• Hanifah Jones

50 Shades of Black? My take on colorism

“Oh you’re cute for a darkskinned girl”, “Why you gotta act so lightskinned?”


Do any of these sayings ring a bell? If you grew up in a community of color you probably grew up hearing these things all of the time.


In the black community colorism is one of those things we just don’t talk about. Between systemic racism and global anti-blackness, addressing the issues we have within our own community can seem minuscule in the grand scheme of things.


However, colorism is something that continues to divide us. Who can forget the #TeamLightSkin and #TeamDarkSkin Twitter war of 2015? Each hashtag captured the centuries old self-division that we place upon ourselves.


You may be wondering why skin tone is such a big deal, here’s a quick break down.


Like many issues in the black community, it all began with slavery.


Lighter skinned African-Americans were often the offspring of slave women who were raped by their white masters. Because of this, they were often given jobs in the house while darker slaves were placed in the fields.


Once slavery ended, skin tone was used as a method to discriminate within the black community. The brown paper bag test is an ugly part of our history that was used to determine entry into clubs, organizations and even churches. Because of this, darker African-Americans not only faced abuse from White America, but their lighter peers as well.


Think back to the civil rights movement, most of the leaders had lighter skin, especially the women. Claudette Colvin began refusing to give up her seat months before Rosa Parks did. However, Colvin was a darkskinned teenager and Rosa was a lightskinned adult. While organizations like the NAACP claimed they used Parks because her age and maturity, there is no denying that her physical features played a role as well.


Hundreds of years later, we are still engulfed in our own battles with skin tone discrimination.


There’s a running gag amongst my group of friends and I that I refuse to acknowledge that I’m lightskinned. Honestly, it’s because I don’t think I am, even going as far as obnoxiously referring to my complexion as “café au lait”.


However, according to a survey that my friend put on her Instagram, I am light. When I brought this to the attention of one of my close friends back home, she strongly disagreed saying, “But you don’t act lightskinned.”


I found this troubling because it was further proof that in 2019, we’re still living with these stereotypes. How can a person act a skin tone? It’s something we’re conditioned to believe in our youth.


With Eurocentrism as the standard for beauty and so much more, darker skinned African-Americans (particularly women) were stereotyped as less attractive, unrefined and hostile. Lighter skinned African-Americans were considered to be the standard of beauty in the black community, and stereotyped as conceited, arrogant and privileged.


Look at the media, growing up most of the faces on our screens were light. There’s no denying that Hollywood favors lighter actors. Will Smith was recently criticized by the father of Venus and Serena Williams for agreeing to play him in a biopic. This brought up the discussed of movie characters being “lightened” instead of giving opportunities to darker actors.


Who can forget Zoe Saldana’s controversial role as Nina Simone? Or the backlash Amandla Stenberg faced for accepting the role in ‘The Hate U Give’? The issue goes way beyond Hollywood.

In 2014, a professor at San Francisco University conducted a study that revealed that lighter African-Americans were perceived as more intelligent. It has also been reported that employers are more likely to hire lightskinned applicants.

Another recent controversy occurred in February, when NFL-player Jahleel Addae and his white fiancé were featured in an Instastory toasting for “more lightskinned babies”. When I first saw this, I couldn’t mask my disgust. Here you have a darkskinned man and his problematic partner basically telling the world that “light skin is the right skin”. If that doesn’t scream self-hatred, I don’t know what is.


As I mentioned earlier, I never considered myself to be light. My family consists of a wide range of tones from tan to ebony. However, my youngest sister is significantly darker than the rest of us and as ashamed as I am to admit it, I used to tease her about it. I know I was just a child and didn’t know any better, but knowing that my ignorance could have harmed her breaks my heart.


This has led to many beneficial conversations between us about beauty and blackness. She knows that she is beautiful and loves her features.


It also allowed me to realize my issues with considering myself to be light. I never wanted to accept that I was privileged. For many African-Americans the concept of privilege can be challenging. I also didn’t want to be associated with the stereotypes. I’m not entitled or conceited, and as I write this, I realize how silly it is.


Why should I care if people have preconceived notions about me because of my complexion? At the end of the day we’re all black, right? If only it was that simple.


Honestly, I thought we were on our way of evolving from past colorist ideals. Darkskinned women have been vocal about the discrimination they face and have been fighting against it. Women like Lupita Nyong’o, Viola Davis and Tika Sumpter are continuing to take over screens and demanding that their voices be heard.


Even within the beauty industry, inclusive shade ranges have allowed for darkskinned women to have more accessibility to makeup (thank you Fenty). But is it enough? Has there really been an improvement or is it just superficial?


While there may be changes happening in Hollywood, how are things changing in our own hoods?


I think the best way to make changes is to address the issues at hand. The more open discussions we have about colorism and how it impacts us, the closer we will be to dismantling it. Colorism is real and its up to us to put an end to it. At the end of the day, ivory or ebony, we are all black.


Do you think it’s possible? Let me know in the comments.

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