Insight: Prejudice

The colour of justice: Hlonipha Mokoena takes on colourism

The present-day experiences of black women and indigenous communities suggest we are still living in a pigmentocracy

03 February 2019 - 00:00 By TANYA FARBER

When the apartheid government manufactured racial classes in SA, it used its roughest tools to decide who belonged in which group.
Nthabiseng Majara, a specialist nurse in Johannesburg, recalls growing up amid the deep racism of the then Orange Free State, where she lived in a "location". Though she has light skin, she said that during apartheid - with the racial classifications firmly in place - varying shades of complexion among people of colour were less important.
"During apartheid, we were all black," she said. Those who were "very light", however, were sometimes suspected of being born to parents of different races at a time when this would have represented a crime.
Even today, without any formal racial classifications, a person's daily lived experience can still be shaped by the tone of their skin.
"The practice of discriminating on the basis of skin tone is often called colourism," said Hlonipha Mokoena, associate professor at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research. "A society that uses such colourism to apportion privilege and status is often called a pigmentocracy."
Apartheid SA is an extreme and brutal example, but pigmentocracy is evident across the globe.
Colourism exists in any society where skin tone is identified and wherever it is possible to alter one's skin tone, either cosmetically or by avoiding the sun, said Mokoena.
"From Asia all the way to the Americas, people can be divided and evaluated based on skin tone," she said.
"I recently read an article about the history of dark-skinned Asians. The photographs that accompanied the essay were positively beautiful, but they are also evidence of the fact that many of these dark-skinned Asians were assimilated into the lighter skinned population and that is why it is now so rare to see a dark-skinned Asian.
"From Southeast Asia to Latin America, there exist unspoken rules about what being 'light-skinned' means. There are historical, sociological and cultural reasons why colourism exists."
Mokoena rejects the idea that pigmentocracy has its roots in colonialism.
"Scholars often focus on the history of colonialism as the explanatory cause, but I would argue that colourism predates colonisation since both power and status predate colonialism. SA is therefore no exception."
Pigmentation is never just skin deep. It goes to the heart of notions of oneself and is thus deeply personal. Colourism can have a profound effect on self-esteem and one's place in the pecking order of beauty.
"Dark-skinned women often find it very difficult to find makeup and foundation shades that suit their complexion," she said. "The message seems to be that if you are dark-skinned you are not beautiful and that's why there isn't a shade for you."
When a dark-skinned woman dates a light-skinned man, this is considered an "upgrade", said Mokoena, but when a light-skinned woman dates a dark-skinned man, this is considered a "downgrade".
There are also terms such as "yellow bone" to describe light-skinned beauty and privilege.
"The term itself is meant to refer to a black person who has 'Caucasian' features - light skin, green or blue eyes, wavy or straight hair," said Mokoena. "But in SA it has come to mean anyone who is light-skinned.
"People get called 'yellow bones' as a compliment to their genetic luck of being born fair-skinned. On the opposite spectrum, dark-skinned people are often told that they are 'dark beauties', which again implies that their beauty is an anomaly."
Kgomotso Taukobong, a DJ who writes for the e-zine Unlabelled, has been a victim of pigmentocracy. While growing up, she was always being ridiculed about her skin colour.
"I never thought there was anything wrong with me, but I noticed that my light-skinned friends were treated better than me. This happened during school with the teachers, on the playground with my peers and of course outside school. I always had to work harder to be noticed."
Being dark-skinned landed her with nicknames like "Mantsho" and "Mnyamane", both essentially meaning "darkness".
"It was hurtful to be reminded of how I look daily," she said. "On the other hand there were those people who were slightly more open-minded. They would acknowledge your complexion like everybody else but they at least saw the beauty too."
This brought a more positive nickname: "Dark Dindy".
"Being called Dark Dindy means you're beautiful compared to the other dark girls, or you're beautiful solely because you're dark," said Taukobong.
She pointed out that there is also a definite gender component to this discrimination.
"Have you realised that this subject only actually affects black girls? I've tried to challenge this viewpoint with my peers. How do we measure what a good-looking woman is? Her brains, do those count? How she carries herself? What about her upbringing? Can all these contribute to what beauty is? How do we raise our daughters in the modern world?"
Taukobong suggested women start by "promoting our beautiful skin colour entirely, and its authenticity. Once we value ourselves more, educate those not in the know, and stop publicising things that lower our self-esteem, we may have a chance at helping that little girl who is crying every day while seeking validation."
The nuances of such personal struggles are magnified on the battlefields of history and politics. Khoisan people were not listed among the groups invented by the apartheid government's racial classification system. They were rendered invisible, and the fallout of this assault on their language, culture, heritage and history has never ended.
Now, a genetic research study by researchers from the University of California, Davis, has shed some light on the unique history of these indigenous communities. Published recently in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study shows that Khoisan people in Southern Africa carry a gene that causes lighter skin. Also present in people from the Near East and East Africa, the gene is believed to have been introduced to the region by only a small number of individuals.
The report states: "While light skin is often associated with European ancestry, even in SA, the present-day Khoikhoi and San did not experience enough recent migration to account for the frequency of the gene."
Since migrating south a mere 2,000 years ago, this gene underwent phenomenally rapid evolution.
"Strong positive selection caused this gene to rise in frequency among Khoisan populations," said Brenna Henn, a member of the team that studied pigmentation variation in about 450 individuals from the Northern Cape, the southern Kalahari Desert and the Richtersveld region.
Kobus Reichert, a heritage representative of the Gamtkwa Khoisan Council, said the study provides valuable insight into the origins of various Khoisan communities.
"The time frame of 2,000 years roughly coincides with the arrival of Khoikhoi pastoralists in the area. Through DNA research projects that our community participated in, there are some members within our tribe with an East African paternal lineage."
This has added ammunition to the sustained fight by the Khoisan for recognition.
"Through oral history, supported by research projects over the years, we know that the Khoisan were the first indigenous people in Southern Africa," said Reichert.
"During apartheid and specifically with the process of race classification, people of pure Khoisan descent became so-called 'coloureds' overnight."
But, he added, the colonial period that preceded apartheid "also played a big role in destroying traditional structures and dispossessing Khoisan people of their land and culture".
"In the new democratic SA we are still struggling to get the necessary recognition and support from the government in order to redress past injustices."
In the context of any country, but especially SA, genetic research on skin pigmentation blurs the line between science and sociology. Within the communities, this new information is cause for celebration. The drive to revive their identity has gained traction and there are active steps being taken to promote and protect their culture.
Reichert said there is a "growing awareness among people from Khoisan descent about our cultural roots and heritage. This can be seen all over the country where Khoisan tribes and organisations are much more vocal about their indigenous rights."
But, he said, there are sometimes tensions around who has the right to fight past injustices - and then pigmentation comes into the equation again.
"We often get people who say that because we have people of mixed blood within our structures we cannot claim rights as indigenous Khoisan people. We reject this statement with the contempt it deserves. You will find people of mixed blood within all the ethnic groups in SA. They are allowed, through the process of self-identification, to select where they want to belong. We are entitled to the same thing."
Reichert cites Nelson Mandela as an example.
"He had Khoisan ancestors but nobody will dare to say that as a result he cannot be a Xhosa. Why is this type of argument being used against us?"
Politically and physically, pigmentation is a complicated phenomenon. Mokoena agreed. "It's not possible to find a neutral language in which to speak about what is essentially a genetic lottery."

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