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Black Barbie

Yellowbone Of Contention

by Lindokuhle Nkosi / 24.03.2011

I got my first Barbie Doll when I was ten. She had long black hair and almond eyes – and I called her Aaliyah. Aaliyah wasn’t fancy. She didn’t come with a change of clothes like Beverley Hills Barbie and she couldn’t swim like Mermaid Barbie – but I loved her none the less. Besides, unlike all my friend’s dolls, Aaliyah looked like me. She was the same tone as me. Not “skin-colour” like my classmates. Tone.

I carried Aaliyah everywhere I went. Snuck her into my schoolbag the second my mom wasn’t looking and hid her in my pockets on the way to Sunday School. I had to wrangle as much quality time out of her as I could to make up for all the time I spent throwing myself on Reggie’s Toy Store floors to no avail. My parents were unmoved. I would later discover the real reason it took them so long to buy me a Barbie. Not because they were cheap bastards (something I honestly believed growing up), they were simply waiting on Mattel to make a black Barbie available in South Africa. My parents did me a huge favour. By keeping Barbie out of my life for so long they saved me years of self-critical mirror sessions, comparatively picking myself apart, not to mention a small fortune on skin-lightening creams in a doomed attempt to look like Malibu Barbie.

I’m not calling Barbie completely evil. Just saying I was lucky enough to avoid her tyranny. The type of home I grew up in meant being read excerpts from poets like Koerapetse Kgosistsile and Ingoapele Madingoane as bedtime stories. My dad would sing me to sleep with Prince’s “Most Beautiful Girl in the World” most nights. I was his Princess. I was perfect in his eyes.
So it was a shock to find out later that yes I might be pretty, but pretty in a qualified sense, pretty “for a dark-skinned girl”. iDark dindi. Well-meaning relatives mareveled at how cute I was – given my tone. Always that devastating qualifier. It would take many years to realise that the way I look (dark and dreadlocked) makes me a niche attraction! A fetish if you will. Songs on the radio celebrated my “brown skin” as if it was an anomaly to be both brown-skinned and beautiful. Yellowbones and light-skinned girls were routinely sought after. The ultimate in black beauty. So songs that celebrated my deep dark skin and unstraightened, natural hair felt like fists in the air. Power salutes.

I had hoped the reign of light-skinned black people was over by now but typing ‘light skin’ into Google put paid to that dream. Amongst the very first page results were adverts for ‘Effective Skin Lightening creams with quick results’. A 2006 University of Georgia study found that, ceteris paribus, Latin for light-skinned blacks, were more likely to get hired for jobs over the darker-skinned like me. Why does this preference, this colourism or pigmentocracy, persist?

Black Barbie

According to University of Washington sociologist, Pierre van den Berghe, in most cultures, women are indifferent to the skin colour of men but men tend to universally prefer their women lighter. Historically, more successful men (who supposedly have their pick of women) go for the Yellowbones – resulting in a lighter-skinned upper-class (more successful, more attractive). And the cycle of “lighter is better” perpetuates.

After slavery in America, elite groups like “The Blue Vein Society” controlled eligibility by insisting one had to be light enough for blue veins on the underside of the arm to be visible. Potential members had to be well-off. The aim was to encourage elite inter-breeding. The light-skinned were favoured because they ‘looked less like slaves’. A diluted, deracinated more palatable type of African-American. Brazil has the largest community of African descendants living outside of Africa and discrimination against darker-skinned Blacks is deep-seated and ongoing.

In the Arab world, akhdar a term once used to describe people of questionable nobility now refers to darker-skinned Arabs. Skin tone matters in the Hindi caste system. It is generally believed that the lighter the skin, the higher your caste (or social standing) is. Untouchables (who are seen as polluted) are darker skinned Indians.

My own sixteen year-old brother prefers light-skinned women. I want to yell at him about colonial conditioning but he barely comprehends what apartheid was! Let alone his own predilections. Every guy I asked about this (but one) said the colour of a woman’s skin was of no relevance to them. So I might struggle to find a job and an affluent husband, because of my dark tone, but I won’t want for one-night stands.

I’m not bitter. Some of my best friends are light.

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