Jamaica Magazine

“Layers of Blackness”(Colourism in the African Diaspora) : Book Review

This is the first book by an author in the UK to take an in-depth look at colourism – the process of discrimination based on skin tone among members of the same ethnic group, whereby lighter skin is more valued than darker complexions. The African Diaspora in Britain is examined as part of a global black community with shared experiences of slavery, colonization and neo-colonialism. The author traces the evolution of colourism within African descendant communities in the USA, Jamaica, Latin America and the UK from a historical and political perspective and examines its present impact on the global African Diaspora. This book is essential reading for educators and students and will appeal to anyone with an interest in the subject of race and identity who wants to understand why colourism – a psychological legacy of slavery still impacts people of African descent in the Diaspora today.


Myrna Loy, Blackbright News

‘Layers of Blackness’ examines the reason for discrimination because of skin shade. It further looks into why historically, premium and deference has been placed on light-skin peoples at the expense of those of darker complexions by people within the same ethnic group, a term which is defined as ‘colourism.’ Is it necessary to address colourism today? Doesn’t it just give African people yet another burden to carry? But actually, my mother is one of many guilty of colourism. I was now able to put a name to the behaviour of my mother, a woman born in 1927, who despite (or because of) her dark skin, was hostile towards my ex-husband and like-skinned persons. Deborah Gabriel’s instructive book intrigued me. The concept of colourism brought to the forefront a number of suppressed issues.

I wondered if colourism still existed in the 20th century, but recalling my mother’s remarks that my ex-husband was too black, I had to acknowledge that did. I used to ask myself, how could she say he is too black when he was the same colour as her? It never occurred to me that it might be because “…internalised racism is so firmly entrenched in the consciousness of black people, they are often unaware that they have a colour complex”, as the book suggests. Her remarks angered, confused and frustrated me. So does colourism stop with my mother’s generation? Deborah’s investigation on racial stratification on both a historical level, and a global level, implies that it does not.

‘Layers of Blackness’ was inspired by a feature Deborah wrote about skin bleaching in 2005, which followed a documentary about skin bleaching by a black female filmmaker and by the failure of mainstream writers to discuss the psychological and historical factors associated with skin bleaching. The primary aim of Deborah’s book is, she says: “to unite, not divide people of African descent.” I asked myself, how can you not divide people of African descent when the definition of colourism implies just that? As I continued to read through its pages, I realised that it was the psychological divisions Deborah was trying to remove – those mental hierarchies that had been ingrained since slavery.

The more I read ‘Layers the Blackness’, the more I felt that colourism’s divisive one-drop rule tactics was simply designed to increase the numbers of slaves they had available to them and that the term had absolutely no validity at all. Dark-skinned people by virtue of them working outside on the plantation were made to feel it had to do with superiority and inferiority, but it was more likely the slave masters were housing their offspring and it was the paternal loyalty why light-skinned slaves worked inside the house as well as: “… a mechanism to divide enslaved Africans, thereby minimising the likelihood of slave rebellions”.

Whatever the reason, when African people continue, even today, to devalue “blackness without realizing that they are endorsing white supremacy” [Gabriel] it makes us realise just how serious this ailment is, and how important it is that is treated, and treated fast.. This solidly written, intellectual piece of work also addresses the issue as to why the dark skinned people opt to use bleaching creams – is it to give them, what they see as, a sense of acceptance? Does being lighter make them feel beautiful?

Fair & Lovely, which is a bleaching cream, has cornered 70% of the bleaching cream market in India! There is a supporting video for ‘Fair & Lovely’ on the internet made in Egypt, which claims: “if you want to be successful and attractive, bleach your skin white”. It is this kind of misrepresentation why Deborah writes: “In order to resist the destructive nature of white supremacy and the negativity and inferiority it aims to impose on people of African descent, individuals need to be well grounded in their sense of identity and to have reached a level of consciousness where they are able to accept their blackness and wear it with a sense of pride – not to seek to mask their black identity under bleaching creams, cosmetic powders that lighten the appearance of the skin, or weaves and chemical straighteners that disguise natural hair. I am by no means suggesting that all women who opt to straighten their hair or to wear wigs or weaves are trying to be white. As one who has worn hair weaves in the past, I am in no position to cast stones. However, I am conscious of the fact we are hardly emulating blackness when we do so. It is more honest to accept that we are still locked into European standards of beauty and need to work at appreciating beauty in our own image – because as long as we are worshipping images of other people we will never worship ourselves”

When I read this part, I must admit, I did feel a tug inside. I cannot accept that I am not emulating blackness because I wear weaves and wigs. There must be others like me who wear weaves and wigs for medical reasons to restore a sense of dignity in a society where image is important. I am not saying that everyone who wears a weave or a wig is an alopecia sufferer, because many wear weaves as a ‘get up and go kinda ting’, as those who have lost their sense of identity and aspire to the European standard of beauty, but I am saying there can be other reasons why Africans disguise their natural hair.

‘Layers of Blackness’ helped me identify with the tragic cinematic mulattos. Fredi Washington who played Peola was a tortured self-hating bi-racial girl in “Imitation of Life” and who said to her Negro mother: “Don’t come for me. If you see me in the street, don’t speak to me. From this moment on I am white, not coloured. You have to give me up!”

This resentment at being categorized as black, reinforced by the 20th century advert cited above, endorses the perception that success comes with white/light skin colour, reinforced by Deborah analysis of class structure:

“Whilst studies show that there is a link between skin tone and socio-economic status, it is not easy to determine whether this is due to the historical advantage that lighter-skinned individuals gain through being born into the wealthier and highly-educated mulatto class, or whether it is through the daily experiences of discrimination and disadvantage that dark skinned blacks experience.” So does colourism still exist today? Yes, especially within the Hindu caste system and as Deborah mentions it still exists in the Caribbean, in parts of Africa and Latin America.

“It was not until 1960s that dark-skinned Jamaicans were allowed to work in banks, government offices, or in the front offices of private business” [Gabriel cites McFarlane]

‘Layers of Blackness’ investigates how disempowerment started, how (and if) we have evolved from colourism. It serves as a pivotal resource in enabling the concept of colourism to be challenged so that disenfranchised Africans can feel validated in their blackness.

‘Layers of Blackness’ took me into the realm of the unknown or, should I say, the unacknowledged territory of colourism and I feel enlightened after taking the tour.

So has Deborah managed to achieve her objective “to unite, not divide people of African descent?” If ‘affected’ Africans read the book, look at themselves and their behaviour and realise they are alienating themselves from each other by such subversive behaviour, then I guess, that by raising awareness of its existence – she has!

“At last an author who is willing to tell it like it is on the issue of colourism and the controversial subject of white supremacy. Deborah Gabriel takes us on a journey through history clearly signposting the stops along the way. Latin America, USA, Jamaica, England, slavery, media through to the present day of skin bleaching and the virtual invisibility of non-whites in every day media. This book is gripping and stimulating, written to raise awareness of the continuing insidious growth of colourism.”


Leo Slater, Essex Racial Equality Council

Having just read Layers of Blackness, I was excited to be meeting DG, a modern day renaissance woman; a journalist, Company Director, film maker, human activist and now self publicist. Layers of Blackness is an innovative book that looks at colourism. In her book Deborah Gabriel identifies colourism as a direct consequence of the social stratification of colonial societies, especially those affected by slavery. Therefore, the phenomenon is not localised but is seen all across the world from Europe to the Americas, from the Caribbean to Asia and from Africa to Australasia. Deborah Gabriel started her working life with Lloyds Bank and left very quickly after being told to tie back her relaxed hair so that she wouldn’t frighten the customers. For a decade or so she worked for corporate organisations earning enough money to guarantee her comfort. But she wasn’t comfortable.

Deborah wasn’t happy working for organisations that ensured that poorer nations became even poorer. Someone reminded her that she had intended to be a writer and speak out for black people, she did a crash courses in feature writing and video production, left for Jamaica were she worked as a freelance writer with the Jamaica Observer and the Gleaner’s online news site, and co-managed a local cable channel making and presenting programmes. She returned to England and after a short stint with the BBC started working as a Journalist with Colourful Network .

“I had read about colourism and decided to make it the focus of my dissertation and found that I had done so much research that I had enough material for a book. Everything that I wrote was relevant to black Britain, related to me, and is not an attack on whites. I wanted to show that colourism isn’t just some peculiarity that is inherent to non-white people. My motivation was a feature I did in 2005 about skin bleaching which in turn was motivated by a documentary by Dami Akinnusi: Bleach My Skin White: Is Skin Bleaching Really as Common as Tanning? Following that documentary mainstream papers latched onto the idea that non-white people were lightening their skin in order to be white, but they had missed the point and had not portrayed its origins.

“I wanted to set the record straight and explain that it’s not just an aesthetic thing; it’s linked to economics, politics; history and religion. I wanted to show how everything played a role. Colourism was imposed upon the slave communities with the division of house and field slaves. African enslavement became illegal over 200 hundred years ago, but the hundreds of years in which it existed will not disappear. The contribution of enslaved Africans to the flourishing economies of the west at the price of their humanity, freedom and culture was never recognised. I wanted to remind Africans in the Diaspora of their shared common heritage and to open their eyes to colourism, a legacy of slavery.”

Marcus Garvey’s observations in 1923 are an apt description of the topic of this book. But why write a book about colourism – a term that is rarely used in public spheres and a topic that is equally rarely discussed in private circles? As a journalist who writes predominantly about issues that impact the African Diaspora, I am acutely aware that a great deal of attention is devoted by community leaders to addressing issues of racism that disadvantage black communities and in fighting for social, economic and political equality that is routinely denied to people of colour. But we never stop to examine the inequalities and prejudices that exist within our communities that are related to our skin colour, which generally regard light skin more favourably than dark complexions. Having researched the subject for a dissertation project, I found that there was an abundance of information on the USA and numerous studies which show that people with darker skin earn less and have lower educational outcomes that light skinned persons. I was curious to discover whether the same could be said of Britain; whether we too have reached the stage where blackness has become so devalued that the shade of our skin literally controls our present condition and future prospects.


Deborah Gabriel was born in the UK in 1964 to parents born in Jamaica and Cuba and grand-parents, grand-uncles and grand-aunts who lived well over 100 years of age. She lived in Jamaica between 2002 and 2004, working as a freelance writer and running a local television station where she produced and appeared in programmes. A self-proclaimed Pan Africanist who cites Marcus Garvey and Kwame Nkrumah as “journalists who made a difference,” Deborah Gabriel is herself a journalist, author and teaching professional with international experience in journalism gained in the UK, Caribbean and Africa, across print, radio and online. In addition to being editor of Colourful since 2004, she has written articles for a variety of publications including the Jamaica Observer, Red Pepper the Parliamentary Monitor and Colures magazine. She is an articulate public speaker who has spoken at both community and corporate events. She has given numerous radio and television interviews including BBC London, BBC Asian Network, BBC WM, BlogTalk Radio in the US, BEN-TV and Venus TV. She currently runs her own journalism training workshops, coaching and bespoke training. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism Studies and a Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching in Higher Education, and is currently studying for a life coaching diploma.

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About the author

Staff Writer