The term “Yellow Bone” has gained popularity amongst young black people and it is used in everyday conversation when referring to light skin black people. This term seems to appear everywhere, on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook used to describe people and also used as a hash tag. The term yellow bone is used as a supposedly positive description and reference to black people who have light skin.
Urban dictionary describes yellow bone as “the lightest type of light skinned black female. They can often be very rare to see in comparison to other blacks because there are not as many of them in the general black population.”People seem to really enjoy being called yellow bone because it supposedly means that they are beautiful and as Urban Dictionary put it “rare to see.”
This term is used to suggest that light skin black people are beautiful but it also means that they derive their beauty from the fact that they have light skin. On occasion I have heard people relay their disappointment that someone is yellow bone but is not beautiful. They are disappointed because light skin should get you closer to beauty and some yellow bones don’t seem to make most of their proximity to whiteness.
The description of people as yellow bone and therefore beautiful is very revealing. Firstly, it reveals the ways in which the power of white supremacy continues to rule the consciousness of black South Africans. Black people who use the term yellow bone have internalised white supremacy notions of beauty.
Secondly, it reveals how racism as a system of oppression can function without white people present because black people have been thoroughly schooled on how to be racist to each other. This is something Angela Davis touched on recently when she gave a talk in Cape Town when she said, “other races, like white people, do not have to be present for us to be able to identify racism.” Yellow bone is a white supremacist narrative and tinged with dangerous ways of quantifying beauty and quite honestly psychologically unhealthy.
Lastly, it reveals the long lasting fucked up psychological effects of white supremacy on black people. That people believe that light skin makes them “better” people or more worthy. A light skinned acquaintance recently referred to himself as a yellow bone and spoke about how “poor dark skinned people” (sic) were jealous of him because he is a yellow bone. I didn’t survey the “dark skinned” people, so I don’t know if they really were jealous of his yellow bone-ness. Regardless, I find this term absolutely abhorrent.
Yellow bone talk relies on standards of beauty established through colonialism, slavery, and apartheid. The narratives that established white people as “beautiful” and black people as “ugly” are ever present and continuously reassert themselves in terms such as yellow bone. This is a fact pointed out recently in The New Yorker by Claudia Roth Pierpont who wrote a piece on Nina Simone where she said “the aesthetics of race – and the loathing and self-loathing inflicted on those who vary from accepted standards of beauty – is one of the most pervasive aspects of racism, yet it is not often discussed. The standards have been enforced by blacks as well as by white.”
We, as black people, need to reject white supremacist notions of beauty like yellow bone. We need to be very conscious of the ways in which we buy into “white is right” discourses and actively challenge yellow bone talk. Of course this is very hard to practise because we are inundated with all kinds of things that tell us white is beautiful and black is not.
This yellow bone narrative is not divorced from wider problematic race issues in this country. A walk through CNA or Clicks magazine section will reveal the overwhelming majority of white faces and bodies on the cover of magazines. Never mind the fact that this country is predominantly black in population. Media representation, or lack thereof is implicated in the ways that people construct ideas about beauty. In a country that is predominantly black it is problematic that white bodies represent most things associated with beauty.
Now the big structural problems, like the magazines and the beauty product industries are hard to change, but what we can change is ourselves and how we view each other. We, as black people have to fight against privileging white bodies as measurements for beauty and recognise beauty in each other in all our shades.
The hierarchy of skin tones is nothing new in black communities. The use of whiteness or proximity to whiteness as a barometer of beauty is also not new. What really drives me to write this is the “new” ways in which black people perpetuate white supremacists notions of beauty on other black people. These “new” supremacists ways reassert themselves in the supposedly “post-race” and “born-free” generation.
When I think about the term yellow bone, I can’t help but think of Steve Biko and his insistence that “by describing yourself as black you have started on a road towards emancipation, you have committed yourself to fight against all forces that seek to use your blackness as a stamp that marks you out as a subservient being.”
It would seem to me that yellow bone talk does not move us towards emancipation; on the contrary it moves us to imprisoning ourselves with limited, Eurocentric notions of beauty. With the popularity of terms like yellow bone, it is very evident that Black Consciousness is still very relevant for black South Africans, and maybe even more so for the “born-free.”
Written by Lwando Scott