let's talk about colourism - Robyn Galloway

I am light-skinned. I am a beneficiary of colourism.

Colourism is the discrimination against individuals with a darker skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group. Being a beneficiary of colourism in the modelling industry means that I am exposed to more opportunities than my darker-skinned counterparts. Knowing and seeing the part colourism plays in the depiction of beauty in today’s society, I share with you my experience with colourism in the modelling industry.

When entering this industry, I was very uneducated and yet to see the toll colourism would take on the lives of the people around me. Waking up to a feed full of light-skinned models is normal. I have seen so much potential that goes unnoticed in many of my friends who are trying to make it big in this industry. I have seen many give up because they feel as if they don't meet the unspoken “requirement” needed to become successful as models. Many of them are dark-skinned and feel that there is no place for them in this industry.

The concept of colourism is one that initially might be hard to understand if you do not know where it comes from. During the time of slavery, white slave owners decided that lighter-skinned slaves would work in the house and darker-skinned slaves would work in the cotton fields. In a South African context, it was first seen at the time of colonisation.

When the Dutch colonists arrived in our fruitful country, they encountered the Khoisan people, South Africa’s indigenous, original inhabitants. The same flawed thinking that underpinned what they understood as scientific racism continued into how they treated the Khoisan people. So from this point, it became ingrained than lighter-skinned black people should be treated better than dark-skinned black people. This led to stereotypes that still exist today around dark-skinned people, and especially dark-skinned women.

The fashion industry reinforces these stereotypes of dark-skinned women being “undesirable” by showcasing dark-skinned models as taboo, and in some cases sub-par to models with a lighter complexion.

There are two sides to the coin; as a light-skinned content creator, many of the views that people have of me are based on an implicit stereotype. This means that when I walk into a room a lot of the first thoughts about me are that I can’t do anything for myself. That everything gets handed to me on a silver platter and that the only reason that I work hard is because I want to and not because I need to. As much as light-skinned privilege is prevalent in our society, it also comes with a lot of implications. I find myself asking what I am all the time because I don’t know where I fit in. I am constantly being put into a box and yet I don’t even know where I fit in. I am in a constant battle with myself to prove myself to society. As much as I am grateful for all the opportunities I get, the privilege that has been handed to me is one that I struggle to come to terms with and makes me question who I am.

I find it very hard to establish myself in this industry because it feels like there is no need to have yet another light-skinned model on set. There is a level of guilt that I feel because of the disparity in opportunities in our very small community. As much as I am nowhere close to where I want to be in this industry, I know that as time goes on I will be more exposed to the hardships that other people in the industry face.

Over the last few years, I have seen the modelling industry change drastically as the standard of beauty changes in society. A lot of steps in the right direction have been taken however there is a lot of room for improvement. It is understandable that brands want to remain relevant to a target market brainwashed into fetishising lighter skin. However, the best way to do so is to be inclusive, and to be genuinely inclusive. We see a lot of tokenism in the industry, and having one dark-skinned model in a campaign full of light-skinned and white models is not inclusive. When a group has been marginalised, they deserve real advancement and opportunity. Times have changed and it's time that small photographers all the way to big brands start to redefine the standard of beauty by casting models of the same calibre to do jobs, instead of just casting light-skinned models that fit the status quo.

To the many photographers and brands that are inclusive; regardless of shape, size, race, gender or sexual orientation, THANK YOU. Your efforts do not go unnoticed. Even though it is impossible to change the industry and the colourist undertones that run it, I hope to see all models get the same level of respect and recognition in the industry one day.