by Diane Ofili
‘You’re pretty for a dark-skinned girl’. As the bastard child of racism, colorism [also known as ‘shadism’] is behind many social malignancies, from denied job opportunities to even murder. Yet rather than be cowed by receiving this ‘compliment’ Dr. Yaba Blay instead created ‘Pretty, Period’, a project dedicated to the beauty of blue-black skin. The jewel in its crown so far is a gallery of self-submitted photos, each showcasing resplendent Ebony hues, but with hopes of expanding to multimedia input in the near future.
As a PhD, producer and writer on Black culture and aesthetics, Dr. Blay has authored ‘Drop’, a book/ exploration of being mixed-race in America and ‘Yellow Fever’, a thesis about skin bleaching in Ghana, her ancestral homeland. I had the pleasure of speaking to her about her explorations in race both past and present.
D O You launched ‘Pretty, Period’ last month but you have a real grounding in other race-based projects. Why decide to launch one about dark skin now?
Dr. Blay: Well ‘Pretty, Period’ is one that’s lived in me for a while, I say that because I’ve done work on colorism for so long now. It seems that when we talk about colorism [we] only tend to talk about it in one direction and how most of us who are dark-skinned are disadvantaged in a society that privileges light skin. So ‘Drop’ was really my 1st foray into another perspective and looking at the other side of blackness. But even while I was doing ‘Drop’ some of the feedback I got from the browner end of the spectrum, was interesting. Some folks were like why would you be interested in this as it is not your story, even though my story is very much intertwined with that, it was floating around in my head for a while.
Also last year when Bill Duke’s documentary ‘Dark Girls’  was released [in America] I saw it twice, one version when it was touring as a promo and then again when it aired on the O.W.N. network. People were asking me ‘What do you think? What do you think?’ and I was very hesitant to put an opinion out there as such is the work that I do, I am going to be more critical. I know how important the storytelling is to many of our lived experiences. Much of what was explored in the documentary was absolutely real and absolutely reflects what we experience… but it’s not the whole story.
What I thought was missing, what I really wanted for us to see was some evidence of process, that yes, we do have X-Y-Z and A-B-C experiences so that as we become adults we finally become O.K. The film made me feel for little girls coming up these days armed with their [sic] appearance and who are armed [with knowledge] about what colorism is but also with pics that will help them love themselves. I know I wanted to do something affirming. I wanted to fill that gap and put out a more positive image for women who look like me.
D O: Shadism, also known as colorism, pervades black people worldwide, whether they live in Britain, Brazil and above all of course in Africa. A worrying statistics put 90% of Nigerian women as either having already bleached their skin or will have done so during the course of their lifetime. How would you explain the differences in how common bleaching is in e.g. Africa as opposed to America?
Dr. Blay: I don’t know that I agree with that. A lot of people hold on to statistics as they are to all ends all-truth and what I know as a researcher is that if you go out looking for something [specific] you will find it and statistics can be manipulated to tell a particular story. What I found out about statistics for Nigerian women, in the Igbo post-colonization was 77% it stuck out to me. Sure, I know that bleaching is big in West Africa but because of Nigeria’s population makes me think if something about its size speaks [somehow] to that number. It makes me question the methodology. How did they come to this number? What other countries were studied? Were all things equal across the board? So offhand I am going to think differently about that number.
What I do know is that we tend to focus almost exclusively on bleaching in West Africa but what we know is that wherever you have people of color all over the world you have people also attempting to change the color of their skin. Researchers for whatever reason [ignore this], I don’t mind [doing this] about Ghana, my family is from there, I have a natural connection to the place so that’s where my interest lies, but that’s not to say bleaching only happens there. We have an over-abundance [of studies] focused only on West Africa. There is work showing bleaching in India, in South-East Asia, in Europe, in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The thing that’s interesting to me and think is necessary is some kind of research on bleaching in America because if you go on YouTube searching for skin bleaching all the people, or the vast majority of people on there giving instructions and information about products are all African-American. So we know that it takes place within the United States but over there we have something called ‘political correctness’ which makes people mindful about what they are or are not supposed to admit to doing.
We live in a society where all these aesthetic practices occur, couched in deception. We want people to think this is something that happens naturally, the length of our hair , the color of our eyes, the size of our breasts, whatever it is. So it’s not P.C.[ politically correct] to come out and say ‘I bleach’, yet in other places in the world [people will say so and are like] ‘So what?’.I think people may be more forthright [about it] in other parts of the world so I am more sceptical of those numbers. I’m not sure and don’t really believe that more bleaching happens in people of African descent and [think] those numbers are skewed, I think the media is telling one particular story.
D O: Might any difference between these Black populations be down to cultural associations drawn from where they currently live? For example with racial mixing due to slavery, ‘whiter’ features may be more taken for granted in African-Americans. Also living in a developed country means dark skin for them may not have the same primitive image that may do in Africa.
Dr. Blay: I’m not sure really, it’s hard to say generally as the work [on it] hasn’t really been done. But we know that if you look at the history of skin bleaching and also the history of colorism, [you see that] they are both longstanding in this country. Some may not use bleaching creams but may have said [to themselves] ‘Well, let me have a baby by someone with a light-skin’. I do think there was an association [in America] of dark skin with an African ancestry, people worked very hard to try to erase those ‘marks’ of Africa. It has a lot to do with how Africa is regarded or [sic] disregarded in the world. So you see African people all over the world to some degree denying their African ancestry, a lot of that denial takes place with aesthetics.
D O: Do you have any thoughts on the site from Ghana, halfcastebabies.com [a site selling sperm of White men to African couples] that was recently taken down?
Dr. Blay: Yeeah, I saw that. I kept searching on it because I didn’t want to believe that it was true, that it was possible. It caught me off-guard. It’s unfortunate but I think of the way Ghanaians are, the way the majority of them in the public sphere behave when white people are there. I’ve been in Ghana when a white man walks through Accra and [local] children have chased him, just wanting to touch his arm .At the beach other Ghanaians will just stand next to another and take a picture right next to him, no greeting or speaking, they just want to take a picture with an ‘Obroni’ [foreigner/ white person in Ashanti dialect], a white man so I can believe it unfortunately.
I can see it, even in Ghanaians who are not light-skinned, with our typical dark skin, will [sic] nickname you [if your skin is fairer] ‘Obroni’. You have mothers already marrying their younger, [lighter] girls because she’s so ‘pretty’, automatically associating prettiness with certain [whiter] features. So as extreme and crazy and wild and sad and hurtful as it is, I can see it happening. It flies in the face of how I see Ghanaian identity and our national identity coming out of Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana and his response to nationalism. It’s sad that we don’t value ourselves [sighs], I guess we haven’t found a way to value ourselves at this moment.
D O: For now ‘Pretty, Period’ consists mostly of a gallery with people submitting pictures of themselves. Yet you plan, according to the site, to make it a multimedia venture ? Why do that for an issue that is primarily visual?
Dr. Blay: I’m very aware of the power of social media at this moment and what I wanted to do something people could join in with, something with pictures that people could feel part of and share, to actually start a conversation in social spheres. We are connected to thousands of others on social media in our everyday life or we might be committed to few dozen. So I wanted to breathe life into this project in a way that I wouldn’t necessarily have to be present for [all the time], I hope if I post a picture and or one gets shared,that someone starts having a conversation [about it] on their page with their friends, or they go to ‘Pretty, Period’ on their own. So I think it’s really important to build momentum and an audience through social networking, so that will be Phase 1 of the transmedia project.
I am also looking to print a book that will likely be formatted as a magazine. My thinking is that I can’t buy a magazine for my granddaughter to look at and see herself reflected in every page so I need to make that magazine for her. So I definitely want to print something, I don’t know what the future holds.’Drop’ grew in a way I wasn’t expecting so I hope ‘P.P.’ will grow with the same momentum. With the right funding and the right support I’d love to see this progress with some sort of video aspect as well. So we’ll see.
D O: With video contributors can talk about their own experiences and create a dialogue between those who suffer and those at fault. Does that draw on your own background in psychology and counselling, wanting to delve into the effect of the psyche of having dark skin and not just its beauty?
Dr. Blay: Correct, yes, it’s not only the psychology but also my research training in ethnography, I know the power of storytelling. I know a woman tell me on Twitter today trying to [sic] pump up M.A.C. cosmetics to give Lupita [N’yongo] a contract, to see some [more] dark-skinned women in the make-up industry wearing bright colors. Well [for some] in the Black community it may be the case [that some like me] I was told that I was too dark to wear red lipstick. So the 1st time I ever wore red lipstick was last year, at 38 years old.’ Cos we have all this stigma about what you can wear and what you can’t, it just reflects our community’s attempts to say ‘Don’t draw attention to yourself, you’re too black for that.’
So in telling that story, in me posting that picture last summer of the first time I wore red lipstick [I got] so many emails and messages from my friends on Facebook, saying things like ‘Oh my God, I’ve never worn red lipstick either,’ and I now see them wearing it , so there’s power in our telling our individual stories, you never know how your story is going to touch someone else , and not just touch but even maybe give them permission to be.
I’ve been going back-and-forth about whether or not to add text and add these stories because what I don’t want to do is replicate ‘Dark Girls’. I don’t want to only talk about the disadvantages and the negatives that have come from these experiences so there is a way to do that in a way that has a woman maybe just applauding herself or her skin color, maybe telling a story about how they got to the place they are in [mentally] and the advantages, that would be great. So I want to be very deliberate about how we do that and how to get people to tell the right type of story, or tell a story in a particular direction, I haven’t figured that out what that is just yet.
D O: Darker skin is an issue in terms of beauty, perception and worth in society but so too is Black hair. You picked up on this in ‘Pretty Color and Good Hair’ [a case study based on the Creole community of New Orleans].Would a similar or equivalent campaign for the politics of Black hair be a good idea?
Dr. Blay: For Black hair? That’s interesting. I did something similar this past summer / early Fall when there was a story here about a little girl in the States with dreadlocks who had been driven out of school so I did the ‘care package’ for her where I asked women with ‘locks and their daughters with ‘locks to send pictures of themselves just to affirm and support her, for her to know that she’s not alone despite what people in her community might say.
Aside from that, there are lots of books, a friend of mine Ayana Byrd has a book out called ‘Hair Story’, co-written with Lori Tharps, [now] out in its 2nd edition so there are books on [Black] hair, there’s research-type books but in terms of just visual [ones] Michael July has one called ‘Afros (A celebration of natural hair)’ but that’s specific to Afros. There’s a lot of conversations that we’re still having about Black hair, it could be interesting to see something similar.
D O: The effect of colorism on workplace discrimination, whether it was being hired for a job, being promoted, or what sort of job you could really realistically get is something people think of as being in the past. Do you believe it still exists?
Dr. Blay: There has been some research that shows that experience hasn’t changed much over the last 100 years or so. Primarily it’s more to do with the perception that people have about for example, a man or woman with dark skin and how they fit into the workplace .So yeah ,absolutely those things still enter there, especially when you think about service-oriented jobs and who the company might want to be the face of the company. If it has to be a Black person, let’s make it one who is more digestible to the larger society. Research shows that White people tend to be more comfortable with Black people who they can relate to, behaviourally or aesthetically. I do still think it absolutely impacts people’s work chances.
D O: How do you think the problem of colorism should be addressed? Should it be through interaction with White people /or mainstream society? Or through Black people working on ourselves, actively resisting and disengaging from it?
Dr Blay: I think it’s both, not either [one option] or [the other], we have to do both. It reminds me of the current conversation happening around Lupita N’yongo. Some folks are concerned about the White gaze [on her], some about the Black gaze, I’m concerned about them both. I think we have to think about how these things occur .Colorism is a reflection of racism and it’s about how we [sic] turn racism internally , at the end of the day it reflects the larger White supremacist value in Whiteness, colorism is about relative Whiteness. So you can’t really address one without addressing the other.
We have to have conversations about how Blackness is portrayed in the mainstream and why everybody’s losing their minds over Lupita N’yongo when you and I probably see ‘Lupitas’ all the time. We still have to have the conversations within ourselves to say , all you people who would have called her an ‘African booty-scratcher’ on the [sic] play-yard , you are now sharing her picture. So it took White people to tell you she was beautiful? The work and conversations have to come from both sides, definitely.