A light-skinned black woman and a dark-skinned black woman walk along the streets of Portugal. One lives in New Jersey and the other in Mississippi, yet both become good friends in spite of their physical differences because they shared a common belief that those differences shouldn’t negatively define one another.
One may say that is such an obvious statement to make, but judging someone based on the color of their skin is much more common than you think–especially among the black community. I’ve witnessed this sort of behavior growing up, but only recently did I truly recognize how colorism has entered all of our lives.
Colorism is defined as, discrimination against individuals based on their skin tone. It is different from racism in regard to who is discriminating who. Racism occurs when someone discriminates against a racial group that they are not affiliated with whereas colorism is discrimination from a person who is in the same racial group as the one they are criticizing.
I am the light-skinned individual that I was referring to in the beginning and at that time it was the summer of 2018 and I was in Portugal for a study abroad program. I met a student there who confessed to me about how being in that country intimidated her because of the looks she would get from the residents. I began to notice the looks too as I spoke with her on a casual stroll around the neighborhood; people would cock an eye at her or they would whisper to each other as if she was disrupting them simply by her presence.
“This happens all the time,” she told me defeatingly.
She wasn’t wrong. This does happen often to a lot of people who have darker skin. What makes this fact all the more upsetting is that this is known by many people but is accepted as normal.
This prejudice against dark-skinned people of color has been addressed in the entertainment industry, including when Matthew Knowles told Ebony magazine that his daughters, R&B artists Beyonce and Solange wouldn’t have gained worldwide popularity if they had darker skin. He followed up with a comment saying that the biggest black female stars all had lighter skin.
Between January 2017 and early June 2018, of the 68 female solo artists in the British Top 40, 17 were of black ancestry and majority of them had light skin, according to the BBC. Zendaya, Mariah Carey and Cardi B are just to name a few who have reached high mainstream status whereas it’s more difficult to find darker skinned women with that much popularity in the music industry, or any other industry for that matter.
One could chalk it up to that maybe it’s only a coincidence that lighter skinned females are popular because perhaps they release better music, however there is evidence to support that colorism plays a hand into downplaying darker skinned people’s talents.
Grime artist Lioness said that she stopped making music because of colorism that was presented onto her, saying that, “A&Rs [talent scouts] would say things like: ‘she would be better if she was light-skinned’….if I was light-skinned I would get further…so I stopped doing something I love because people kept talking about my complexion,” according to the BBC.
If you think that black men would collectively prove to women like Lioness that her skin tone doesn’t define her, then you’d be wrong. People like rapper Kodak Black are infamous for saying that they don’t like dating darker skinned women. Kodak Black said this himself during an interview at a charity basketball game in 2017.
“I love African-American women, but I just don’t like my skin complexion…my complexion we too gutter: light-skinned women are more sensitive…[darker skinned women are] too tough. Light-skinned women, we can break them down more easy,” Kodak Black said.
This type of treatment of darker skinned people is one of major reasons as to why the phrase, ‘light-skinned privilege’ was born, because it appears that the only way a black man or woman could stay in the limelight is if they have lighter pigmented skin. Thus, this has lead to prejudice against light-skinned people as well, just in a different manner.
At some point my new friend and I sat down near the beach at Portugal to discuss colorism as it had grabbed our attention and we simply couldn’t ignore it. I confessed to her that while I felt sorry for all the negative looks she got during our walk, I couldn’t empathize with her because I couldn’t relate on how it felt to be in that situation.
I didn’t want to insult someone by pretending to understand the pain that they were going through, but I did relate to the other side of colorism – the discrimination light-skinned people of color faced.
Light-skinned people of color who are public figures are often viewed as having transcended their race, according to theconversation.com. So figures such as the Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle and former president of the United States Barack Obama have been labeled as symbols of hope for people of color, but the fact that they are both of lighter complexion has lead some darker skinned audiences brooding with anger because light-skinned people are seen to be more accepted in society.
This privilege stems as far back as the days of European colonialism or transatlantic slavery, where there was special treatment given to people of color with lighter skin tones who were often the progeny of white slave colonisers. In modern times, colorism is exploited by companies to turn insecurities about skin color into financial gain, where there are videos of black women who use skin-bleaching products to drive home that having lighter skin provides greater advantages in the job market or romantic relationships.
So with all of that being said, there is certainly evidence to support that people of color who are darker skinned suffer under the weight of discrimination and lighter skinned people are left to be gifted with more opportunities. So how could colorism possibly negatively affect light skinned people if they seem to have the upper hand? I explained how that was possible to my newfound friend as we went on for hours about our different experiences with colorism.
Although I was never told that I was ugly for how I looked, people implied that I did not act like a black girl. Although I was never called the N-word, I was accused of being afraid of black people by a classmate because that was easier to believe than just accepting that I didn’t want to talk to her.
Although I might have been favored more by others because I could pass for not being a part of the black community, I didn’t feel like some people from that community wanted to accept me as one of their own. Some people saw me as not black enough because I didn’t talk black or act black. I was never trying to talk or act white nor did I feel white. I never tried doing any of those things as a black person either. I only acted like myself.
I wrote this not feeling confident that what I’m addressing in this piece is being presented the best way. My full feelings on colorism are simply unable to be contained in these amount of paragraphs and yet, something compelled me to do it anyways.
I think that was my desire to reopen this topic to people that may have forgotten that colorism exists or to people who never even knew what it was, because colorism started with racism and therefore, if we as any reasonable human being recognizes this then we can change it.
Dark-skinned people are not unattractive because they are dark, and light-skinned people are not sellouts because they are light. Together we all have the same war against racism; different forms of battles probably, but our ultimate goal is to show that we are all the same as far as being living human beings. Any differences we have should be celebrated without needing to bring down other people to do so.
As disturbing as it is to notice the prejudice within the black community, there is hope. People have fought against colorism through various avenues, including art like filmmaker and photographer Francesca Andre who released her short film, Charcoal, in 2017. Andre presents the perils of colorism within the black community and thus, how self-hatred is taught, according to shadowandact.com. There has also been more black representation of every shade in recent movies and television shows like Black Panther and Dear White People. The more we show the beauty of our race, the easier it’ll be to take this poison out of our community.
By addressing this poison, my friend and I grew close in Portugal and gained a better understanding of our sides of the issue. We ended our conversation by heading to the beach where my friend still felt some discomfort with how people were looking at her, but I encouraged her to play in the ocean with me. That day, we played in the water and let the waves carry us off.
We were vastly different on the outside, but we built each other up in the face of adversity. That was the support we gave that day to one another as black people, as women, as humans.