We Used to call it Shadism

Happy New Year Folks!

Back in the day , we used to call it “Shadism” but in the more recent times it has become known as

“Colourism”. For those who do not know Shadism/Colourism” is the value we attach to people of different complexions and for what it’s worth “Shadism” seems to be a more accurate description of this issue; but let’s not get bogged down with semantics. During the course of this Blog, I will be using the term “Colourism” which to me seems far too soft a description for something so pernicious.

Nonetheless, Colourism can be traced back to centuries of colonialism as a means of rationalising the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade, and the value that we attach to shades of colour are a direct consequence. Colourism over the years has become such a pervasive issue that the skin lightening issue worldwide is worth around $10bn annually…..such is the financial worth of Black people’s desire to disassociate themselves from their own Blackness.

In 1994 I made a film called “Shadism: The Politics of Complexion” (which can be accessed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LAoIvlsFAxA)   and we investigated a local chemist that was selling skin lightening products and heard stories, from local people, of children who tried to bleach their skins because they did not want to be Black. This was a consequence of their associating the colour Black with negative images and concepts. The increase of the mixed-race population in the western world has accelerated the desire for those who otherwise could be described as Black. to distance themselves from their darkness and in some cases to artificially change their complexion to be more comfortable about who they are.

So, what can we learn from this? Firstly, the amount of melanin in somebody’s skin does not necessarily contribute to their ideological Blackness and we have seen many circumstances where lighter skinned Black people have been more radical than their darker brother and sisters and you only have to look at Malcolm X and Bob Marley to bear witness to that.

Colonialism has played its part in generating beliefs that the lighter skin you have the closer you are to "civilisation", a euphemistic term for European and this, of course, was an attempt to sympathetically contextualise slavery. The education systems across the world have played their part in carrying this message all over the globe so that those who have never met Black people in there are already steered towards the stereotypical concepts about Blackness.  Shadism/Colourism still lurks in the collective consciousness of Black people…..and White people if they choose to recognise and admit how western culture has influenced their thinking. Even within families, judgments and values are made regarding siblings and how their lightness or darkness will be a benefit or disadvantage in future life and such observations have a deep effect on their perceptions about themselves.

The Black Doll/White Doll experiment conducted some years ago demonstrated that very young Black children associated bad things with the Black Dolls. This is something that many parents are reluctant to recognise as they may be unsure as to what aspects of their lives and cultures have contributed to their child’s views on this issue and this relates to Black and White parents. If this experiment were to be conducted today, I wonder what it would tell us!

I am in the process of developing an Art installation called ”Black History is Everybody’s History….A Study in Colourism. The installation will include portrait images of Black people from those who are very dark to those who are very light skinned and virtually White. This will demonstrate the width and breadth of skin tones emanating from those of African descent. Each image will have information relating to the ethnic background of the individuals and answers to questions as to whether they consider themselves to be “Black” and if not, how they would describe themselves. There will also be some information relating to the "The brown paper bag test", a term in African American oral history used to describe a racist discriminatory practice within the African American community in the 20th century, in which an individual's skin tone is compared to the colour of a brown paper bag.  Those who attend the installation will be invited to take the “Brown Paper Bag Test”; but this will not be compulsory! The hope is that this will stimulate honest discussions on the issue and will underscore the WEB Dubois theory that Black people are required to always have two fields of vision; how they view themselves andhow the world views them.

Hollywood, Bollywood and social media across the world are significant agents in driving the myth of dark skin and light skin and this will not change in the near future but if we refuse to discuss this phenomenon we will increasingly buy into this narrative as those with darker skins in the western world become a more maligned minority within a minority already facing challenges.