This week, as I was perusing the internet, I came across the memes/videos posted above. Together, they paint a picture of how colorism affects some men in the Black (and lion) community. This isn’t something I’ve thought about much in the past. For me, I’ve experienced colorism as a woman, where I’ve felt the effects most strongly as they relate to society’s standards of beauty. As I saw these memes/video, I noticed the existence of this same theme for Black men. Mufasa, as a symbol of a light-skinned Black male, for example, functionally tells Simba that ugliness is impossible for those who look like them. The memes/videos also create a division between light-skinned and dark-skinned men based on their actions. Drake, as an archetype of a light-skinned Black male, is portrayed as doing something traditionally associated with females, which is frowned upon by many in our patriarchal society. In the video, a Youtube star parodies how light-skinned men are perceived in society by depicting them as overly vain and sensitive. Other memes, such as the one featuring Prince, further characterize light-skinned Black men as effeminate. Ultimately, light-skinned men are seen as unmanly and soft, and dark-skinned men are viewed as the opposite: “real” men.
I wanted to know more about this, so I turned to a trusted source that’s proved quite useful with my high school clients this year: Urban Dictionary. Even though I’m only about six years older than most of my clients, I often find myself a bit confused in our sessions. Now, this isn’t because I’m not listening to what my clients have to say; it’s because the slang they use is just so unfamiliar to me. I ask my students to explain terms to me so much that some of them recently started to offer synonyms automatically (even for words I understand!). Anyway, I decided to look up “light skinned ni**a,” the name of this type of meme – certainly not my personal word choice. According to Urban Dictionary, a light skinned ni**a is “the antithesis of a ‘real ni**a’” and exhibits character traits such as:
extreme vanity, narcissism, physical and emotional frailty, low intelligence as their sense of entitlement relies on their looks rather than mental or academic rigor, a strong aversion to any strenuous physical labor that may mar or otherwise dirty their meticulously selected outfits (pajamas included).
As I digested this definition, I had a few thoughts. All of these characteristics are negative and create a false division between Black men. And many of the traits, such as “emotional frailty,” “lower intelligence,” and “aversion to any strenuous physical activity” are commonly associated (wrongly, of course, but still often associated) with females. This was triggering for me. Why is it still the case that the worst insult a man can receive is that he is like a woman? Why is it still the case that these types of negative and ridiculous descriptions are still associated with being like a woman? Though my questions are rhetorical in nature, we can thank the good ‘ol patriarchy for creating a system that continues to keep women and anything associated with us at the bottom.
Stereotypes likes this are dangerous. Just in reading the comments (always a mistake) under the video, some people believe these stereotypes to be true. One girl commented that she thinks light-skinned men make better partners because they are sensitive, and dark-skinned men make bad partners because they are more likely to beat women up. Obviously that is ridiculous, but seeing this type of media, even as a parody or meme, validates these stereotyped thoughts for some people. I think even hearing people say these types of things to each other can be destructive. Black men need to understand that by equating their light-skinned brothers to women in a negative fashion, they are putting down the Black women in their community (and all women, in general). On the flip side, by saying that dark-skinned men are “real men” because they are “tough,” men (and even women) prescribe that there is only one way to be a man and it involves being dominant. In both of these situations, people are ultimately upholding the values of the patriarchy. These values hurt women, perhaps in more visible ways, but they also harm men. They make many men (of all colors) believe that they must be “macho.” They make many men (of all colors) believe that it’s wrong for them to be emotional. And the list goes on and on.
There’s too much at stake in the fight for liberation for there to be divisions across not only complexion-based lines but also gender lines. We need more Black male feminists (like the guy featured in this link) and allies of other names to call people out for behavior like this which, while seemingly harmless, can actually be quite divisive and destructive to many causes. We also need women who date Black men to stop perpetuating these false ideas.