Colorism in 2021

WARNING! If you ever hear a conversation begin with the words, “I just think it’s funny how…” you’re in for a long-winded dissertation on all the ways this person did not find the actions or words in question funny.

I just think it’s funny how colorism is still alive and kicking across the globe. Today, however, I will be discussing the colorism of Black women in the United States. It’s been a problem since slavery and it’s still an issue today. We’re living in the 21st century and the blatant disrespect and distrust have got to end. There’s a level of accountability that must be taken by women of both fair and darker complexions in the Black community. We are all responsible for how we approach and respond to our difficulties in this life. I find it easy to acknowledge my privilege as a woman of lighter skin because I see it as a way to help myself and my highly melanated sisters. If I can get a foothold in the right door, I can reach back and pull someone through when I’ve crossed the threshold. I am a firm believer that my complexion shouldn’t be celebrated as higher than another, nor should it be torn down by my dark-skinned sisters when it is celebrated. Why is it so difficult for all hues of Blackness to be acknowledged and celebrated equally? Is it an internal or external source of contention?

I believe this is what our ancestors marched for; equity regardless of color or creed. The equity I presently speak of pertains to the fair treatment of people regardless of skin tone. This equity should start within the community before it branches out. Colorism is ugly. All differences should be celebrated not exploited. In my school days, I excelled in academics, athletics, and the arts, all of which were celebrated, but I’ve also been disliked for the same reasons among others outside of my control. I learned to cope with being picked on because I was tall and thin and I ignored the girls who didn’t like me because I was a tomboy who hung out with all the cute boys. I did, however, have trouble digesting the words, “You’re not Black enough” as pertains to my complexion or “You’re light-skinned” as a dismissal of my Blackness and relation to the conversation at hand. The words were said jokingly by a classmate, but they left me puzzled and furious.

I’ve been called many things in my life: Sunshine, Ali, Light Brite, Track Star, Ciroc, Babe, Baby girl, “You with the red shirt!” and all of these names were given affectionately and were well received. To be told, however, “You’re not Black enough” by another Black person based on skin tone, or to receive the backhanded compliment of “You’re cool for a Black girl” is something else entirely. It’s mind-boggling how truly ignorant, insensitive, and dismissive people still are. By saying I’m not Black enough, they’re dismissing my human existence as a Black woman. My experience as a lighter-skinned Black woman may differ from that of a darker-skinned Black woman, but it can not negate my ancestry or experiences within this culture.

As a child, one of my favorite songs from the Schoolhouse Rock was “The Great American Melting Pot“. I appreciated the catchy cadence of it in my youth, but as an adult, I can’t help but appreciate the vision of a land where people came to achieve their dreams while marrying their culture with that of this country. My great-great-grandmother on my father’s side was Scottish, while my great-great-grandmother on my mother’s side was one generation away from slavery. Without the combination of both lineages, I wouldn’t be the woman I am today: a 5′ 10” Black woman of light skin with deep brown eyes and curly-coily hair that takes a reddish hue under the care of the intense summer sun. I am American and I am Black. As a child of divorce, I was raised by a single mother who gave me and my brother as much love, emotional support, and stability as she could. I haven’t been the direct recipient of physical violence from racist bigots, which may attribute to my complexion, but I have borne witness to the verbal assault on my mom from a narrow-minded older White woman in the streets of Burbank, CA in 2016. The assault started on the corner as we crossed the street and continued all the way down the sidewalk toward the downtown Burbank mall as other White witnesses stood by and did nothing. They said nothing as I hurried my mom away from the soon-to-be battered woman as quickly as possible. I’m not the type of person who argues. Neither is my mom. We are women of action, and I was a broke grad student, so I quickly calculated the situation and saw there was no alternative to getting the heck out of dodge. Looking back, I had to watch this situation through two lenses. First, the lens of a black woman, and then I had to step outside of myself to envision what the white woman saw; my light skin versus my mom’s caramel skin. In this situation, my mom became The Provoked and I, The Witness. Both experiences are valid and both roles are traumatizing. Racism is alive and kicking in the 21st year of the 21st century, Black women shouldn’t have to be traumatized by colorism too.

Unfortunately, it seems like the head on this pimple is about to burst because people just keep picking at the issue every time something arises. On the flip side, all this public discussion could be good? For the first time, I saw the issue of colorism being addressed in a TV show a few years ago. I don’t know if you watch the TV show Blackish, but I vividly remember the pain I felt as I cried during the first few moments of the episode called Complexion. Those first few notes of Kendrick Lamar’s song “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” were all I needed to hear to know the direction and tone of this episode. The song oozes self-love and affirmations while it addresses the colorist issues within the Black community. It took me back to a time in college where a teammate told me after months of having known me, that she wasn’t sure if she was going to like me, to which I replied, “Because of my skin tone.”, which was more of a statement because this wasn’t my first encounter with colorism. She responded, “Yes” and the moment was bittersweet because here she was telling me that she misjudged me, but I also felt honored because she respected me enough to tell me at all. While watching the Blackish episode, I noticed how they touched so many necessary topics that have been pushed under the rug of Black society for scores. They mentioned the light skin men are “softer” versus dark skin mention issue as well as the light-skinned women, who are most likely to be mixed, “aren’t really black” versus dark-skinned women “aren’t that pretty” issue. I have to make note that even within the context of this episode, the men’s conversation follows the vein of whether their complexion makes them more manly while the woman’s conversation had more to do with aesthetics and racial identification.

In addition to watching that episode, I’ve also watched YouTube interviews with Jorja Smith where her complexion was addressed in a conversation. Before seeing this interview, I saw thumbnails of other channels discussing how she had replaced artist Amia Brave on the remixed version of the song “Peng Black Girls” by ENNY. The comment section was flooded with Black women’s distaste for the decision to remove the other artist from the song. Many women drug Jorja’s name through the mud saying that she was chosen over the other artist because of her complexion, which is very likely considering the way the music industry operates, but Jorja is also a very talented singer, so I find their basis for bias to be lacking. My biggest issue, however, was that any comment of praise for her talent and contribution to the song was lost in the sea of discontent. Following this disheartening experience, I decided to watch Jorja’s Lost & Found, Colourism, and “Pretty Privilege” interview with Apple music.

I understand. I get it. I’m a conversation starter.

Jorja Smith, Lost & Found, Colourism and “Pretty Privilege“, Apple Music, June 24, 2018

Jorja Smith, the Walsall, England born artist, is the daughter of a Jamaican father and English mother. When I heard the words she spoke (as quoted above) I was taken aback because I had never heard a summation about our complexion so elegantly put. Our complexion, light skin, is a conversation starter. It was mentioned how she would like to be seen as an artist first, and that resonated with me so deeply, but unfortunately, that’s not how things work right now. When someone sees me before I’ve even had the opportunity to open my mouth, an assumption has already been made and an internal conversation has begun about my character. I become the sum of my melanin and it is so disheartening. I still feel the pain of being a Black woman, but the difference is that my antagonizer tends to be within my own community and sometimes in my own family.

As a light-skinned woman, who I am, my character, and flaws should not be calculated or summarized by the amount of melanin in my skin. My ancestry and life experiences link me to my African American and Western European identity. Both pieces exist in harmony. So who would have the authority as an outsider (of myself), to tell me who I am and if my melanin is enough to sustain my “Black Card”? If anything, it should be revoked because I’m coming up on 30 and still haven’t gotten the hang of playing Spades. All joking aside, I’m tired of having to bear witness to social injustice online, hold first-hand accounts of racism, and suffer colorism from my own people.

I’m not entirely sure just how long it’s going to take to unpack the years of colorism and self-hatred that’s been ingratiated in our DNA, but I am hopeful because I see the slew of self-love posts on my Instagram from other Black women. The journey has begun and I believe that one day my lighter tone won’t be seen as better than darker tones, but the differences will be celebrated equally and moving forward, we will share open-hearted discussions when tensions arise. I’ve caught a glimpse of a beautifully harmonious future. It will be a bumpy journey, but the destination is worth it! There is a timeline where darker-toned men will not intimidate whites on sight, and lighter-toned women will not inspire distrust in dark-skinned women regarding their men. It’s out there and we’re well on our way. I can’t wait to meet you there!

2 Comments

    1. It really is sad that this is still happening, but I’m grateful for the fact that conversations are being had that can possibly bring resolution.

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