The new Netflix documentary by Beverly Naya discusses the old ugliness of colorism.
The ‘Skin‘ documentary by Beverly Naya was released on Netflix a couple days ago. This documentary was yet another layer that has been added to the complicated conversation surrounding colorism and privilege. It’s often a conversation that focuses mainly on women and desirability.
Beverly speaks about her own struggles surrounding bullying and finding confidence in herself. However, the bulk of the documentary centers around understanding why colorism still persists to the degree that it does around the world. Documentaries and other modes of artistic communication continue to crop up around this conversation because there is so much intellectual dishonesty around colorism. It’s very common for people to couch their prejudice against those of a darker hue as ‘preference’ or ‘choice’. But our choices, desires, and preferences do not exist in a vacuum. Our cultural identity and society have been shaped by colonialism and white supremacy.
One of the most informative parts of the documentary was when Mudi Yahaya explained how Kodak developed its film chemistry using Shirley Cards to photograph human skin. Shirley was a real woman; a white woman. From then on every single person who was darker than a paper bag would face lighting, filming, and photography issues. Why? Because of the very inception of modern photography and film explicitly excluded, black people. The darker you were, the more distorted your image became.
While Mudi’s segment was the most informative, the most illustrative segment of how damaging colorism is was the parallel experiences of Diana Yekinni and Eku Edewor. In a nutshell, the Nigerian entertainment industry was so unwelcoming and brutal to Diana, that she left it altogether to return to the UK. Eku Edewor faced some challenges, that’s certain. However, she has been able to build a successful and thriving career. While comments claiming that she’s ‘oyinbo’ due to her skin tone or she’s not black may have been hurtful it didn’t ultimately derail her positioning in the entertainment industry.
There are many illustrations in the documentary that lay bare the lie that colorism or darker-skinned people’s grievances are simply ‘hurt feelings’. Another example is the market women explaining their skin bleaching products. Or how the gentle prodding questions around a market woman’s decision to bleach her skin and her regrets around it led to silent, painful tears. The inquiry into why people especially women, bleach their skin is at this point, an unnecessary one. If desirability is framed as proximity to whiteness then that will always be what is considered beautiful. Since beauty is capital, and is the only capital that many women have access to, they will attempt to attain it.
So the question is; do fairer women suffer slights or indignities due to their skin color? The simple answer to that question is yes. But colorism is the systemic, institutional, and long sustained dehumanization of people who are of a darker hue. It’s not enough to say ‘we’re all black’ or ‘it doesn’t matter. It matters immensely. If it didn’t skin bleaching wouldn’t be estimated to reach $20 billion in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East this year. Employers wouldn’t prefer lighter-skinned job candidates of any race according to a study done by the University of Georgia. If skin tone was simply that-skin tone, no one would have to write a book called Race, Gender, and the Politics of Skin Tone.
The construct of privilege based on skin tone is often an uncomfortable conversation. It’s one that I’ve tried to have among even my most enlightened friends. It almost always ends up with claims of equal pain and hurt on both sides or indignant anger over being told they can’t sing Beyonce’s ‘Brown Skin Girl’ lyrics. Darker-skinned people shouldn’t be forced to dismantle this system alone. tWe have been speaking up and educating the public for years. It’s time for those with the access and the privilege to play their part. Our lives depend on it.
By: Yoruba Mermaid
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