Updated: Jun 6, 2021
Nude. Natural. Naked. Skintone.
About twelve years ago I wrote a letter to the head office of a well-known high street store about the range of shades available in sheer tights for sale in my local store. I had three options available; natural tan, black and a nearly black. Needing a skintone shade, I opted for the natural tan which upon wearing made my legs look insipid; pale and drained of colour.
I was incensed by the lack of choice for women of colour, which was in stark contrast to my experience of buying hosiery when I lived in the US. In my letter to the store, I explained how the range was not representative for women like me, that they needed to expand their colours or lose customers. The response from the company was dismissive and damning. The customer services department said that there was little demand for different colours to match darker skintones. The letter went on to say that even if they were available, it was unlikely that my local store would ever stock those shades as the demographic data did not support the need to stock such items. Therefore, for me to buy a pair of tights made for my skintone, I would need to spend time searching for a pair online, pay for shipping and wait for the item to arrive. This is a prime example of what it means to have white privilege.
For many people of colour, this is a reality we have been living with for decades. Not just with hosiery but with makeup, underwear, plasters and every other item marketed as skintone or nude. When you search for nude underwear for example, it is essentially and by default a shade designed for white skin. Natural tan tights make naturally “tanned” legs look ashen whilst natural foundation gives darker complexions a ghostly sheen. Simply put, it seems that Black and Asian skin does not fall into the “natural” category.
Now you might wonder whether the shade of a foundation or a nude-coloured bra really matters with all of the other social injustices that people of colour are facing. What difference can a pair of tights designed for darker skinned women make to our position and role in society? Paper cuts start small, but once they begin to multiply they begin to wound and hurt deeply. These seemingly innocuous absences of diversity in everyday society become manifested into gaping voids within our power structures. From university departments to company boardrooms, the absence of diverse voices creates a culture and a system that upholds white supremacy. The decision-making process guided by those in power (mostly white men) filters down all the way through the system to acutely impact on those who have no voice at the boardroom table. My lack of choice in the colour of tights available to me as a woman of colour is one outcome. But more worryingly is the impact that such structures have on the life chances of Black people and the injustices that Black communities face. A case in point being the Windrush compensation scheme that was led by an entirely white civil servant team with little to no understanding or empathy with the plight of Black applicants.
The horrific murder of George Floyd which sparked the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement catapulted a demand for change within the structures that govern aspects of our society. It seemed that every organisation, company and charity began to recognise their lack of action to address disparity and inaction in our society in terms of equality, diversity and inclusion. As the nation churned in its discomfort of recognising the ugly face of racism, I became embroiled in a legal battle with an organisation (that was composed entirely of white people) who accused me of lying about my experiences of racism and discrimination during my interactions with them. It was truly remarkable that in such a pivotal moment in British history, a group of white individuals were unable to reflect on their own racism and instead persecute a person of colour who had tried to educate them about their failings. They demanded a public apology, acknowledgement that my experiences were untrue and full compensation of their legal fees. They threatened to take me to court for defamation, but with such clear evidence of wrongdoing and a nationwide movement for racial justice behind me they failed and retreated with little more than an agreement that I would not name and shame them publicly for their behaviour.
Looking back, I can see that my strength and surety in standing by my principles and voice for people of colour in rural landscapes terrified this naïve and inexperienced organisation deeply entrenched in its own white privilege. Clara Amfo made an eloquent and emotional anti-racism speech on Radio 1 in June 2020 that resonated with me. She said about Black culture that “people want our culture, but they do not want us”. For years, I had used my culture, my heritage and my unique, diverse voice to bring a fresh approach to my work with engaging audiences with Earth Science. But when I openly discussed the darker side of what it was like to exist in a white rural space, I was condemned by these people and cast out.
But like a phoenix I rose from the ashes and began to grow in confidence, influence and stature. I am now a Trustee and a Board member for the National Association for AONBs, I have worked on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) taskforces for Natural England, National Trust and National Lottery Heritage Fund and I am in high demand to provide training and talks for a wide range of organisations looking to change their culture and approaches. This year I was awarded the RH Worth Medal from the Geological Society of London and it appears that I am one of the first women of colour to ever receive and award in its 200 year history. In short, where that organisation failed to listen, understand and empathise with my trauma and pain of racism, others have stepped in and championed me. And this is my point. EDI work is exhausting for Black and Asian people. We need allies and champions to support our cause and advocate for our voices in the spaces where we are not represented. This can only happen if white people listen, understand and empathise with our pain and the injustices we experience daily.
A simple but effective example of this is the new makeup brand Trinny London, established by the TV presenter and beauty entrepreneur Trinny Woodall. Since entering perimenopause, my skin requires different makeup and after watching several influencers on Instagram, I decided to investigate the brand. What I discovered was not only revolutionary but demonstrated to me that with enough awareness and courage, a makeup brand can cater for more than one shade of nude. In an IGTV video, make up journalist Ateh Jewel talked to Trinny about the trauma that Black and Asian women face at make up counters. The conversation was powerful and it showed me that when diverse voices are heard by allies who listen and understand – change can happen. The brand offers a Match2Me service where I can pick different eye, hair and skin tones that suit my own colouring. But the piece de la resistance is the forty or so portraits of women of all colours. I can see my own face reflected in the models who are wearing the make up and for the first time I can see how the makeup would look on me.
Although this seems rather a trivial point in the light of the injustices I and others face, it is still a powerful point of change. People of colour are beginning to see themselves represented in spaces where they were previously absent. We are sitting on boards to instigate systemic change. We are rising and challenging those who choose to bully and silence us into submission. Nude beginnings are now becoming new beginnings for us all.
Photo: Makeup all by Trinny London, BFF Cream in Dark, BFF De Stress in Maryam, Lip2Cheek in Pheobe, Eye2Eye in Strength.