Are you taking up space?

I was contemplating writing about this because often when it is brought up in conversation it’s rare that someone fully agrees with me. I didn’t want to write this in a ‘preachy’ way to make people feel guilty about their privilege so instead I’ll take a different approach. I’ll talk about my personal experience, what I have learned about myself and why I feel as though I was taking up space. So technically most of this is going to be about me, but you should try to relate if you can. 

I’ll start by saying that privilege isn’t a bad thing, in fact it’s great and incredibly useful. I think twitter culture has partly caused people to believe privilege is something to be ashamed of, when actually it’s only shameful when you knowingly use your privilege to do a bad thing. This is a very simple way of looking at it though. I also think that a lot of the time we may feel as though by acknowledging our privilege we are devaluing our efforts. Sometimes it makes you feel like you’re not good enough to do something just because you asked for help. This shouldn’t be the case, someone else helping you out benefits you in the end and admitting that doesn’t mean you aren’t great. You are. But that person who put you on is great too.

What does it mean to take up space? Well to me, taking up space means that I chose to take an opportunity that would have benefitted someone less fortunate and less equipped than me. “That might be true Jes but at the end of the day you rightfully earned your place at that summer school” is the response I tend to get. I made sure to mention summer school specifically because this is what the main focus of this post is going to be about and summer schools tend to be made for less equipped and less fortunate students but I digress. Yes, I did rightfully earn my place but it’s also important to note that I got that place because my privilege played a role where someone else’s did not

I might not necessarily have a billionaire background and know all the right people but that doesn’t mean I’m not privileged. I went to a high achieving school, my peers were driven (well most of them were), I was in an environment where extra-curricular opportunities were made available, when I was at home I had spaces where I could focus, I didn’t need to share a bedroom, the surrounding area of my home is safe, my Dad is an academic and helped me get work experience at his office. I could continue to go on. My point is I’m in an environment where it is natural for me to succeed. I didn’t necessarily consider these things being contributing factors until I started to imagine my life without them. 

For many, life does not include these things. There are people living with potential that doesn’t bear fruit. This might not directly be my fault, but let’s say I wanted to apply for a summer school or some kind of useful program. The process tends to be a little like this:

  1. I find out about the summer school on my sixth forms weekly notice.
  2. I decide to apply, I come from a BAME background and from my postcode it appears as though I’m impoverished so it’s fairly likely I’m eligible.
  3. I write a personal statement that is read and edited by every teacher and their mum. 
  4. I get on the summer school/program, but if I don’t one of my classmates most definitely does and it’s likely they went through the same process.

Someone else may have applied totally on their own with no one to help them and end up missing out on this opportunity that is likely to have had a marginally better effect on them than myself. Their application may not have been as good as mine because they were probably too busy dealing with the actual problems it appeared I had. This isn’t to say that the admissions people of such things should accept a sub-par application, but if those of us that could afford to pass up this opportunity took a step back then the majority of people who truly needed the opportunity could take it. Although, this is assuming that less equipped/privileged students are incapable of producing strong applications which is not true. 

I’ve often thought to myself when I had attended certain summer schools that a lot of the things I had learned whilst there, I could have learned by myself with some extensive research. Upon realising this I then thought, well I guess in this case I’m not really taking up space because someone else could easily google something if they desperately wanted to learn about it. At face value, this makes a lot of sense. Here’s why it doesn’t: some students have not been in an environment in which they fully know how to utilise the tools that are around them. As much as sixth form taught me my A-Level subjects (to some extent) I learned skills like how to research effectively and my favourite teachers were high-achieving academics who made great role models. Some students cannot relate and that is why they would need a place on that program more than me, because on that program they might learn the skills I already acquired and they might find a role model they never had. Just by taking a step back, as a collective we can allow others to be just as socially mobile as us. It’s also worth nothing that taking a step back doesn’t put you at a disadvantage, especially if you are equipped with the skills you need to create opportunities for yourself. 

Perhaps it’s up to admissions officers to make sure that the selection process is more extensive, they could request more information and even conduct interviews. Although, this may not be pragmatic and things like this require time and money. Also, requesting more information may feel invasive to students.

That being said, summer schools and extra-curricular programmes seem like an appropriate time to take a step back if you can afford to. They tend to happen earlier on in life where missing out means slightly less. Later on in life when it comes to internships, careers and work placements things tend to be different. But I’m not there yet, so I’ll get back to you in a few years.

Special thanks to Migena and Eyram for their encouragement and advice when writing this, it is much appreciated 🙂

Privilege is invisible to those who have it – Michael Kimmel



If you’re tired of seeing the word colourism your darker skinned counterparts are just as tired of experiencing it. 


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In my opinion this is a pretty solid definition. I underlined ‘typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group’ because this is what makes colourism so interesting yet problematic. The sheer fact that members of the same race are discriminating against their own is mad. It makes it difficult for us to pinpoint who or what exactly is accountable. I’m sure most would point the finger at black men or even lighter skinned women, but why is it that these groups are most likely to reject the existence of colourism altogether and what is the root of colourism in the first place? It has been said many a time that black men do not talk about black women the same way males of other races talk about their female counterparts.

In America colourism has roots in slavery. Lighter skinned slaves, who were typically the mixed children of their slave masters, tended to take up jobs in the house that were deemed more desirable than the outdoor jobs typically done by darker skinned slaves. However, colourism in the UK is notably different. Colourism amongst black Brits, particularly those of African descent, can be said comes directly from the home countries of these immigrants and can be also said is due to the lack of positive representation in the media of black women. It’s evident in a lot of shows/movies, you can see for yourself if there is a black lead she is usually of a certain complexion. As time goes on we are starting to see darker skinned women taking on lead roles, but this isn’t necessarily mainstream yet.

In Ghana, one of my own home countries, lighter skin has become so sought after that women in particular are going to extreme measures to attain it. Some women even resorted to taking pills whilst pregnant in hopes that their children would be born with a lighter complexion. Hydroquinone is the primary chemical in most topical skin lightening products (that is also said to be potentially carcinogenic) which thankfully Ghana has banned. This is a huge move as the skin lightening industry is worth billions, this is a step in the right direction for countries like Ghana that will hopefully set the example for other African countries to follow suit.

That being said, whilst the issue of colourism “back home” is slowly but surely being addressed the same cannot be said for those of us in the UK. Many darker skinned black women can name countless occasions in which they have been discriminated against or picked on because of their complexion. This is absurd. Many would respond and say that these women should call it out when it happens but many also seem to forget about the angry black woman narrative. A black woman, and in particular a darker skinned one, calling out colourism is often seen as bitter despite her objection of a comment being completely valid. It’s very easy to say what you would do in a hypothetical situation because the chances are you haven’t literally been in that situation. It’s also worth noting that colourist comments tend to be made in casual environments in which a dark skinned female calling it out may seem to be darkening the mood. I’m sure many of us have witnessed it first hand in secondary school; being called blick, “you’re pretty for a dark girl”, “she’d be peng if she was lighter”, etc. It may seem like it’s not that deep, but if you feel that way the chances are you’re not dark-skinned or you have made such comments yourself. Comments like these from a young age can be damaging to a black girls self-esteem and also paint a negative picture of darker skinned girls to the rest of us where darker skinned women are deemed unattractive (and not just in terms of looks).

It’s often the case when I have these conversations with my mates a few might say that these things were more prominent in secondary and eventually people grow up. At face value this claim seems fair but what is really being said is that “yeah colourism is bad, but eventually people grow out of verbally and racially abusing black women”. You might think this is an extreme way of interpreting this response but that is essentially it, if you are making comments towards someone of a darker complexion that are derogatory because of the fact they are dark, that is verbal and racial abuse. Abuse isn’t always beating someone up with a hammer and it is not a rite of passage. And yes, in secondary school people were made fun of for various different things and whilst people call this character building many cannot relate. Besides, in my opinion colourism is more destructive than it ever will be progressive. We need to change this narrative that making comments like this is normal when you’re young but the only way we can do this is by calling it out, especially if you are lighter in complexion because your fairness comes with a privilege that you should use.

I have also heard some talk about “reverse colourism” in which it’s said that lighter skinned folks are discriminated against and are bullied but this seems like the kind of response that is made to erase the severity of colourism against darker skinned people. Although, I read an interesting paper on extreme colourism in Tanzania where black people with Albinism are treated in horrific ways. That being said, this is still a black issue. In fact, colourism is also an Asian issue and a feminist issue. It’s clear that the victims of colourism tend to be females and dark skinned African females in particular, however, colourism in Asia is worth talking about. In Asia, there isn’t much regulation on skin lightening products. ‘Fair & Lovely’ products are extremely popular and it seems as though many don’t see an issue with using their products because they claim to not be physically dangerous. But the key word here is physical. Many asian women are used to seeing their favourite bollywood stars have light skin and be desired, in fact bollywood is saturated with actors all within one or two shades of each other. This lack of representation breeds self hate. Perhaps people should not take this too seriously, if you see a light skinned person and end up hating yourself that seems like a you problem right? Absolutely not. This line of thinking is problematic, self loathing takes time. It’s the little things like trying to stay out of the sun in the fear of getting too dark, or buying the foundation that doesn’t match you or it’s even being afraid to wear certain colours because you feel like it won’t look as good on your darker skin. All of this comes from wanting to be desired, it’s literally in our nature.

In light of this, this isn’t to say you should have a radar to detect colourist comments everywhere you go, but pay attention to what people say and also how they say things. Colourism is often closer than you think. 

Good reads:

The roots of colourism: (this is more on the American side)

Eyrams take: (she has a fab blog, plenty of good stuff to read)

Extreme Colourism & Albinism in Tanzania:

Colourism in Asia:

Ghana banning skin lightening products:

(Also make sure you have a look in the comments and leave your own thoughts!)

Strong people stand up for themselves, but stronger people stand up for others.