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“The Ugly Duckling” and growing up with stories symbolic of colorism

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Like many middle-class kids, I grew up on the stories of white fairy tale princesses, of damsels in distress. Our screens brought to life the unrealistic lives of these pale women, implanting subjective notions of beauty into our psyches and serving as the foundations of our inferiority complexes.

Those were the images that made me aware that I belonged to something called a “race,” that made me realize the world sees me as a “black person” as opposed to just a human being. In the world of princesses, it didn’t matter whether I was dark-skinned or light-skinned because in that context I was just black. Whiteness was the utmost measure of beauty, providing a standard we physically couldn’t attain.

In the midst of these dominant white princess narratives, however, I remember watching one cartoon after school that stood apart: "The Ugly Duckling." It was a story about a mother duck who got the shock of her life when one of her newly hatched ducklings looked unusually dark in comparison to the others’ fluffy yellow feathers. The mother duck's conclusion of her duckling’s ugliness was based solely on its darker color.

The ugly duckling challenged expectations set for it and challenged the norm. As such, he was portrayed as an unlikable character. His entire life was portrayed a an "ugly mess": He was always the subject of jokes and was alienated by other ducklings.

I didn't realize it then, but "the ugly duckling" realistically reflected the essence of colorism. Colorism wasn’t an issue I thought about at all growing up. I didn’t have the language for it and I also appeared to be on the “right” side of the colorism spectrum. So I didn't feel like I could relate to this fictional character's suffering. I laughed along as other white swans and yellow-toned ducks bullied him because of his color.

As a black person with light-skin privilege, it took me a while to understand that society treats dark-skinned black people with a similar indifference and insensitivity to that which the ugly duckling experienced. The idea that some people get to keep their position as the "better blacks" as long as someone else has it worse off than them is rooted in anti-black sentiment born of a colonial history that socialized black people to measure themselves against their colonial masters.  But if we continue to measure our self-worth by how close we are to whiteness, then we are no better than the "masters" who brainwashed us to internalize such notions of ourselves in the first place. All black people will be better off without a system that has socialized us to elevate some of us by erasing the rest of us.

I have realized that because I personally benefit from colorism, I have a responsibility to break the silence about the oppressive culture that continues to render darker-skinned women invisible.

I am from South Africa, and many black South Africans can recall that there was always a child who elders referred to as “mantsho,” meaning “the dark one.” This comparison of children’s skin tones, which in turn fostered a culture of hate, was a subconscious projection of apartheid trauma suffered by our elders. Weighed down by their internalized self-hatred, they projected it onto children who didn't know any better.

But the result was another generation of kids who grew up with low self-esteem and subsequently became adults who take measures to erase their darkness because of a cycle of anti-black self-hate. Some try to bleach their skin, despite the health consequences of doing so; they would rather risk their lives than show up in the world as the type of blacks that get ignored.

As a child, I remember seeing black elders in Limpopo who used to put red mud or shoe polish, or a product called "color-mine" on their skin to avoid getting "burned" when they were outside. Others would wear plastic bags beneath their clothing in the midst of hot summers in an attempt to "sweat out" their darker complexions. I was raised to associate dark with bad and light with good, and to think that it was normal to spend one’s life chasing the "ideal" white aesthetic.

The reality is that no matter where we imagine ourselves to be in the hierarchy of blackness, we are all still fighting for the crumbs at the bottom of the pit while those we aspire to look like live lavishly above us. Our collective silence about this problem, our refusal to treat this like a serious social issue that should be addressed with urgency, makes us part of the problem.



More articles by Category: Arts and culture, Race/Ethnicity
More articles by Tag: Africa, Discrimination, Racism, Television
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Rebone Masemola
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