I was born a lighter-skinned Black girl and, by extension, granted the privileges that come with it. As we often see with white people, it is easy for those in a privileged position to dismiss issues they are seldom confronted with. After all, it’s unlikely that there are too many dark-skinned Black women who would claim they haven’t been touched in some way by the realities of colorism. Oftentimes, they were forced to confront it daily—especially all throughout childhood—as society constantly told them they were not pretty or attractive based on their skin color. Women like myself, however, were not.
This is an excerpt from an article I found this week on For Harriet, a blog site I follow that focuses on issues relevant to women of African ancestry. As the title suggests, it discusses the need for light-skinned Black women to recognize the privilege afforded to them by society due to their skin tone. Including this article as the first entry in my Isms Portfolio is an intentional act. As I start this journey of curating a blog on colorism, I wanted to be up front about the fact that I have benefitted from it in my life. So many factors led to my relatively light, “sun-beige” (according to my pantyhose shade) skin tone. My maternal grandparents are from Panama and Costa Rica via Jamaica and India (and apparently Scotland somehow), and my father is a mixture of Black, Native American, and White (his family’s history is not as well-documented, so I am unfortunately unaware of the specifics). Regardless of the intricacies of my racial makeup, the world sees me as Black, and that is how I’ve always identified.
Recognizing I have privilege as a light-skinned Black person has been hard and, admittedly, something that only clicked for me over the past three or four years. When I was younger, it was rarely my White peers who commented on my skin color in a negative fashion. Instead, it was other Black children, invariably darker than I, who called me names like Oreo and high yellow; some even went as far as telling me I was not really Black. Understandably, this was confusing and quite painful for me as a child. I was Black. I am Black. I felt ostracized by my own community, so I clung to those who accepted and welcomed me: my White peers. Perhaps this is why, to this day, I can count on one hand the number of Black friends I have. I assimilated, never looking back or stopping to think about how I was benefitting from a system that favors lighter skin over darker skin. I was simply the pretty Black girl everyone liked; I overlooked the fact that no one took the time to recognize the beauty of the darker-skinned girls in my class.
Sometimes I beat myself up for how naïve I was for thinking I was the only victim for so long. But then I am reminded of the fact that the false divisions we see amongst ourselves in the Black community are based in historical oppression. As the article discusses, for example, agent actors actively separated Black people by their skin color during slavery to create house workers and field workers. This colorized division and the associated intra-racial distrust and mistreatment has persisted to this day. I think of the importance of the theoretical feminist practice of unity-diversity, which emphasizes the strength in diversity in that it can lead to different perspectives and reveal more avenues through which we can dismantle oppressive systems. Just as the feminist movement has been limited by infighting and its inability to be inclusive of the important stories and needs of women of color and transwomen, the fight for racial justice is also limited by oppressor-made false separateness. When we are fighting with each other, the oppressor benefits. But when we come together, we become a much stronger force in the fight to disrupt the status quo — white supremacy.
I think articles like this are so important. Indeed, an article like this was exactly what awoke my consciousness and enabled me to recognize my own privilege a few years ago. These articles need to be shared. Repeatedly. Because it is easy to forget about privilege. It is easy to forget about responsibility. For me, this article is a welcome reminder of how I must work through the pain of my childhood and any remnants of internalized resentment and bias that may still exist. It is also a call to action of how I must listen to and work to elevate the voices of those who do not benefit from colorism — those whose access to various platforms is less than mine.