Shades of Black

by | Jun 16, 2020

This article is part of our Freedom and Justice Week series – as Global Dashboard provides a platform for a diversity of voices to explore how we respond to the wave of protests that followed the murder of George Floyd. Read all the articles in the series here.

A dark-skinned man stands at a car show near the latest Audi model he’s thinking about buying. The car is cordoned off but he tells the steward who is guarding it that he wants a closer look. The steward says he can’t let him in.

While this conversation is taking place, another man who has fairer skin has been allowed in and is sitting in the car, checking it out. The darker man questions the steward who comes up with excuses but still doesn’t allow him to look at it. When the dark-skinned man tells him he has enough cash to buy the car there and then, the steward apologises and begs him to come in and have a look – but the man has had enough and Audi has lost a customer.

The dark-skinned man – my late father – is one of many who experience similar challenges in Turkey because of their skin colour. Turkey is a big country with over 80 million people, and although racially homogenous, people’s skin colour changes from one end of the country to the other, as does the attitude towards each shade of skin colour.

The perception is that the darker you are, the less sophisticated, the less educated, and the poorer you are. The darker you are, the worse you are treated.

“I have seen many examples of this ‘intra-race racism’”

In western Turkey, people with darker features are often regarded with suspicion. They are called Mardinli (meaning from the east, encapsulated in the single town of Mardin), Kürt (Kurdish) or Çingene (gypsy). Gypsies are feared by some because they are assumed to be thieves, Kurds because of the PKK terror group. These words are also used as a joke or an insult if someone behaves badly.

As a Turk from the southeast who has also lived in western Turkey, I have seen many examples of this ‘intra-race racism’ (sometimes known as colourism) towards Turks with darker skin. A large part of President Tayyip Erdogan’s success has been based on his attempts to bring these ‘easterners’ into the fold, and to empower them at the expense of the western elites.

In Sudan, where I lived until recently, many people from the north feel superior to their darker-skinned counterparts in the south. They turn a blind eye to conflict and poverty in these areas, and they discriminate against them with regard to employment as well as politically and socially.

Fair-skinned friends in the capital Khartoum have told me that the darker you are, the less chance you have of securing a prized office job. Even if they secure good jobs, darker-skinned people may be harassed by family and friends for refusing to alter their natural features by using skin whitener. Their skin colour, it is thought, doesn’t match their status in the community and at work.

“What could have been done to avoid this and provide equal opportunity to all a country’s citizens?”

While many fair-skinned westerners lie under the sun or use creams to become darker, the opposite happens with those who naturally have darker skin. In many countries in Africa and Asia, those who have darker skin use skin-whitening creams, risking skin cancer, to improve their status.

Governments have fuelled this problem. West has separated itself from East in Turkey, North from South in Sudan. Their people have not been given equal educational and economic opportunities. Those who had these opportunities because they were born in the ‘right’ part of the country feel superior to the others and discriminate against those who didn’t have the same luck.

What could have been done to avoid this and provide equal opportunity to all a country’s citizens? Perhaps investing in the country as a whole rather than only in certain privileged parts while ignoring the rest of the country, and perhaps looking for inspiration from other countries where such segregation was avoided.

In Tanzania, where I lived for many years before I moved to Sudan, skin-whitening creams are also popular. But unlike in Turkey and Sudan, there is little intra-race racism there. The ethnic divisions that are so troublesome in neighbouring Kenya, Rwanda, and Burundi are generally absent, a fact Tanzanians discuss with great pride.

What did Tanzania get right that the others missed? The philosophy of the country’s first post-independence president, Julius Nyerere, may hold the answer.

To avoid ethnic segregation, Nyerere made civil servants work in parts of the country away from their own ethnic group. Teachers were sent to schools in areas dominated by ethnicities other than their own. Making many secondary schools boarding schools ensured that children, too, would mix beyond their own tribes.

Although somewhat coercive, Nyerere’s approach meant people from different backgrounds lived, studied, and worked together and came to see each other as equals. In today’s Tanzania, people from more than 100 ethnic groups live together unusually peacefully.

“The philosophy of Julius Nyerere may hold the answer”

Nyerere’s success in promoting ethnic equality could be replicated by countries like Sudan and Turkey. This could be done by:

  • Opening schools and universities that offer the same quality education throughout the country. As well as improving the prospects of those in traditionally disadvantaged areas, this will encourage movement and cultural mixing between different cities and districts.
  • Ensuring that the best teachers are posted not only to privileged areas but also to marginalised areas and providing incentives to good teachers who are willing to work in the latter.
  • Incentivising businesses to invest in different parts of the country – again, to provide jobs to local people at the same time as promoting cultural cohesion. Relocating public sector organisations to traditionally marginalised areas can perform a similar function, while also demonstrating the state’s commitment to levelling up.

Tayyip Erdogan’s promotion of people from eastern Turkey at the expense of westerners has created discrimination in the opposite direction and increased westerners’ resentment of easterners. Julius Nyerere, on the other hand, saw Tanzanians as one people, regardless of ethnicity or skin colour. The divisions in Sudan and Turkey, where people nominally of the same race are racist against each other, highlight racism’s absurdity. We need visionary leadership that tackles intra-race racism as well as the hatred that festers between races, so that we are no longer defined by the colour of our skin.


  • Ebru Deniz

    Ebru Deniz works in education and professional development

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