Blackness, history & love · Books · Colonisation · Education · Gender · Political · Whiteness & racism

in the shade

Layers of Blackness: Colourism in the African DiasporaLayers of Blackness: Colourism in the African Diaspora by Deborah Gabriel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

To trace the history of anti-blackness, Gabriel looks at some Biblical roots, the so-called curse of Ham. Chattel slavery in Africa predated the arrival of Europeans, with Arabs keeping African slaves (meanwhile Europeans such as the Greeks had long had their own slaves, but that is not in the scope of this book!). Mixing across Africa and Asia resulted in a spectrum of colour in Africa and the lighter skinned formed an elite slave-trading class. Maps show that Europeans saw ‘sub-Saharan’ Africa distinct from ‘Arabised’ North. Gabriel sees skin tone hierarchies developing around slave-trading at this time as a key root of colourism.

Slave owner William Lynch apparently proposed colourism as a deliberate divide and rule strategy to control slaves in the USA in 1712, soon after the 1705 ruling of the Virginia General Assembly that slaves were chattel under the law, and the ‘one drop rule’ declaring any person with a trace of African ancestry to be black, but white parents of mixed-race children often conferred advantages on them such as education and emancipation, so the ‘mulattos’ formed something of an intermediate class. After the US Civil War institutions excluded students on the basis of skin tone or hair texture, for example using the ‘paper bag test’ or ‘comb test’. Gabriel has many examples of exclusionary policy and many more of practice. US employment & income statistics continue to reflect colourism.

Gabriel also discusses the devastating effects of parental colourism, and psychological studies on the associations of dark skin in the USA, perpetuated through the media and capitalism: ‘sexism and racism work together to transform beauty into a form of social capital.’ which darker skinned women lack because beauty is constructed as white. Gabriel points out, importantly, that white beauty is not judged in isolation but in opposition to blackness, and is therefore based on the racist assumption of black ugliness. She notes that black magazines have generally been no less unhelpful than the mainstream media in choosing light-skinned black models.

White beauty is big business… Globalisation, multinational media organisations and the new world economy help to maintain US imperialism by exporting images of white beauty, white affluence and white success whilst at the same time exporting negative images of black people

Christian missionaries to Africa, including Black Americans, have perpetuated the idea of African culture as backward, becoming agents of imperialism.

Gabriel uses the example of Jamaica to describe a parallel to US colourism in the British Caribbean. White skin brought huge privileges on the island, and darker-skinned people were given the hardest work, and some privileges for ‘mulattos’ were written into the colonial charters. Markus Garvey lamented in the 1916 that lighter-skinned people who idealised British culture were still running Jamaica in a neo-colonial fashion and studies in the 1950s showed that the most affluent and professional class was still light-skinned. The recognition of AAORS (acquired anti-own race syndrome) helps to name the problem and understand skin bleaching and colourist social practices.

Gabriel traces colourism in the UK to the scientific racism of Carl Linnaeus. David Hume and Immanuel Kant are a couple of prominent exampled of philosophers who equated whiteness and intellectual ability, following the ideas of Linnaeus. Hegel went further, describing Africans as sub-human. Victorian attitudes were thoroughly racist as reflected at every level of culture from the period – Gabriel has all the receipts here. Interestingly, there was a shift from black-as-evil to black-as-comical as American popular culture drifted into British consciousness. Gabriel indicts Uncle Tom as explicitly colourist.

Gabriel compares educational outcomes of ‘black’ and ‘mixed black/white’ pupils in the absence of skin tone information – mixed race children do slightly better, but there is a much larger gap between them and white counterparts. Reports from Liverpool suggest that all black people suffer the same degree of racism. Examining employment data too, Gabriel concludes that those with lighter skin do not form an ‘elite class’ among UK black people because of the different history of slavery in Europe, where whites did not deliberately foster colourism as a divisive strategy in order to control large populations. Rather, it was only when large numbers of black people emigrated from the Caribbean and other Commonwealth areas in the 1950s to work in the UK that black people became a ‘problem’ here, and all non-whites were treated as a homogeneous group. This is also reflected in the association of racism with antipathy to immigration here.

‘Pigmentocracy’ in Latin America is also scrutinised. Some of the statistics Gabriel has gathered are really shocking: she reports in Columbia 98% of black people lack access to basic public utilities, compared to 6% of whites. A recent article on Media Diversified highlighted the near-disappearance of afro-Argentinians – a consequence of deliberate efforts to whiten the population. While there is no specific data, colour classifications are evident in language, and many people with African heritage have historically denied it to gain legal rights, avoid racist violence and so on. Gabriel notes that miscegenation is encouraged in certain configurations as a method of whitening the population over time. The one drop rule, she notes has tended to work in reverse in Latin America.

Latin American governments realised that conferring white privilege among acceptably light-skinned members of society would imbue them with undivided loyalty to white values and ideals and removed the threat of resistance and challege to the system of white supremacy. Their strategy has succeeded.

In the US mixed race black people such as W.E.B. Dubois and Frederick Douglas were highly active in anti-slavery and Civil Rights work. In Latin America, where they would have access to certain privileges, and where black people were oppressed more subtly than by statute such as the Jim Crow laws, ‘mulattos’ have not historically stood in such solidarity. Gabriel cites a theorist, Bonilla-Silva, who believes the USA is now becoming more like Latin America in this respect.

A chapter on the black origin of the human species and biological reasons for the change to lighter skin tones as humans moved to less sunny latitude is included. I read an article based on the same research in New Scientist magazine long ago. Darker skin provides protection from UV damage and protects folic acid, while lighter skin allows more UV absorption so you can still get just about enough vitamin D even if you live in, for example, England. Gabriel also points out here that race is not a thing in any biological or sociological sense. Racism has defined and continues to define ‘race’.

The discussion of whiteness and white supremacy is brilliantly lucid. The work of making whiteness visible to white people is surely exhausting for non-white people, to whom it is as obvious as a wall in front of them (and often it works that way): white people must help by doing this work of learning and teaching other whites to see whiteness, and working to divest from white supremacy. Gabriel highlights the work of black feminists/womanists in articulating the operation of whiteness to exclude them by presenting white experiences as universal: most white feminists have failed to hear them.

‘Whiteness is maintained through and produces violence’; Gabriel cites the extreme British colonial genocidal violence in Kenya, important to note. Of course, there is no need to go so far afield in time or place for plenty more examples. Gabriel really acutely describes how whiteness structures society to confer social, political, economic advantages on whites without anyone noticing, because it is completely normalised. Overt racism works like a decoy to distract from structural white supremacy.

There’s also bucketloads of data here on the kinds of disadvantages that arise from not being racialised as white. This book is a great resource thanks to extensive research. This material is presented with a critique of colour blindness and the myth of meritocracy.

I loved reading the chapter on blackness which is about African heritage and identity. I never thought of the (apparently non-hierarchical non-violent technologically highly advanced) Indus-Valley civilization as having an African origin, but it seems they did. Fortunately I have got Cheikh Anta Diop’s book on the subject already and will be reading it some time soon. Gabriel has really got me interested in this suppressed history. She also explains that blackness is political, spiritual and cultural, and claimed, often with difficulty, by mixed race people who may be read as white. Blackness is a level of consciousness that enables a person to see through whiteness and free themselves from the myth of white superiority. In her conclusion, Gabriel calls for black people to move away from individualism and draw on their collective, community-oriented cultural heritage to fight shared oppression. She reminds us: ‘The ancients knew that to be black is to be blessed’

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