Read the Room...
I want to start this post off with an exercise. Close your eyes and think of a black woman and a black male. Remember exactly what you see when you think of them. Keep this picture in mind when you come to the end of the blog and reflect. For this Juneteenth, I wanted to bring my brothers and sisters another resource to continue a discussion that constantly divides our community. If you've seen twitter this past week you've seen us go from fighting Caucasian bigots to fighting each other. As one young lady stated, going from a united black lives matter front to being forced to explain why different groups in the black community matter.
(Image by: Michael Hogue / Dallas News Staff Artist)
I want to use this blog post to not only layout the facts of colorism but bring up some problems and complexities that colorism brings Black women and men. I've interviewed 7 individuals (both men and women) who fall onto this spectrum on both sides and in between. While these individuals have their own experience and perspectives I ask when you're reading this that you don't invalidate anyone, stop reading because "it’s not that bad", or believe you're reading from someone you that doesn't deserve a seat at the table during this conversation. Now, let's dive in…
When we talk about all things Black it isn't odd that everything is brought back to slavery.
I've brought up colorism a couple of times but what the hell is colorism?! A term coined by the magnificent Alice Walker, the Webster dictionary classifies it as prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group. During slavery it wasn’t a myth that white colonists created colorism as a weapon to divide and conquer while forcing the ideology that white is right. The first example most of us can remember, please forgive me for these terms, is "Massa" having house niggas and field niggas. **Please note for anyone that is not black that "Massa" didn’t have house niggas because he needed someone to wash his dirty draws.** It was designed to create a superiority complex between Africans to make them think one of them was better than the other because of their skin color. Light-skinned slaves were sometimes given special privileges but they weren't subject to the harsh conditions of the field like dark-skinned slaves. Some of you are already shaking your heads like "tsss man light skins always had it better" and I hope that when you come to the end of this blog you not only fix your mouth to not say dark skin or light skin but something in your brain clicks for you to see the wrongs in that idea too. How did this "mixed-race" even come to place? Well, it's a "fundamental fact that light-skinned black people’s heritage in the US stems from the practice of sexual slavery, sexual abuse and sexual exploitation inherent in American slavery" (Kaitlyn Goodridge). Back in the day, there were tests to figure out if you were going to be in the house or not, if you could join certain organizations, or even attend parties. This was the brown paper bag test. There were also other tests that showed if you were a bit too negro like the comb test (similar to the pencil test done in South Africa), the door test, and the one-drop rule (which ruled out ancestry proportions). These tests also gave Light-skinned the positive connotations of "feminine, intelligent, gentle, etc." while Dark-skinned received the negative connotations of "aggressive, ignorant, illiterate, etc." no matter your gender. These tests were used to measure what level of "blackness" was and were not acceptable in the world.
(Image by: @pamelacouncil on twitter)
(Image by: Julius Malema | Eye Witness staff artist)
Through years of internalized hatred, we began to develop unfair resentment towards each other and push each other into Eurocentric beauty standards. Seeing/ hearing about this issue tends to reinforce the pain to those of us who don't have that look and feel ignored. Today in 2020, "Many Negroes have colorphobia as badly as the white folks have Negrophobia.” (Nannie H Burroughs, 1904). The facts are that there is a huge absence of dark black women in the media, and when they are shown, they are typically portraying the angry black woman stereotype but have a light-skinned character to balance them out. Darker women are rarely the protagonist that isn't troubled by drugs or caught up in the legal system. But is that the only problem colorism brought us? Let's hear some experiences from our interviewees.
Sid Darden, a brown-toned Black man from St Louis, Missouri, and Delaware: "My mom was light-skinned and my pops was a little darker than I was. My mom would get teased when she was younger and people would say she's white because she was so light. As a kid, I didn’t understand what colorism was at the time. I would joke when we went on road trips and say we were good with the cops because we had a white woman in the car. She would laugh but looking back I'm not sure how that made her feel. As for me growing up, playing ball in the summer, I would get really really dark but I never cared about colorism or people calling me dark. Granted, I'm not super super dark-skinned but I didn't care what people said. My view on it is "the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice. White people think they're the supreme race but we're built bigger, stronger, faster, more intelligent, and with [redacted]. I don’t think colorism truly made an imprint on me because I've dated light-skinned girls, dark-skinned girls, brown-skinned girls but I just like black girls period. It doesn’t matter if you're lighter than my mom or darker than my dad. I've developed my attraction off of women being black not because of their shade. I believe colorism is an issue deeper than light-skinned versus dark-skinned. It's “this person is dark so they don't deserve the same rights as a light person”. It' the micro-aggressions we create on twitter like "who looks better" as we put a lighter Black woman and a darker Black woman against each other. Colorism is self-hatred. I love being black, even in times when it seems like the world is being ripped from beneath us. I was never reared in a way to think "you're not light-skinned so you don't matter" cause I'll beat yo ass (jokey joke, maybe, say it and find out I dare you). Between the genders, I think colorism is equal between them with different dynamics. Lighter people will always be placed in a higher/less negative view than dark-skinned people. From the outside, darker-skinned men are seen as "The Black Macho, beasts, and bulls" which brings this stereotype of sexually aggressive and etc. and we become fetishized. [He wrote his thesis on this so check it out here!] Light skinned men however get these stereotypes of pretty boys, licking their lips and taking pictures. On the reciprocated side of that, a dark-skinned woman can be fine -- and I mean bad as hell -- and niggas will still say "she's fine for a dark-skinned girl" and even if she's not as fine people will write her off and view her as ugly because they don’t like how she looks, how dark she is, but a light-skinned girl can look the exact same way with the difference being a lighter complexion and shes all of a sudden bad. I've seen niggas gas up the most average light-skinned women and I'm like nigga calm the hell down she's just light-skinned.
Azure Erskine, a brown-toned Black woman: Colorism is when you discriminate towards people based on their complexion. Preference is when you happen to gravitate towards certain people. Preference ends and colorism begins when discrimination comes into the picture. Colorism brings a sense of internalized self-hate when you start these nasty micro aggressions dogging dark-skinned girls on social media and etc. If you have a negative ideology towards the other side of the “preference” that's colorism. We see this with men a lot. They take it to the extreme (i.e I don’t date black girls because they're ghetto). Colorism was started by white people and it’s a shame that we as Black people have to dismantle everything they’ve created against us. The reason colorism is so hard to dismantle is because the people that gain from this privilege don't want to give that up because we are so conditioned to believe in these Eurocentric standards of beauty. Whatever white people say is beautiful we think is beautiful because it'll get us in the door in society. We have to take that back for ourselves. When people say light-skinned I think people see a lighter-toned girl (biracial), curly hair, foreign-looking (mixed with something else). When I got to Howard people started to refer to me as Light-skinned and I did, and still do, take offense to it because I felt that they were taking away my blackness. I love being black so much that I felt that if I didn't identify as brown-skinned and people called me light-skinned, do I still pass as Black? I never want to walk into a room and people confuse what I am. I am a Black Woman! I am not barely Black. There are negative stereotypes that come with being light-skinned too that may not be as bad but they are still there and it is still colorism. It's annoying seeing social media try to put colorism into one box then label it as only one thing. Do you think when you said "it's not as bad" you're saying that because you want to invalidate other people's experience but in doing that you invalidating your own experience? Yes. Exactly that. Granted being called "being stuck up and thinking you're all that" is worse than being called "a cockroach monkey" (some of our Black men are truly disrespectful as hell). It hurts the person just the same. It's still an insult just tossed a certain way to make you feel bad in your skin. When you call any human being a creature you are wrong. Darker-skinned people, in general, were associated with animals and aggressive and light skins are not — that is a fact— but that hurt of discrimination affects you the same. You can't take that away from someone. You can't say on twitter "I wish you light-skinned b****** would shut the **** up cause y'all don't know what we're talking about. That narrative is false. When you just want to be a Black girl those titles of "light-skinned" are hurtful. Some people like to take the white-passing and run with it if it applies and that sucks. With men it seems dark-skinned men don't have that harsh backlash like dark-skinned women because you tend to want a "real man", an aggressive man, but when you see light-skinned men you think [redacted] or feminine. It works in darker men's favor but not darker women however, again that doesn’t mean the latter doesn’t experience colorism. We need to have these conversations within our community and share our experiences to understand and stop projecting hatred.
Omega Nugent, a brown toned Black woman from Brooklyn, New York: Up until the 5th grade I went to school with mostly black and brown kids so I can’t really remember to many issues in elementary. However, once I started to middle school in Williamsburg, which had a heavy Hispanic population (i.e. Puerto Rican's and Dominicans), I found that I was starting to hear the racist and colorist remarks and joke more. I knew being secure in myself the comments said about me in person or seen on Facebook towards other women of my complexion didn't apply because I dressed well and I always came to school with money. Even if I was to come to school not dressed as well, I know I had heat in the closet waiting. When I say that I mean I was just too secure in my identity to care about what people said to me. Once I started dating someone who was Hispanic I started learning Spanish. A lot of people in the Hispanic community would begin to think I was just a Dark-skinned Dominican. However, I would pride myself on letting people know I was in fact a Black American with Jamaican and Trinidadian heritage. They thought that gave them the opportunity to start calling me Morena and I was not fond of that and I'm still not. Call me by the name my mother gave me not the skin tone I was blessed with. In high school a lot of black boys made it their business to let us, all black girls, know that they preferred light-skinned or Hispanic girls. However I, Omega, was never phased by it because 9/10 they weren’t up to my standards better than me and were trying to tell us their loud and colorist opinions full of internalized self-hatred to get a rise out of us. I ALWAYS loved myself so people’s opinions about my skin never bothered me, but that doesn't mean they weren't said to me or I didn't hear them from a distance. My family assured me of my beauty but the women in my family look like me. The Caribbean standards of beauty are brown skin women. I never had a problem with my color, maybe something changeable, but never the skin God blessed me with.
Elvira Rivera, a lighter-toned Black woman from the Bronx, New York: To start off, I think colorism can go both ways. I know it affects darker women more but at the same time, I don't like that they're saying it doesn't affect us and we're white-washed. Countless times we hear the narrative that "light-skinned people think they're better than us" but y'all are saying that not us. I never said those words; I never thought this story. We're all so conditioned to think this way and it' not cool. I think it's weird that light-skinned people are considered less black because our race is still Black. It's not like all of us are White passing — we're still nigga. I hate to bring it to this, but "house nigga, field nigga.. still nigga". It's a lot of gatekeeping going on in our community. A lot of people feel that if you aren't African, African-American, or dark-skinned in general you can't be Black. You can be Hispanic, Asian, Indian, and still be Black. There are dark skins everywhere. I hear "you're not black so you don't know what we're going through" and I'm like yo, Black people everywhere have gone through this. As long as your skin was darker you were seen as less than. If you didn't have blonde hair, blue eyes it was clipped for you. I feel like this is truly a sensitive topic in the Black community because what do you want light-skinned people to do? We say there's a light-skinned privilege, which I believe is true to an extent, but what do you want me to do? I can't control my skin tone. I can't change being Black because YOU don't think I'm Black enough. I am not white. I'm still dealing with the same shit as a all Black woman. There's a certain look people think about when you hear light-skinned. When people say it, light-skinned, they're talking about clear skin, curly hair — not 4c, they mean 3b/c. They talk about light-skinned people as "mutts" unfortunately and I hated when people called me that growing up. It upsets me that there are criteria in being Black. Again, as I was saying before, gatekeeping. The criteria are you have to be dark-skinned, you have to have black features and come from a black household to be black and that is false. People judge you off rip and say you don't yield the same struggles of being Black. That is not true. From my experience, light-skinned people have felt like they don't know their place, similar to biracial people. Light-skinned has almost "become a race" because we're not "black" enough and not "white" enough. Being Hispanic is different in a way you know. My dad is dark and my mom is lighter, but we've all identified as Black. When we step outside the door it was constantly "you're not black, you're Puerto Rican". The Puerto Ricans told me I'm not Puerto Rican because I don't speak Spanish. Then people would come at me like "what are you mixed with" as if they were trying to make me someone exotic and it was crazy because I am just a Puerto Rican Black woman. No, I am not African-American but I am Black and there is intersectionality within it. My point with that is people think being black and African-American are interchangeable. All African-American people are Black but not all Black people are African-American. There are multiple cultures in the Black community. When I fill out this census, my family is writing Black. In Puerto Rico, people are still figuring out how to claim their blackness. To bring this all full circle, I am a Black woman by race and a lot of people in my life have tried to diminish my blackness. It's weird to police people's identity. Well Vira, do you think there's a way to solve colorism? We would damn near have to change every naysayer’s mind to solve it. I hope that one day we can be unconditioned to thinking that white is better, which will probably never change because of respectability, politics, and "privilege". Honestly, I feel like as black people one day we're all going to even out into one complexion and that is inevitable.
Myles James, a brown-toned Black man from Plainfield, NJ, and Atlanta, Georgia: The biggest issue with colorism is that we as Black people have extended it. Yes, it started with slavery but we kept it going. I think we see it more with women in our community. From what I see in social media darker men are fantasied than lighter men but when I talked to my white friends and counterparts I think they find dark-skinned guys way more intimidating and scary due to those stereotypes that were given to us. It's weird to think about. Growing up I went to this Christian middle school and it was about 20 Black people in my class. Ironically there was only me and one other woman in there who were dark-skinned. We were always the butt end of the joke, "the darkies". It became triggering to me and ultimately it led to me fighting a lot and getting expelled. From ages 13 and back it was rough, but then out of nowhere, it became cool to become dark-skinned. Do you feel like it became cool because people were opening their eyes up and saying we were wrong or was it just a trend? I definitely think it was a trend. To this day I don't think people acknowledge that just a few years ago we use to shit on dark-skinned people. I don't know if it was that we were shitting on dark-skinned people or we were just placing lighter people on a pedestal. Moving forward, I don't think it should matter what shade you are. If we ever want to get anywhere as a community we don’t have to describe people like "oh D'Zyre the light skin chick" or "Myles the dark skin dude". We don't have to do that. If we could find a way to not acknowledge our skin tones with kids or teach them that it’s not a difference I think we'd be starting somewhere. We're all black. That’s what everyone else sees anyway.
D'Zyre Jones-Grimes, a brown-toned Black woman from Syracuse, NY: Ah, I never thought there’d be a time I’d have to talk about this publicly, but that day has where I have to admit that I have trouble accepting my complexion is here. My experience with colorism started quite young. In a way I was raised to think colorist? Is that a thing? I'm unsure but as a kid, I always knew I was black but I didn’t feel black. Growing up I thought my mom was in fact a white woman because my grandma was white (I knew her father was black but I was a kid and my mother is white-passing). I was told often that my hair was too nappy for me to be this light. [newsflash y'all I am NOT even bright] and my grandfather convinced my mom to “take care of that” when I was 10 years old. Every two weeks my grandfather would make it a priority to perm my hair like he used to do to his. Can’t be having people think we were too much of a negro, right? My mom would subtly tell me to not go outside in the sun too long because I was going to get dark. She’d say it with a demeaning tone though. If I did get darker I’d get comments like “you don’t even look like my daughter”. Looking back I don’t think my mother meant any harm, but nobody ever told her it was wrong to say/think things like that. When I became old enough my grandma told me how her stepfather used to beat her when she came from school because she was lighter than all of the other white people and she was called her a nigg*r. From young, I never had the idea that lighter people didn’t face colorism because my grandma taught me young that that’s not true. When I went to school I considered myself brown because light skin meant I looked like my mother or my friend Vanessa who had long curly hair and that wasn't me. I didn’t feel as pretty as them. It didn’t matter how many people told me I was beautiful. I started hating my hair being nappy, so once I got it permed I was kinda happy. Once I got to middle school that was the first time I got called a house nigger. I don’t remember the context. I just remember how awful I felt. In high school, my mom put me in an all-white high school and it wasn’t colorism I dealt with, it was just pure racism. I remember this one boy I liked, yes y’all he was white haha, finally liked me back and he told me he couldn’t date me because I was black and his parents didn’t like that. I had a white girl tell me “you are so pretty for a black girl” and I was so disgusted she said that to me because I have darker-skinned friends who I felt were way more beautiful than me that this girl knew and I knew that she only said that cause I was light. I started appreciating darker skin a lot more. I believed that it made you more black or more in tune with the black community. People wouldn't question my commitment to the race. I even had it in my heart to believe one day my kids would be black too like my dad (dark-skinned). I consider myself a black woman, and I did when I first thought this to myself too, but I knew to be darker made me more black without the identity crisis. I honestly am so embarrassed to admit I'm so insecure to admit that sometimes when I look in the mirror I still hate what I see and wish I could be browner so nobody could diminish my blackness but that's why I want to have this conversation. Restructure this last sentence.
Remember the two people I told you to think of in the beginning? What did they look like? Were they darker or were they lighter? Was their hair kinky? My intention is not to belittle what you think black is as a black person but to open your mind. Black people come in all shades, different hair types, etc. and when we as black people learn to accept our sisters for being darker and our sisters for being lighter [something neither can change] we can see that we can unify, but it starts with stopping subcategories. If I identify as a black woman why must you label me as dark-skinned or light-skinned? Why are you one drop ruling me still? Black people are beautiful and amazing no matter how dark or light or in between we are. Happy Juneteenth family. Enjoy this video if you can on Eight black women discuss the politics of skin tone.