“His name is Earl. I have his book” I exclaimed confidently, (and still undecided as to whether to get a Ruff Ryders tattoo of DMX’s crew over 10 years ago)
“Nah don’t play it’s not yano” he answered disbelievingly”It is, I literally bought his book 2 days ago and I’m not blind!!”
“Oh you dunno what you’re talking about, stfu BLACKULA”
All at once I felt confusion, anger, hurt but above all else humiliation. ‘How could he say that to me when he is mixed raced therefore meaning he is simultaneously condemning half of what makes him whole.’ ‘His mum is a black woman, he has black relatives, does he casually walk up to them and say “wa gwarn blackula.” Lastly I thought about the fact Dracula isn’t exactly known for being cute, chilled or someone you’d invite round to your mums yard for ackee and salt fish! Dracula is a blood sucking, callous coffin digger with bats for best friends, he’s a deadly creature of the night feared in modern folklore, and he’s the stuff of nightmares. To have my skin tone fused with something inhuman and monstrous which hides from daylight and lurks in the shadows was made all the more perplexing by the fact this friend of a friend who hurled the slur, shared a similar ancestral aesthetic to me due to the commonality of our Caribbean heritage
Blackballed, blacklisted, blackmailed, black sheep, black Friday.
The colour black throughout history has carried with it negative connotations which have failed to dissipate with every passing decades and continues to leave negative preconceptions in (narrow) minds. Juxtaposed with this is the notion that white is pure and innocent – Doves, angels, fairies, snow-white, good witches etc. This historic narrative spanning centuries is hard to shift let alone change, so deeply ingrained in the psyche and subconscious, it would take a time machine to rewrite history or mass lobotomies to rewire (the subconscious) mind. I have a very vivid memory of starting a new primary school in Coventry ( we moved around a lot) and the very first words uttered to me were “My mummy said I can’t get too close to black people in case you melt and chocolate ice cream gets on to me and makes me dirty and ruins my uniform.” I was 6 years old and it was then I knew I was ‘different’ to what was considered by society and the media as ‘the norm.’ I remember the teacher in that same class sitting me separately from the other kids in the class and not letting me do the activities the other kids were doing, when I asked her why I couldn’t sit with them she shouted “YOU CAN’T!” when quizzed further by my mum, she told my mum she didn’t believe I had the mental capability to complete the activity. When asked what made her think that there was silence, her silence screamed that her preconceived notions of intelligence were measured in accordance with race and ethnicity. this was proven when that particular teacher was found to be indeed racist as other incidents were uncovered and by the time I left her class, these incidents were being investigated.
As a third generation Jamaican migrant born in a country that was predominantly white, during my younger years I always had a sense of being ‘other’ or alien and I like many other black people growing up in 80’s UK had the curious case of a culture clash upbringing – distinctly British in daily practices yet inherently Caribbean in traditions and rituals. It triggered the unique feeling of being aware you were the same (human)…but different (racially and culturally) and if you dared to forget back then there was no shortage of reminders, especially in the nooks and cranny’s of the UK’s towns and villages where anyone darker than Rihanna is asked if they “Fell asleep on the sun bed.” It became expected that someone outside of your race would periodically make ignorant and ill-informed judgements based on your skin colour or culture. As I grew older I tried to educate the ignorant or ignore the stares if I visited friends in a behind the times town where they still used calla gas heaters. Growing up in a predominantly Pakistani and Indian area with other black people and getting close to people of all races in school (black, white and Asian) allowed me to see the good in humans rather than presume the worst using race as a deciding factor . Back then any racism or derogatory comments I received (albeit sporadically) were from outside of my race. This meant it didn’t hurt as much and the pain didn’t linger for long, because an outsider is more inclined to have a lack of understanding and disregard for you because they are not like you whatsoever so how could they possibly fully understand you. I felt assured in the knowledge I had a large number of people who shared a similar lineage to me living in the UK who would understand me and I always thought the threat of racial slurs or prejudice (if they came) would be from outside of my own race. I was naive to think there was a kinship between all black people regardless of gender and skin tone when it comes to issues of race, including stereotyping, ignorance, narrow-minded cultural generalisations, racial profiling and colourist (U.S) or as it’s more commonly known in the UK, shadeism.
It turns out I’d experienced shadeism – (derogatory comments and slurs meant to demean a person based on the shade of their skin complexion, often perpetuated by people belonging to the same racial group as the person on the receiving end) it just didn’t have a name back when I got given the moniker of the blood sucking night crawler, despite never having chilled in a coffin or even ordering a bloody Mary in the rave! Just as sub genres emerge from creative and innovative genres i.e. grime evolving from garage to become its own juggernaut shaking up sound systems all over the world; so to do sub divisions of racism; many of which are too subtle for people to recognise instantly. Insidious in nature, shadeism can be just as hurtful or potentially damaging as overt racism (Look at Lil Kim.) An encounter I had last year was a rude awakening to the fact shadeism appears to be more prominent than ever before. I was in a club queue with my day one friends who happened to be mixed race we were also with a group of black men. My two friends walked ahead as I was chatting to one of the guys in the group and my friends, it was clear we were in a group together. I thought nothing of walking ahead and walking straight in as I’d watched my friends do before me, ‘well he knows we’re a group of friends and he’s let my girls in without batting an eyelid’; when all of a sudden something was obstructing me from moving any further. I looked down to see the thick red rope and looked up to see the bouncer who had decided to clamp it down to block my path. He turned to me and said “We’ve gotta let the lighty’s in first now don’t we” with a satisfied smirk. After the sheer shock of those words coming from a black man who was a few shades darker than me, I unleashed a tirade of “And where the f**k do you think you were borne from because it certainly wasn’t a white woman, so you diss me you diss your mum too you $gkf&&ufws$5!!$.” Needless to say he wasn’t pleased, the guy I was stood with didn’t take it well either and cussed the bouncer, after what seemed like hours of temper tantrum tennis between the 3 of us, I calmed the situation and we left.
I felt empowered knowing that I had stood up to a man from my own race who tried to trample on me at the ‘bottom’ of this imaginary hierarchical pyramid constructed by differing shades of brown, awarding superiority, supremacy and preferential treatment to those with lighter skin tones and punishing people with darker skin tones by treating us as worthless and inhuman. I didn’t feel the shock waves from this encounter until the following day, I couldn’t understand why a black person would want to subject another black person to the hurt they themselves had most likely experienced through racial prejudice at some point in their lives. How could someone who looks similar to me and who was in fact darker than me pass judgement according to the skin tone of me and my friends, when he himself would be ‘beneath’ me if we are to use his shallow and nonsensical pyramid of shade system? 12 years after my earlier encounter with shadeism described at the beginning of this piece I found myself wondering – Is this how he views his mother and black relatives, with such disdain? Does he own a mirror? Does he know that he too like me is black? To be scorned from your own racial group carries a double-edged sword of pain which cuts deep to the core. On the one hand you feel unworthy, insecure, angry and paranoid (all the things you would feel with racism) but because such disgust is aimed at you from your own racial group the other side of the sword carries a deep sense of betrayal and misplaced loyalties as you expect your own to have your back like you would have theirs if they were victims of unfair treatment due to the colour of their skin.
As I watched stories of shadeism surface last year, such as black girls being turned away from the London nightclub ‘DSTRKT’ for being “Too dark.” I found myself asking – Why aren’t black men judged and categorised so stringently? Why is it that it is acceptable to be any shade of brown (light, brown, dark, darkest) if you are male? Why isn’t the black man’s varying shades of brown ranked and divided into tiers not just inversely but by society, the media and the music industry? We know all too well of the horrific racism experienced by black males, at times resulting in unjust deaths that were wholly preventable as seen with Edson Da Costa and Rashan Charles (God rest their souls) but we rarely hear of the judgement going beyond colour, towards the SHADE of the colour of black men’s skin, or see their attractiveness measured dependent on how much melanin their skin contains. The reasons for that are more complex than the constellations in the night sky! A mixture of a hangover from slavery days poisoning modern-day, societal beauty standards often bred by archaic cultural beliefs and the media’s insistence that the Eurocentric aesthetic is the most desirable so therefore we should all want to attain ‘the ideal.’ look. Couple all of this with impressionable young minds soaking up these messages from TV, film, magazines and music, along with the patriarchy of many powerful industries (Hello HELLywood!) which then gives potential for, sexism, misogyny, objectification and unfair scrutiny to fester. In industries such as grime, rap and hip hop the scrutiny of women intensifies, and the standards of accepted beauty seem to triple as these industries tend to be male dominated, thrive on bravado and boisterous displays of masculinity, and are fuelled by image and competitiveness. These set of characteristics often found in these music scenes, combined with cultural beliefs and media / societal influence means SOME of our artists’ being the amazingly talented but competitive loose cannons that they are results in them wanting the best of the best to flex on their peers / competitors and gain status. This includes having the best album, the best bars, the best cars, the best creps, the best garms and the baddest peng ting which is often interpreted as a girl who is light-skinned as that is what the media has set as the plateau of peng and if our young black men aren’t consciously aware of the messages they have absorbed over the years their subconscious’ are fully receptive.
I first experienced this hypocritical and contradictory set of behaviours and segregation via skin tone within the UK music scene last year. I had agreed to help promote a rappers upcoming single, there was friendly banter, there was an invitation to someone’s house to which I declined. That weekend I was going out with my friend who happened to be mixed race and I thought I’d be complimentary to the artist by giving him and his friends a hip hop / Grime spot to go to in Manchester as the artist was from out-of-town and had not experienced Manchester’s nightlife. This was meant as a platonic and cordial gesture as I like to build a friendly and chatty rapport with any artist I decide to work with and I wanted to help a brotha out by giving him a place to rave. I met him and his friends by the door of the bar; I went to introduce myself to the artist and found myself being looked up and down with the contorted expression of disapproval and repulsiveness. He turned away from me. I said “Hi” to his friends they did not respond to me, instead they looked past me towards the artist annoyed and rolled their eyes at him. Someone said impatiently, “WHERE IS YOUR FRIEND” to which I responded “JEEZ MANNERS!” now at this point I concluded they must have had words on the way to the spot…until I introduced them to my friend who was sat at the back of the bar. They took her hand gently, prompting her to stand up and proceeded to fangirl about her hair, her perfect complexion, her ass, her pretty feet etc. etc. twirling her round and round in the middle of the bar. Each member of the group politely and respectfully said hello to her. The artist’s friend even turned to me and said like a little boy who’d been given a ride to the club on Santa’s sleigh “Thank you for bringing her for me. She’s just what I like, you’ve done well here!” I was stunned! She’s not a toy I got from toys r us specifically for him to play with!
As all 4-6 men chatted to my friend warmly all at once they had made a circle around her excluding me from the circle so that I was on the outside looking in confused and bemused. I was in that moment physically excluded from the group that I had gathered and brought together to help the artist with his music whilst giving him a place to vibe with his friends and THIS is how I was being treated! Huh?!?! After a while I had to confront the artist about his behaviour as he made every effort to ignore, avoid and exclude me (which his friend also noticed asking me “Why has he not spoken to you one time since we arrived at the bar if you are helping him with his music? Good question!) The artist also did not thank me for giving him a place to go, to shake a leg. As I watched him talk to a procession of Kylie Jenner lookalikes and thought about the difference in treatment between me and my light-skinned friend, the realisation dawned on me – I’m experiencing shadeism yet again from a man within my own race who is darker than me. I asked the artist “Are you treating us differently because I am brown-skinned and my friend is light skinned, Do you have a problem with darker skinned women?” to which he scoffed and answered “Well I don’t see many brown or dark skins in here do you, they are all at home hiding…where they should be.”
Naturally I started to cuss and he raised his palm rigidly in front of my face where it hovered, to silence me. Something told me not to carry this on or lash out at him further and I turned on my heel, got my friend and we left. Up until this point my mixed race friend did not believe in the existence of shadeism – As we walked out the bar she said “I’m so sorry I told you that you were paranoid about shadeism when you tried to tell me about it in the past, I’m sorry. You were right it does exist, they treated me like a princess and you as though you were invisible and I saw it for myself tonight.” I was too shocked, humiliated and degraded to react. In the days that followed I shed 2 2 tears in anger and frustration, betrayal and hurt I screamed inwardly in silence – you look like me (black)! Why would you do that to me! HOW could you do that to me! You see they were right – My friend IS buff, she IS beautiful, yes people have their preferences but that should not mean I am denied the most basic respect and it does not warrant me being made to feel grotesque and monstrous. As a human being I deserved very basic respect, we ALL do. By segregating me and my friend by shade it impacted our friendship deeply – for the first time in our friendship we saw each other as ‘different’ from each other. Their initial division on that night caused an irreversible division within our friendship as we both struggled to process the boxes we’d been forced into and what that meant for both us in society and our day-to-day lives. It strained and eventually shattered our friendship beyond repair.
Not long after that mentally bruising incident I encountered shadeism again within the music industry. This time third hand. I had interviewed a group of talented artists who seemed confident, self-assured and enthusiastic. Later on I was quietly warned by an associate that I was only being bredded and being spoken to nicely by the artists’ because of the industry links I’d managed to obtain with HONEST hard work might I add. The person then went on to reveal that they had been present at a discussion where it was decided that one of the group members would have no choice but to “Do me” in order to get closer to my industry links (because apparently being nice and clean hearted doesn’t get you anywhere!! Wrong! In my world it does.) I was told there was some sort of process of nomination in which the artists’ were asked to “Raise their hand for the job” of “Doing me.” According to my associate while they were discussing who was going to secure their access to my links by way of sexual manipulation, they as black men (ranging from brown-skinned like myself to dark-skinned) sat around and discussed how gross it would be to “Do me” citing the reason that it would be gross as my brown skin. What followed (so I’m told) was disrespectful slurs, insults and ‘banter’ regarding my skin tone. The reason I’m inclined to believe this discussion took place is because not long before I was told of the conversation, the group had a music listening party, one of the members was with his (I presume girlfriend) and I complimented her to him to which he turned to me and screamed “LIGHT SKIN” at the top of his lungs simultaneously attributing her beauty with the sole fact she has light skin, putting her and other light-skinned girls on a pedestal and putting any girl who falls outside of this narrow barometer of beauty literally in the shade at the bottom of the invisible shadeism scale! It was a fully loaded comment with plenty of subtext and perceived social standards at play (of course he was unaware of this) as I did not base my compliment on the girls skin tone, I based it on the fact she was an attractive woman and I liked her dress and shoes. Had she been a few shades darker I would have given the same compliment to the artist about her as attractiveness and beauty comes in ALL shades, races, cultures, creeds and castes.
It saddens me to not only experience but to also observe the shadeism and ignorant cultural stereotyping that seem to be becoming a common theme within some music industries (my experiences came from the uk rap scene) and it’s made all the more painful when you realise SOME black men happily go along with the demeaning and sexist comments levelled at us (case in point Logan Sama’s cultural ignorance, shadeism and sexism on full display during his ego trip and assimilation attempt on twitter at the expense of black and mixed race women) as though they were from outside of our race. Men who are part of our racial group who should cape for us are happy to stand back and berate us. Surely anyone throwing scorn on someone of the same racial group is also insulting themselves as they are from the same ethnic group? Apparently not because somewhere along the way a hairline fracture formed between black men and black women which seems to be widening as time passes, which means we are now a race divided not only by gender but also by skin tone. In a time where it is now acceptable to see dark skin black males on prime time TV in the UK unlike in the 80’s, society and the media still have a long way to go before it fully embraces black women in all of our unique and resplendent hues.
We as a black community come across racial preconceptions and stereotypes frequently from outside of our race, often it comes in the form of institutional microagressions which are less obvious, this shared experience between black men and women should bring with it an understanding and a sense of unity not seclusion, slurs, dissociation and disregard by our black males who have all but cut ties with us because society handed them the scissors to do so. Now that mainstream media and society at large welcomes them with open arms, as long as SOME black males have a group who is viewed as lesser than them to take the abuse and vitriol society doles out, the more accepted they feel and their efforts to distance themselves from the black woman become achievable and the more they can pretend they are different from us and not like us at all and lament on how it could be worse in life because “at least I’m not a black woman”, the more these types of black men, can hide from what they see reflected back at them when they look at a brown skin or dark skin black woman – themselves.
As I sit here today typing this as a confident and contented proud brown-skinned black woman I’d ask any black males reading this who have sought to degrade brown or/and dark-skinned women do you think men like Tommy Robinson and Nigel Farage would look at you and say “You are 3.4 shades lighter than your cousin so therefore I’d like to see you remain in the UK and I think your cousin should return to his homelands because he is not the desired shade of brown to reside here in the UK” NO they would not they would see you as a black man regardless of your shade and want to ship you off to your homeland too and cargo plane would include women who look like you in ethnicity. Do you think the police who used brute force to restrain Edson Da Costa and Rashan Charles stopped in the midst of their actions and thought “What am I doing? This guy is brown skinned and I saw a dark skinned male in the shop next door, I’m going to stop this at once and restrain the guy next door because his skin tone is darker and more deserving of a beating.” NO the police saw a black male and decided that was reason enough (along with their misguided suspicions) to use excessive force. The Shade of their skin did not enter the equation. We as black women see and hear the injustices that our black men experience when you are racially profiled or manhandled by authorities and we inherently defend you as our cultural heritage and ethnicity is linked to yours, we feel your pain and know your pain and would not want to cause you pain not when many of us have experienced similar prejudices to you. We have enough judgements and challenges from a system which tries to oppress us and was not designed to see us succeed so let’s not turn those judgements inwards towards our own communities and further disenfranchise ourselves; it’s important we come together as a community, as a race and as human beings in strength, support and solidarity of each other. Lastly I would ask our beloved black men – If you cannot stand with us then please try to understand us.
(Ladies – please seek to elevate the black men who do not subscribe to the ‘system of shade’ uplift them and celebrate their achievements)
A special THANK YOU to Grime MC Lioness- without your strength I would not have found the courage to write this. Bless up !
*LISTEN* to Lioness’ extremely powerful and personal statement regarding shadeism / colorism (U.S) in her freestyle ‘DBT’