Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: When your skin is just too dark

Asian, Arab and black models may look exquisite, but they can't survive in such a hostile habitat
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The Independent Online

Beyoncé is not bovvered, it seems. Was she deracinated and "improved" by L'Oréal for one of their adverts? No comment from the singer. As one of their brand goddesses, she perhaps believes there is no point in scratching the hands that gild her. Paid millions, it must seem fair enough to be turned into a fair enough mock-up of her real self. The multi-national cosmetic company vehemently denies the accusation. They would, wouldn't they?

Not again, you think, same old, same old stuff. For those who make and break images, decide who is gorgeous and who is not, light skin and hair and eyes easily please the eye, affirm superior human status. Racism is a given, an understanding infused through the business. Top model agencies will tell you that eager Asian, Arab and black models may look exquisite and flawless, but find it almost impossible to enter, survive or let alone thrive in that hostile habitat. I have written about this abhorrent exclusivity for more than 20 years and to do so again feels like failure.

The beauty and fashion industries still maintain a closed shop when it comes to the selection and promotion of models. In women's magazines, on catwalks, even shop dummies, dark skin is rarely seen. They say it is because customers are put off by such unexpected, outlandish images of loveliness even though a recent special issue of Italian Vogue featured only black models and was sold out worldwide.

Exceptionally, Naomi Campbell and Iman are permitted to strut with their white peers. Let's pray no bus ever runs them over. But this stubborn, institutionally prejudiced gate-keeping is only a part of the never-ending story. Dark skins are considered a blight within black and Asian families, communities and countries – have been for centuries.

I came back from holidays with a tan (yes, Asians do tan) because I didn't stay completely out of the sun. At least my mum is no longer around to nag me about what she thought was extreme foolishness. Blessed, she said I was, my kids too, to have lighter brown skin. That we allowed the stain of darkness upon it wilfully drove her to distraction. When I was growing up, all spinsters in the mosque seemed to be dark and sad. Some tried to cover their shame with dustings of pink face powder and very light pink lipstick. One child in our extended family was darker than her brother and so she tried to rub off the "dirt" with a metal scourer.

And now, with 21st-century globalisation, the ugly rejection of darkness is getting even worse. European definitions of attractiveness – from thin body shape to light colouring – are sweeping the non-western world, making most populations feel envious and sometimes desperate. Ten years ago beauty lightening creams had all but vanished from these places as native pride grew and health risks were better understood. Today these products are shifting like never before. A trader in Acton has just been convicted for selling banned, toxic, whitening creams which can cause burns and rashes.

Old Hindi movies always had heroines of various hues, reflecting India and Pakistan's peoples of many colours. Waheeda Rehman and Smita Patil were two of the biggest stars and both had complexions that would never let them through the film studio doors today when actors have to be white as vanilla ice cream and with green eyes please, even if that means wearing coloured contacts.

Even in South Africa, still emerging from the ultimate evil based on physical types and hierarchies, fair skin is now coveted by blacks. Lorrie, an acquaintance from Cape Town says this is terrific. "We have gone beyond race. The world is opening up and we all want the same things. Why is whiting up any worse than liposuction, plumping up lips, straightening or curling hair? Seems like when black women choose beauty tricks we are self-loathers, but white women are free to re-make themselves. This is a new-world girl, post- racial."

Ah yes the post-racial era. That's where we are at now. Lighten up, say some irate readers week after week and they don't mean do a L'Oréal. Race is old news, stale, an irritant for them and for those black and Asian young folk (including my own children) who think exactly like Lorrie.

A newspaper diary reported last week that Parmjit Dhanda, the impressive Asian MP for Gloucester, was apparently offended when his rival, Tory candidate Richard Graham, made a joke (not a very good one admittedly) comparing the MP's spinning to that of cricketer Monty Panesar, also a British Asian. Dhanda, said his mate "objects to being defined by his race". In the US, savvy and smart politicians of colour – Cory Booker, Mayor of Newark; Deval Patrick, Governor of Massachusetts; Adrian Fenty, Mayor of Washington DC; and most prominently, Barack Obama – have found success by stepping away from their defining racial characteristics and interring historical black grievances.

In his momentous speech on race, Obama said he didn't want the old stories and memories of civil rights struggles and injustice "to overcome and undermine us, to trap us in our history". In some ways these are wise words, and visionary. Group victimisation becomes a habit on both sides and is the hardest thing to let go. Evidently the life chances of millions of dark skinned folk in the US and the UK are today vastly better than were but a decade ago, and globalisation is creating non-white elites like never before. Although new cracks have appeared, old colour lines are dissolving and the future promises better still. It is possible to believe that one day our common humanity will prevail.

But race, though a drag and a bore, still matters, even though it is increasingly unacceptable to say so if you want to go places. An irate African-American blogger points out the obvious: "When we talk about racial transcendence... we are usually talking about transcending the black race; no one talks of transcending whiteness." One day perhaps Twiggy will be touched up to look more "black" and beautiful, Beyoncé will cheerfully opt for an Afro hair-do, and Obama won't have to dissociate from his own name. Not yet, sadly.