In This Shade

I came across this spoken word poem this past week and thought it would be the perfect way to end my colorism blogging journey. It was performed at the 18th Annual Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival last summer, and the transcript was posted at the end of last month on another blog site.

From being the brunt of childhood jokes to skin bleaching and being afraid of the sun to hashtag feuds between light skin and dark skin individuals, this poem profoundly highlights some of the same manifestations of colorism I have discussed in my blog this semester. And it also includes some topics I did not have time to discuss, such as police brutality, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the infamous Rachal Dolezal. It is powerful — take a second to watch.

 

The most poignant line for me was “Not recognizing your beauty was just me, trying to reject that same beauty in myself. I was told it was my responsibility to lighten the legacy.”  This line has been my colorism journey, and I am so glad that I have had the opportunity this semester to face it, to challenge it, to continue to conquer it. While I was never directly told it was my responsibility to “lighten the legacy” from my family, I definitely felt that messaging from the media and society in general. But it is ridiculous and it needs to stop.  The infighting needs to stop. The self-hatred needs to stop. Because if it continues, we cannot fight back against the system that seeks to keep us all down. But if communities of color and our allies join forces, I truly believe we can, as the poem states,  do some real damage.

As I listened to the poem, I recalled a picture of my family that we took a few years ago at my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary. This is my family on my mother’s side. Her parents are in the front. My mom is next to them on the left. Her older sister is the one in the front row on the right. Her younger brother and sister are right behind my grandparents. My dad is next to me in the second row and my aunt (married into the family) is across from him on the right. The younger looking people are me, my sister and all of our cousins. All of us, except for my uncle’s wife, identify as Black. Look at us. Look at all the shades. I repeat the poem. We are a celebration. We are beautiful. In these shades. In our shades.

 

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The Personal and the Professional

When I first started this blog at the beginning of the semester, it was a very personal decision for me. I have experienced the effects of colorism in ways I only realized in the last few years have profoundly affected my sense of self, identity development,and relationships with others. I have also seen how colorism has affected my family members, classmates, and friends in the form of discriminatory comments, as well as a lack of adequate representation in the media and a lack of sufficient access to various goods.

This week, however, I came across an article from late 2015 that discussed how colorism and internalized racism may be risk factors for youth who may be vulnerable to sexual exploitation and sex trafficking. The author provided several vignettes of young women who linked their beliefs about their complexion to their entry into and participation in the commercial sex trade:

Danica: So when I got into the life that was the only place that I felt it was okay to be light skinned because I started making a lot of money. The tricks like-if they couldn’t find a White girl they’d take me. If they wanted a Black girl and didn’t want a dark skinned Black girl because they might be afraid she’d rob them, they’d take me. Ya’ know what I’m saying. So that kept me out there many, many years. That was the only place I felt like I was beautiful and a star and I must be ’cause they keep giving me all their money.

Yet another survivor, Jada, described how her darker skin color related to her negative self-concept and subsequently influenced her positive feelings toward a lighter-skinned pimp who had approached her while she was in a restaurant at a penny arcade.

Jada: My first pimp came to me. He was hot. He was gorgeous. I’m dark skinned. You had to be light skinned and this is my crazy saying. You had to be yellow to be my fellow. I’m straight crazy. He looked like Rod Stewart. He had the little gold streak in his hair. Because my self-esteem already played in me bein’ black, my color.

Reading this article was interesting for me because, as I mentioned earlier, the issue of colorism is deeply personal to me. In curating this blog and participating in this class in general, I’ve been able to process and work through feelings of internalized oppression and to unearth and combat many biases I’ve found within myself. Because this process has been so challenging personally, I think I have sometimes overlooked an incredibly important piece of doing this work — understanding how isms also affect our clients.

In essence, this article reminded me of the intersection between the personal and the professional. At first, I thought of how this research might intersect with my work next year. I’ll be working at Legal Aid’s Exploitation Intervention Project doing mitigation work with women who are charged with prostitution-related offenses. In my own research, I was aware of how a child’s SES, race, child welfare involvement, homelessness status, and history of child maltreatment among other things could make a child more susceptible to CSEC. But I had never stopped to think about how colorism could affect a child’s entry into sex work. It makes so much sense though. As the article suggests, many children internalize the messages they receive from others and society about their complexion, which can affect their sense of self-worth. This can lead to a host of issues, such as “accepting limitations to one’s own full humanity, . . . an embracing of ‘whiteness,’. . . self-devaluation, . . . resignation, helplessness, and hopelessness” and “significant emotional distress.” All of these factors can then make someone more vulnerable to CSEC.

This research also relates to my work right now. Studies show that some individuals become involved in CSEC during adolescence, which is the age group I work with now as a high school social work counselor. I know the messages some of my clients receive about their complexion are not positive, and I know that can detrimental to their emotional wellbeing. This is why it is so important for clinicians to understand how isms affect their clients. Because clinicians can be a positive force in the lives of their clients, helping them to be empowered by their race or complexion despite society’s messages. Doing that strengths-based, empowerment-focused work can be a huge protective factor against a whole host of negative things, including CSEC-involvement, before it occurs. Recognizing the ways isms affect clients can also be important after a traumatic event has taken place because it can help the clinician validate their client’s experiences, which can bring a sense of understanding and support to the therapeutic alliance.

References

Hurst, T. E. (2015). Internalized Racism and Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC). Race, Gender, and Class, 22(1/2), 90-101.

Teaching Tolerance

My advocacy professor is a big fan of the Southern Poverty Law Center. A big part of their work involves educating and conducting advocacy on efforts related to civil rights, equal justice, and equal opportunity. One of their projects is called Teaching Tolerance, which, according to their website, “combats prejudice among our nation’s youth while promoting equality, inclusiveness and equitable learning environments in the classroom.” I was looking around their website this week and noticed that they have a primer on colorism, so I decided to take a look.

What I appreciate most about this primer is that it comes from the perspective of a teacher who had witnessed colorism occur in his or her school. The teacher provided a background of some of the studies that highlight the advantages lighter-skinned individuals receive due to their skin color. And then the teacher went on to explain the importance of that research for educators: (1) it highlights that implicit bias is real and must be examined and acknowledged in order to effectively educate the next generation; (2) it can be a basis for necessary conversations about race that are often overlooked in the school context despite racialized patterns in discipline and academic progress; and (3) it helps teachers avoid colorblindness. I work in a school right now where I am not convinced that the teachers think enough about these issues. It is exciting to see that some teachers are aware of this issue and find it important enough to share their knowledge about it with other teachers.

Another thing I really appreciated about this article is that it proposed a solution! In so many of the articles and studies I’ve read about colorism this semester, there was not much discussion about how to tackle the problem or how to create change. The issue is often painted as so pervasive and so huge that it is hard to even think that anything will ever be changed. In this case, however, the teacher suggested several steps aside from keeping current on the research related to colorism: (1) posing questions to students about racism and colorism when instances arise in the classroom; (2) building a community of critically-conscious teachers both inside and outside of the school walls in order to be continually challenged; (3) validate student experiences related to colorism and discuss them; (4) share historic and current examples of colorism in the classroom; (5) teach students vocabulary to discuss their experiences; (6) conscientiously group students of different backgrounds and experiences together so that they can learn from one another. The primer even included a lesson plan that teachers could use to discuss colorism with students.

I am so glad I happened upon this website this week, particularly because of the solution-focused aspect of the primer. I think it is so important for educators to focus on this issue because, as the article notes, students often pick up on the ways in which they are treated differently than other students. It is so important that as educators figure out what works and what doesn’t work in terms of discussing these hard topics in the classroom, there is an outlet for that information to be shared. I was really pleased with this primer on Teaching Tolerance and the related materials provided by the project. I encourage you all to check out their website!

 

“Growing Up With Miss Jamaica” – A Narrative

In class this week we’re going to share our personal narratives. When I came across piece, I was so excited because it fits in so well with our homework assignment and because I was in desperate need of some inspiration for my own narrative. If you have a chance to read it, you really should. It’s an incredibly moving essay that reflects upon the author’s experience growing up in Jamaica, a country that, like many others, suffers from colorism.

One of the hardest parts about the story for me involved a conversation the author had with her mother as a child about her own beauty.

“When I told my mother that I didn’t think I was pretty like the beauty queens, she reassured me. ‘Of course you are! Yuh much lighter than me and yuh father. Yuh tek after di Brooks. Di Indian side. You an’ yuh brother an’ sistah have dat going fah ‘oonuh. Fi ‘oonuh skin cool an’ pretty.’ I was aware of the regret in her voice, like the sound of a plucked guitar string. It was so overwhelming, so deep, as if the one redeeming quality she saw in her children was the lightness of her people’s skin.”

It’s so interesting that even when the daughter was seeking validation of her own beauty, the mother turned to the fact that she was lighter than others in the family to encourage her. That a mother could not find that her daughter was beautiful because of her complexion itself but only in comparison to an undesirable skin tone is heartbreaking. To me, this highlights how entrenched colorism is in that society. And it is so sad because the way the mother argued about her daughter’s beauty shows that lightness is what dictates beauty. If the daughter is pretty because she is lighter than her parents, how is she
“pretty like the beauty queens” (who were all lighter than her) as she asked her mother? And what if the daughter was just as dark as the mother? Would the mother have been able to recognize the beauty in her daughter then?

Another thing that intrigued me was the author’s comparison of colorism in the United States and Jamaica, based on her own experiences in both countries. She wrote about Grace Jones and Lois Samuels, who were both Jamaican models with darker complexions. She noted that though they were both Jamaican, they never made it into mainstream Jamaican culture. She wrote, “America and Europe embraced them, gave them what we as a country never gave our dark girls–affirmation.” I’ve already written a few posts on the representation of dark-skinned women in the media in the US. I obviously think it’s not enough here, but we are making progress. It’s interesting how in US, a country the author described as pretty racist, these models were able to thrive, but their own home country did not sufficiently admire or praise them. Are there manifestations of this in American media as well? I’m struggling to think of a similar example. I feel like in US we try to take credit for everything that’s ours (and not ours), but I personally know colorism is very much alive in the US as well.

The author also provided another example of how colorism differs between Jamaica and the US.

But I was later shocked to find that in America it doesn’t matter what shade of black you are—that here, the one-drop rule is taken seriously. Racism trumped class and complexion. I became black in America.

She compared this form of colorism to that of Jamaica where lighter skin is associated with higher SES among other advantages. While I understand her argument about how racism affects all those appearing Black in America, I think her statement underestimates the very real advantages lighter-complected POC receive in the US. I was recently reading an article about colorism in the Latinx community and it highlighted several of these privileges, including the fact that light-skinned Latinos make more money, have a lower unemployment rate, live in more affluent neighborhoods, have higher levels of education, and are considered to be more intelligent and beautiful by White people. These facts are not insignificant and show that there are substantial privileges afforded to light-skinned POC even though they, too, may be affected by racism.

Finally, the author ended with a discussion of how she was able to overcome the effects of colorism and learn to find beauty in herself. She discussed an encounter with an older Jamaican ex-pat who was trying to convince her to buy skin bleaching cream to “fix” her skin.

But I cannot criticize her for being ignorant or superficial, since none of it is her fault. I saw my old self in her, fleeting like an image caught in a mirror inside another room. I was given the privilege of going away to a college with a handful of conscious, educated blacks empowered to fight against internalized oppression. She was not. Our history hasn’t permitted us to see beauty in ourselves, much less each other.

With this quote, I’m reminded of the importance of critical consciousness-raising work. I feel so lucky to have had access to books and professors who have really challenged my previous views of the world and enabled me to fight against my own internalized oppression. I feel strongly that we need to spread that knowledge, in accessible ways of course, to others through our work. Like the author discussed, it wasn’t too long ago that I had thoughts that reflected the same theme of internalized oppression that was present in the words and actions of the older woman (and sometimes I still do). If I hadn’t had access to various books and empowering professors, I don’t know what I would think right now. Spreading this knowledge is an important form of fighting against oppression because society hasn’t only negatively influenced the social and economic advancement of POC. It has also deeply impacted our thoughts and feelings, and in order to love ourselves and others more fully, we have to tackle this internalized type of oppression as well.

Colorism in Makeup

Just this week, Kelly Rowland stated in an interview that she is in the process of developing a cosmetics line for women with darker skin. When I saw the news on Facebook (seriously, I think I’m getting tailored ads/articles on my feed because of this class), I was excited! I know I’ve personally struggled to find a makeup shade that works for my skin tone. When I was younger and just starting to experiment with makeup, I always caked on foundation shades that were far too light for me. I looked like a hot mess. I always thought, if they just had one more shade in between, then it would work for me. At the same time, I remember noticing that finding makeup was even harder for my mother, whose complexion is darker than mine.

I decided to give my mom a call to chat about colorism in the makeup industry. At first, she told me a story about watching my grandmother, who is darker than the both of us, try to find makeup for herself when my mother was growing up. She said that my grandmother also wore foundation shades that were too light for her because the cosmetic lines didn’t carry a shade dark enough for her. When my mother was little, she just thought it was weird and a little funny, not realizing the implications of the situation.

During our conversation, my mom told me finding a makeup shade has gotten a lot easier for her over the years, but she still runs into trouble sometimes. Just this past weekend, she was trying to buy a pressed powder compact in her shade from Clinique, and the store attendant said that the shade she used to get (that perfectly matched her complexion) had been discontinued. Later in the weekend, she went to CVS around the corner from our house in MA and she couldn’t find a shade that matched her own in the brand she liked. It’s not that the store ran out of the shade, they didn’t carry her color at all. When she drove a few towns over into a town that is a little less exclusive in terms of SES, she was able to find her shade. She commented that it’s been frustrating over the years trying to find the makeup she needs, saying  “you know, there’s not just three or four shades of us.”

In reflecting on our brief conversation, I was thinking a lot about access. The intersection of classism is extremely relevant here. The higher ups at CVS probably think that they don’t need to cater to people of color where my parents live because it is located in a relatively well-off suburb of Boston. Because how could they ever get to live in that area, right? So, people like my mom, who do live there, have to drive towns away to get a decent foundation shade. This is frustrating. And it’s really not just about inconvenience, which is an issue in and of itself. But what does this say about who that community values? With so much variety in the lighter shades and not much in darker shades, the answer is clear. Lighter complected people can be different and their differences are celebrated in makeup and in life. But darker complected people continue to be grouped together; in this case, they’re grouped into the same three or four shades.

On the other side of the class/access issue is the fact that specialty brands that have a wider variety of shades or that specifically cater to women of color tend to be more expensive, according to my mother. When I told my mom about the Kelly Rowland makeup line, she was thrilled and said that Black owned makeup lines tend to have more variety. That makes a lot of sense to me, but I wonder how expensive the line will be and where it will be sold. Will my mom have to drive a few towns away to get it? And what about women of color who don’t live close to a major urban center? Access could still be an issue for them.

 

 

Colorism and Hair-ism

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Last week I was walking in Harlem to a hair salon to get a much-needed hair cut. As I was walking, I noticed that there was at least one hair salon on practically every block. Some salons had no speciality; they did every kind of hair. Many specialized in hair braiding. I snapped the above picture of one of the hair salons I encountered on my walk. As you can see, it features a variety of Black women with braided hair, likely accentuating the different styling options the salon is capable of doing.
When I first looked at the picture, I thought it looked pretty cool. I thought that in addition to showing off the hairstyles, it was awesome to see a visual representation of the many different skin tones that make up the Black community. I walked away after that thought. A few seconds later, I turned around again to take a closer look at the picture. I noticed two main things about the collage on my second glance. First, the most prominent faces in terms of both size and eye contact are those of light-skinned women. Second, the darkest skinned women often had their heads facing down and there’s not as much eye contact. Now, I get that as a salon, the main objective is to feature the hair of these women and men, and the darker skinned women often had complicated and intricate braids on the top of their heads. But why are they all like that? Was the decision intentional to create the collage in this way? Did subconscious colorist prejudices lead to the way it was created?
As I continued walking, I kept thinking about hair in the Black community in general. It’s such a personal (and political) decision for many Black women — whether to wear their hair natural (going against Eurocentric beauty ideals), relaxed (chemically straightened, so fitting more into societal ideals), braided, etc. It’s interesting because I think hair and colorism go hand in hand in terms of how they relate to society’s broader standards of beauty. In terms of complexion, society says lighter is better. In terms of what constitutes “good hair,” according to society, I think of the type of hair that naturally doesn’t have much kink to it — the opposite of my own chemically processed hair.
Interestingly, I came across an article from January that explores the role of colorism within the natural hair community. The author discusses how “the preoccupation with longer, looser curl types” is prevalent and indicative of the influence of White beauty standards within the community that supposedly seeks to challenge them. The author writes:

The message is subtle, but profound. If you’re a black woman with natural hair that is considered “nappy,” your hair isn’t beautiful in its natural state. It’s only beautiful with heavy manipulation to emulate looser natural hair patterns. And if you’re a dark-skinned black woman with long, loose curls — you must be “mixed with something.” . . . But why the “face” of natural hair has become light-skin and loose curls is . . . worth exploring. In its own way, it’s adding to the ongoing erasure of darker black women, and it’s perpetuating the idea that even when we choose to embrace our natural hair, we’re still not good enough.

I think the author so spot on here. While it can be an empowering and important decision to wear natural hair, it’s so unfortunate that not everyone can see themselves adequately and positively represented within the natural hair community. We always need to be mindful of how much space we take up and whose opportunities we may be taking away. The natural hair movement needs to be more inclusive of all complexions and hair types because if they’re really going to challenge Eurocentric beauty standards, they can’t compromise. They need to show that all of the different types of hair are beautiful and that women of all shades can rock their natural hair.

#unfairandlovely

This week I came across a Twitter campaign that’s fighting against colorism, particularly in the South Asian community. It’s called #unfairandlovely and it is so beautiful and awesome! I was reading a little about the meaning behind the name and it turns out that it is in reference to a prominent skin-lightening cream called Fair & Lovely. In the campaign, women (and men!!) are fighting against Eurocentric beauty ideals, challenging the notion that lightness/fairness is right/the best.

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Reading through the posts, it’s clear that colorism is a huge battle for these communities. Girls reminisce about feeling the need to bleach their skin at age 12 and discuss how colorism was their “biggest battle” growing up. It shouldn’t be that way. One of my favorite things about this project is how empowering it is for the participants. Despite those challenges growing up, they are now fighting against the names they’ve been called and the system that continually told (tells) them they’re not beautiful. Now, they take smiling pictures of themselves and share them with the world via social media, all while talking about how they value “the richness of [their] skin” and how their “glo provides light for this society.” They say they are beautiful BECAUSE they are dark. And it’s true!

Another aspect I love about this campaign is that it is through social media, which is becoming more and more common. Because #unfairandlovely was so powerful and important for the individuals that initially encountered it, it started trending on Twitter. This is awesome because that can allow it to reach a much wider audience of people who both are and are not aware of this societal problem. As a result, there was a lot of solidarity across different communities that suffer from colorism. One of my favorite posts was of a Black girl whose post encouraged other Black girls to post a picture in support of their unfairandlovely sisters. I loved her post because I think that’s how social movements work best — when people come together to fight against the same social problem. While I don’t think this movement will eradicate colorism as an issue any time soon, I think it is still a great way to raise awareness about this very global issue.