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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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  1. OptionalTarget says:

    Nice one Lindokuhle. At some point i think all black girls pause to look at our place in the world and i have definitely questioned which spectrum of shades of blackness i fall within and where that places me and my life prospects. Very true that the natural tendency for all things ‘better’ is ‘lighter’.

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  2. Kathy says:

    I have seen it the world over. Asians, Africans, Indians all applying skin-whitening cream. In Thailand while Europeans spend their time suntanning, Asian women wear masks, sit under umbrellas and are covered head to toe in sun cream. White women slather on the self-tan or sit in the sun all day risking cancer because if we’re too pale people ask if we’re ill.

    As a white person, I cannot claim to know what darker skinned women go through but a lot of the time I think our own insecurities play a big part in how we perceive others’ attitudes toward us. Not that I’m saying there are no prejudices, because even I can see that there are. The shock and horror on some peoples faces when they see a black person driving an expensive car, or living in a beautiful house is almost priceless. You know what they’re thinking, and none of it is nice!

    At the end of the day, the world, throughout history and in present day evidences some pretty screwed up thinking. Yes, traditionally the darker skinned people were from the lower classes. They worked out doors in the blazing sun, of course they would be darker, but to use this same kind of logic in today’s society is ludicrous.

    Everyone is beautiful in some way, shape or form. It just seems to take a lot more effort to see it than most people are willing to give.

    PS. I had 32 Barbies, 3 Kens, 2 Skippers and 1 Dee Dee from Barbie and the Rockers. As you say there were no black barbies readily available in SA when I was at that age. No Barbies looked like me either. They were all blondes. I took great pleasure in cutting their hair, crying when it didn’t grow and having them make out with Ken.

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  3. Lizzy says:

    32 barbies! that means you were seriously spoilt, Kathy.
    I refuse to buy my daughter barbies, they have to come from my very concerned gay friend, there’s simply far too much social baggage that comes with one of those overpriced pieces of plastic to justify spending any money on one…

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  4. Kathy says:

    I’m not gonna lie. My gran bought me everything my little heart desired, much to my mother’s disgust but I honestly don’t see them as social baggage. I just saw them as toys. I learned to sew clothes for them, I knitted them hats, I made lace doilies. It gave me something to do. 🙂 To me a little girl aspiring to be like Barbie doesn’t mean looking like her. Barbie has always been about women’s lib. Getting an education, into the workplace, seeing the world and making a success of your life while wearing nice clothes along the way. 🙂 I think that’s something everyone can aspire to.

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  5. Lizzy says:

    Just because barbie is portrayed as ‘successful’ that doesnt mean she is empowered. she is still key in forming the gender identities of lots of little girls, forming and promoting an unrealistic body image and notion of ‘beauty’, as well as acceptable types of employment for young women (she’s usually a model in the ‘literature’ ive seen) and relationships with ken and the surfer doll when she broke up with ken. its white, upper middle class, racially purist, hegemonic crap. Yes, she is just a doll, but really, its silly to imagine that there’s no bagage that goes with that and that children are positively affected by it. i guess i could get my daughter a cosmo subscription for her 3rd birthday, thats just a magazine…

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  6. ? says:

    what the fuck is a yellowbone?

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  7. Lindokushle says:

    You don’t realise until you’re older how racialised the society we grew up in was. No black barbie, and the only black people on TV were terrorists on the news and send-up caricture ‘yes baas” fools. Of course we’d want to look less black, and on the other hand if I keep my hair the way it grows out of my skull, I’m assumed to be those pseudo-deep, Mother-Africa poetry fundamentalists. There’s just no getting it right man.

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  8. Nthabiseng says:

    Well Lindo… great article! And you’re right about one thing: there seems to be no getting it right. Coz on the flipside i’m “yellow” and i like to wear curly extensions.. that’s perceived as the shalowwest of shallow by many from the rural deep to the arty Metro. It used to bother me until i learned to say ‘eff it people, there’s no further portraying that can be done here except what you see- so start looking in the right place’ I ain’t gonna wear a doek and a fro just to qualify my Africanness…hello.

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  9. Dontbesilly says:

    @Kathy “Yes, traditionally the darker skinned people were from the lower classes. They worked out doors in the blazing sun, of course they would be darker, but to use this same kind of logic in today’s society is ludicrous.”
    Nonsense! Dark-skinned people lived in the tropics, where melanin was mighty useful. Lighter-skinned people lived in northern climes, where it wasn’t. There is no class correlation.

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  10. Kathy says:

    @Dontbesilly – apologies I wasn’t referring to naturally dark people. It is well known that tanned skin was seen as lower class as it was associated with outdoor work, especially in Asia. Everyone tans regardless of natural skin tone, whether you turn pink or dark brown is irrelevant.

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  11. Kathy says:

    In any case throughout this entire process all I’ve really been trying to say is that judging someone by their skin colour is fu#$ed up. You can’t tell anything about someone just by looking at them.

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  12. Lizzy says:

    Kathy, i get that your general intention was positive, but perhaps you should re-read your first post and see how it may be misinterpreted by people who dont have access into your thought processes?

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  13. Kathy says:

    True that!! 🙂

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  14. Sarah Dee says:

    Great article.

    Until halfway through last century paleness was desirable even for caucasians. Not anymore. Now, as a pale, pale white girl, I have to justify my desire not to have skin cancer in the face of the massive skin BROWNING industry, who tells me I look ill… Go figure.

    It’s all pretty arbitrary. The looks hardest to attain will always be the ones that signify elitism. It’s the same as how where food is scarce, a little fleshiness is hot. Where food is plenty, skinny is hot. In a western society where labour mostly takes place indoors these days, being brown symbolises that you’ve got time to loll about on a mediterranean yacht or something.

    Basically, there’s an essential hole in the middle of all beings in culture, which we can only ignore if we keep ourselves moving and distracted by such ambitions. The more difficult these ambitions are to achieve, the longer we feel like our lives are in some way meaningful.

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  15. Serisha says:

    Good to see some other subjects being talked about here and from a first person point of view.

    The Barbie issue was a big one growing up for my sister and I as well. Luckily we had family who’d bring us brown dolls from overseas.I remember us in South Africa being pretty horrified hearing the stories of a cousin in New Zealand getting a black doll and not wanting her because they were different from what the others had.

    Just one thing that so many people get wrong (although I’m sure you mean well) regarding Indians and Hinduism. Hindus follow the religion (I think that’s is who you’re referring to). Hindi is one of many regional languages (like Tamil etc) and the people who speak it and or come from those particular areas are Hindis. The caste system is also not specific to the religion. But I do know what you mean.

    Seriously though, nicely done starting a new conversation.

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  16. raimondo says:

    You are a black diamond. They are rare and worth a whole lot of lolly!

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  17. Zam says:

    Hey! Great article!

    Just a quick question, doesn’t ceteris paribus mean “everything remaining the same” I.e constant or average?

    Keep writing great articles

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