Colorism is a spectrum that Black communities have yet to reckon with
OPINION: When it comes to solving problems like colorism, our collective healing would go a lot further if we honored the specificity of each other’s experiences
I was sitting at a lunch table in 10th grade when an amber-skinned boy told me that I was the darkest girl he would go for. I remember being annoyed by his assessment that I had barely made the cut for desirability, but as a teenage girl wrestling with her own perceptions of beauty, instead of being outraged, I accepted a moment of simultaneous praise and devaluation.
That experience of being temporarily placed on a lighter-skinned pedestal simply because I was a noticeable gradient lighter than a few of the chocolate girls around me, is just one of many within Black communities that showcase the nuances and subtleties of colorism. It’s those subtleties that can make the problem even harder to see and easier to perpetuate.
From hit reality shows, to the lyrics of our favorite songs, to uncovered stories from Black Hollywood, the reality of colorism continues to show up in Black entertainment and culture. Though many of us are aware of this centuries-long issue, Black communities have yet to truly reckon with it. That could be because—in addition to being such a sensitive topic—colorism can be very complicated, subtle and perpetuated to various degrees.
Colorism is a spectrum and the ways that we all participate in and react to it range from the most brazen displays like DaniLeigh‘s “Yellow Bone” anthem to blurrier, internalized ones like City Girls’ JT‘s old tweets. From those who choose to name the problem in the moment to those who choose not to share their suspicions and first-hand experiences until years later, the stories within our communities provide lessons about imagining outside of our own experiences that we all can learn from.
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Colorism Is Everywhere
prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group.
Now in my 20s and years removed from that lunch table, I’ve fallen in love with my skin and lost interest in men (and people in general) who cling to colorist sentiments, but I’m still tired of the constant interruption of it. Sometimes, colorism is the cringe under a tight beat or the wince at a movie trailer, or the fatigue of too many [insert heterosexual Black male celebrity] partner Google searches that confirm what you may already suspect.
As a brown-skinned woman living in the era of #BlackLivesMatter, #BlackGirlMagic, and #BlackBoyJoy, I’m even more tired of Black people being put in positions within our own communities that ask us to prove that something self-evident exists.
In today’s progressive circles, so many of us have grown weary of hearing white people tell us our Blackness doesn’t matter in situations of power. Yet when we tell our darker-skinned brothers and sisters that their color doesn’t matter in situations of power within our communities, we silence them the same.
A recent episode of Basketball Wives serves as an example. In it, the feud between reality stars Evelyn Lozada and Ogom “OG” Chijindu captivated the attention of viewers as the cast discussed Chijindu’s allegation of colorism in the group. In one scene, as a teary Lozada clasped her hands over her heart and expressed how she felt about OG’s allegations, her words rang reminiscent of what white people and white women in particular have said while defending themselves against allegations of racism.
“That s**t hurt my soul. My kids are Black, my step-children are Black. So for you to sit up there and make this claim because you want 15 minutes is wrong,” she argued.
Here’s the thing. Nobody wants to admit to participating in any system of oppression and when someone brings that possibility to our attention, getting defensive is a common human reaction, but it’s not the appropriate response. Colorism is a byproduct of racism and it’s that kind of fragility demonstrated by Lozada and others that makes us more preoccupied with proving that we’re not colorists, rather than committing to do whatever is necessary to dismantle colorism.
The Black entertainment landscape has long teemed with examples. Recently, the prolific actor Clifton Powell shared that he had been passed up for roles because of his dark complexion over the course of his career.
“If I told you how many times I’ve heard them say that ‘he’s too black for the role, you wouldn’t believe me,” Powell said in an interview with The JasmineBRAND. “In one big movie, the networks told the producers they thought I was so dark that I might scare everybody.”
Last fall, Dr. Wendy Osefo also received pushback from her castmates when she recounted her experience with colorism during the reunion special of the Real Housewives of Potomac. In a discussion about stereotypes and the ways that being described as aggressive affected Dr. Osefo in particular, quips of “it doesn’t have anything to do with color” and “I’ve been called aggressive, so…” quickly filled the room on cue.
Psychologist Brene Brown tells us that “in order to empathize with someone’s experience, you must be willing to believe them as they see it, and not how you imagine their experience to be.”
I’m no expert, but I’d dare to say that in a society that routinely attempts to undermine the believability of Black people, those who come forward with traumatic experiences don’t have much to gain other than taking control of their own healing and the possibility of giving other people permission to speak their truths. Naming an issue takes courage and it’s intellectually dishonest to dismiss the experiences of those who do simply because it’s not our experience, which bring me to the last thing.
We All Are Not The Same, And That’s OK
Part of the problem with the idea of sameness is that it sets the expectation that forms of prejudice and discrimination, like racism, colorism, sexism, homophobia and so on, will manifest the same way for everyone, every time. When it doesn’t, we struggle to recognize the problem.
Black people exist in such a stunning diversity of shades and hues that lightness and darkness are not confined to rigid categories; they’re subjective qualities that exist on a spectrum. Colorism can also look different across various communities within the diaspora, geographic regions, generations, gender identities, and phenotypes. What one person may perceive to be a colorism-free experience, could be an incident that surfaces a history of trauma and intersecting identities for someone else.
So, when we say things like, “We’re all Black people with the same struggle,” or “I’m the same color as you and I didn’t feel this way,” or “They called me the same thing and I didn’t think it was colorist,” we fail to take this person’s personal contexts into account.
Read More: Shaunie O’Neal reveals how ‘Basketball Wives’ will tackle colorism accusations this season
Buying into the idea of sameness also happens when we draw false equivalencies between colorism and intra-communal violence driven by trauma and internalized racism. Colorism is a system of power that favors lighter-skinned people and it has a history of enforcement by government, educational, and media institutions.
The emotional scars inflicted by dark-skinned girls and boys who bully lighter ones are not “the same” as the systemic scars left by employers preferring less qualified but lighter-skinned Black men over dark-skinned men or a criminal justice system that is 65 percent more likely to convict people widely considered to be very dark.
That said, healing is messy and while the ways that colorism shows up in our lives may not be the same, we are all unified by our right to be seen and for our pain to be acknowledged. We all have blind spots in one area or another, and centering compassion can help us find them.
I used to think that lighter-skinned girls were celebrated, but in recent years I’ve come to understand that being exoticized and fetishized is not “the same” as being celebrated, and being likened to a trophy is not “the same” as being cherished. In some cases, it may even increase the risk for violence.
Understanding that type of nuance is only possible when we open the ears of hearts to truly listen to each other and honor the specificity of each other’s experiences. We all are not the same and that’s ok. In fact, it’s better than ok. The vastness of Blackness is part of what makes the diaspora so divine. The specificity within our stories is what colors our lives so vibrantly and it’s something we should embrace. When it comes to solving problems like colorism, I think our collective healing would go a lot further if we did.
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