The trap that too many still fall into

Those who are discriminated against because of their skin colour should not perpetuate the problem, writes Shelina Zahra Janmohamed

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I was quietly sipping my cappuccino this week in a London coffee shop, listening to an unashamed case of racism among those who complain of racism. Two fashionably dressed Asian Muslim women were in discussion about the younger of the two being pregnant. The other was not much older but clearly cast into the “auntie” role.

The pregnant woman was chided by the auntie for drinking coffee while pregnant. “I only drink a cup a day, which research says is fine,” said the pregnant woman assuming the critique was about the health effects of caffeine.

The auntie was not concerned about the child’s health but that the child was the “right” colour. “If you drink coffee, the baby will be brown coloured.”

The pregnant woman chose a moral angle to try to expose the discrimination. As they were both Muslim, she sought support from the Quranic texts, which are taken as inarguable.

She recounted that according to Quranic history, it was likely that most of the Prophets chosen by God were from the Middle East where people aren’t white but rather of varying shades of light to dark brown.

According to Islamic teachings, these were the best of human beings and the best of God’s creatures. As mothers, said the pregnant woman, we wish our children to be good people, like the greats before them.

The auntie, undeterred and seeing nothing wrong in her viewpoint, reiterated that the baby ought to be white. The pregnant woman simply said: “Don’t we want this child to be amazing like the great people before who were brown?”

“No, the baby should be white, not brown like the Prophets.” The auntie herself was Asian and brown.

Women – especially mothers – play a crucial role in perpetuating racism and colour prejudice against other women. The argument that a parent can have a preference about their child’s looks is blind to the fact that today in many cultures, how white a girl is – and it is almost always girls who suffer from colour prejudice – affects the chances she will have in life. White is considered beautiful and praised, whiter skinned girls get better clothes, better jobs and better marriage prospects.

Despite apologists trying to liken this to the trend of tanning, this is absolutely not the same. Tanned people are not considered to be better people, more talented, more competent, more worthy of resources, praise, opportunities. In some languages darker skin is even referred to as “dirty” or “unclean” and said directly to children. It’s considered quite acceptable to openly prefer whiter skin to darker skin. For those who themselves are from communities that complain of racism, such behaviour makes me sick.

It’s heartbreaking that it is mothers who perpetuate this prejudice, the very women in whose hands lies the treatment of our future generations, and in particular the role models for young girls.

The argument that white is naturally more appealing – and the entirely prejudiced follow on from such women that its natural to give preference to whiter skinned people – fails to understand that beauty and colour are not synonymous.

In making this monumental mistake, we are binding women into a trap of being discriminated against not just for their colour, which is a prejudice we should have grown out of by now as a human race. It continues to judge women only by how they look. And white or dark, this is a prejudice no woman should tolerate.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at www.spirit21.co.uk