depressingly familiar. The storm that followed my post felt like it was a long time coming – and in some ways I welcomed it.
If 2020 was the year the world decided it was time for a proper conversation about racism, poi 2021 is definitely the year we need to face up to colourism. Colourism is discrimination against dark-skinned people. It comes from within the community as well as without, and is an issue across many races, including mine.
Growing up in south London in the early 90s, I found colourism played a far bigger role in my life than racism. Brixton was so full of “diversity” (before it was a buzzword) that my six-year-old self would definitely have said that most people in the UK were black.
But early on I noticed that children were far nicer to my lighter-skinned friends than to me. It wasn’t until a boy with the same complexion as me pointed out that I was “too black and ugly” to ever be chased in a game of kiss chase that the penny finally dropped. As I grew up, the majority of black women I saw in movies, on TV and in magazines were fair skinned. Those who looked like me were never cast as the lead or love interest; they were at best the funny sidekick. Of course, there were exceptions, the most famous being Oprah Winfrey: her show was a staple in our Caribbean household. E, ovviamente, there was Naomi Campbell, one of il supermodels, raised a stone’s throw from me in Streatham. But can you name many others?
After I posted about the casting choice of that documentary, I heard from many black women about how they have been affected by colourism: actors who felt overlooked for roles; one woman who wrote that she was encouraged by her mother to use bleaching creams “because she thinks my dark skin tone is why no one will marry me”. It helped me remember that I wasn’t being too sensitive, overthinking it, or being “ungrateful”, as one black man had commented. Apparently I should be happy to have achieved all I have, “given how you look”. I have met this attitude everywhere.
All black women face prejudice, but the truth is that mixed-raced and lighter-skinned black women have been granted a degree of privilege. Research looking at 12,000 female prisoners in North Carolina found that sentences for lighter-skinned women are, on average, 12% shorter than for dark-skinned inmates. Nel 2014, the founder of dating website OkCupid shared data showing that dark-skinned black women are the least likely to be approached on his site. Even the UK passport system is biased: secondo a BBC investigation last year, women with the darkest skin were four times more likely to have their photograph rejected than those with the lightest skin.
Post Black Lives Matter, the media are more willing to tell black stories and the public increasingly open to hearing them – but the presenters, actors and storytellers being amplified are often still pale skinned. Perhaps they are seen as a safer bet; people who a majority-white audience might see themselves in. The producer of the documentary asked me to be interviewed about my near-death birth experience. When I asked why I could be a subject but not a presenter I was told that that they prefer their presenters to go on a “journey of discovery”.
I am personally pretty exhausted. As with racism, combating colourism is going to take a group effort, and some difficult conversations. Commissioners and editors are going to have to make bolder, braver choices. Lighter-skinned presenters and writers will also have to be honest about whether they are really the best person to lead on certain subjects, and if they aren’t, to step aside.
I won’t hold my breath: I recently found out that another documentary is being made for a major TV channel with a different light-skinned black pop star at the helm. The subject? Colourism.