“When I was growing up, people used to whisper that dark-skinned black people were poor. I believed it until I was about ten years old. Even today I might secretly assume that about certain dark-skinned black people.”


“When I was growing up, people used to whisper that dark-skinned black people were poor. I believed it until I was about ten years old. Even today I might secretly assume that about certain dark-skinned black people.”

Twenty years ago, that statement wouldn’t have shocked you if you had overheard it on the streets. But what happens when it is said today, at this very university, by a black student, in a lecture hall populated with students from a number of different races?

Tshepo Tsiu is a second-year IT student who openly admits that most people in the black community, including himself, are guilty of discriminating against each other based on the darkness of their skin. “Intra-racism” or “colourism” is what it has been unofficially called and it is reportedly also prevalent in India and America. Having survived this country’s history, could the black South African society still be suffering from the inside?

One obvious question is why a particular race, anywhere in the world, would subject itself to this. Jonathan Hyslop, a professor of sociology at Tuks, suggests that a number of influences could have led to this phenomenon. “Where it’s been studied more is in the African-American community. There it is relatively clear because of the history of slavery. When you’re dealing with our country’s situation, it’s a bit more ideological than historical … there are certain kinds of physical appearances that have greater prestige.” He adds that black people might still be insecure about their appearance because of the way they were treated in the past. “It does seem to me that given the historical trauma the country’s been through, it would be surprising if there weren’t some sort of psychological effect,” he says.

Today, terms like “darkie” and “yellowbone” are used to describe the different shades of black people. The stereotype is that light-skinned black people are more attractive, smarter and more likely to succeed. Darker people are seen as less attractive and generally inferior to other light-skinned black people.

The phenomenon of intra-racism is not readily discussed in the black community even though it seems to affect aspects of their lives, such as who they befriend and who they date. Lesego Madipa, a first-year student studying BSc Biological Sciences, says that he would not call himself intra-racist even though he wouldn’t date a girl darker than he is. “I have nothing against dark-skinned girls, I just don’t find them attractive. The same way I don’t find other guys attractive – it’s just never gonna happen.” He says that he doesn’t treat dark-skinned people any differently than light-skinned people but he wouldn’t like to have a dark-skinned child for fear of the way the child would be perceived by the local black community.

In the recent past, the media has been criticised for contributing to this phenomenon by promoting the concept of “Western beauty”. Late last year, former South African kwaito star Mshoza was thrust back into the spotlight when she revealed that she had bleached her skin because she thought that it would make her more attractive. On an international scale, RnB sensation Beyoncé is constantly under reproach for gradually appearing lighter in her print advertisements for cosmetic giant L’Oreal. Many believe that black poeple, especially black girls, don’t have enough role models who make being black something to be proud of.

Second-year BCom Law student Catherine Molefe does not blame black people for putting so much value on skin tone within their own race. “Sometimes I feel like beauty is a white thing and the world didn’t include black people in its definition,” she says.

The psychological effects of intra-racism are said to be quite serious. Molefe says that she grew up as the only dark-skinned child in a family of light-skinned people and that she witnessed first-hand how her siblings received more attention and kindness from the rest of her family. “I’ve always been told that I was pretty for a dark-skinned girl, never just pretty.” She remembers how she grew up with a low self-esteem and no confidence in her own ethnicity. Even though that was years ago, she believes that discrimination among black people is still a reality that is not being properly addressed.

No one likes to think of himself or herself as superficial, shallow or bigoted. We’d all like to believe that we’re progressive and accepting individuals who believe in inner beauty and the value of a person’s character. However, it seems that in this country the shock waves of the past are still being felt in the generation that is supposed to be free of bias and discrimination. Racism, what we thought was our biggest worry, seems to have spawned a myriad of murkier side effects. When the same race that successfully fought for freedom has apparently turned on itself, has it really won?

What are your thoughts on intra-racism in South Africa? Tweet @perdebynews or @LooRadley.

Photo: Brad Donald

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