Celebrate Black History Month: Beauty is More Than Skin Seep

I put off writing this particular blog on colorism many times, because I struggled with how to frame it or even start it. It is also why it’s a day late. I took everything I wrote and scrapped it more than once.  I had a lot of scope creep but at the same time everywhere my mind went I felt was equally important to share. However, I don’t have a dissertation’s amount of time to write it all out nor would you equally have time to read it in a sitting. I decided that what I would do is just focus on just one little portion and sadly the portion I know best.

When I was a young woman, I was dating a person that I thought would be the person I would eventually marry and raise a family with. He, like me, was a Black person, both went to Catholic schools most of our lives in Louisville, we had the same circle of friends and had both opted to attend a Historically Black University when we graduated high school. On paper, he was everything that “Black middle class” families want for their daughters. We, for the most part, got along well as a couple though I always got the impression something was off. We had been dating for 2 years at that point and we were home for the summer break before we would return to our respective colleges for our sophomore year.

When things began to go side-ways, we had spent the day hanging out with our extended group of friends doing not much of anything beyond talking about people at our schools and sharing the photos and videos we took from the year. It had not been a particular deep or heavy conversation, as it had devolved into the guys' juvenile game of "hot or not". I had honestly not been paying much attention on who was getting hot and who wasn’t until another friend, who was a gay man, pointed out there were many lighter skinned women making the 'hot' list. So of course, I made the mistake of asking, "what gives?" I will not go into details about the entire conversation, as it was not a nice one. What I will say is I found out that day that while my boyfriend at the time found me attractive; he believed I would be prettier lighter.

I would like to say we broke up immediately and I never spoke to him again. Sadly, the truth is I was disappointed and hurt, but I didn’t dump him. It would be a source of on-going argument until we broke up but, at that point in my life, I didn’t feel comfortable enough in my own skin to fight back against someone from my own community telling me I was not enough. Fighting back against colorism was not a tool that my parents had prepared me for and, if anything, my father had been deeply damaged by colorism and blamed it for the death of his own father. My father had actually done everything in his power to ensure I was the rich brown I am today; so, I was conflicted for years over it. I had never grown up hearing anything derogatory about my shade of brown so to hear it from a person whom at the time I considered a future partner was hard to understand.

What is Colorism?

Let me first say racism and colorism are not the same thing. Racism is individual, cultural, and institutional discrimination of a people based on race or ethnicity that systematically keeps them in a state of oppression. Colorism is the practice where people of darker shades are discriminated or given less favorable treatment than people of a lighter shade. Colorism is thus a by product or extension of racism that can be perpetrated by not only those outside of the racial group of the target of that discrimination but can also be perpetrated by individuals within the shared racial group that have more favorable coloring. Now, of course, when we start talking about shades of skin, representation in art, beauty and entertainment immediately come to mind as well as, unfortunately, Blackface, cultural appropriation, Blackfishing, all become intertwined into the concept.

Colorism like many other issues regarding race in America can trace its roots back to slavery. During the enslavement of Black people there was racial mixing that was often the result of coerced liaisons between Black women and White men in positions of power over them. These assaults on the agency and sexual freedom of choice of Black bondswomen often resulted in children being born.

These lighter skinned children related to their owners in some cases were given preferential treatment. They also were often given less labor-intensive jobs closer to White enslavers that afforded them opportunities to better educate themselves both intentionally and unintentionally, as well as gain many privileges not given to their darker peers due to their proximity to Whiteness. Furthermore, due to slavery following the condition of the mother and the “One-drop rule”, this resulted in many individuals being “locked-in” to Blackness when visually they may not appear to be Black. This preference buried itself deep into the Black psyche and is a generational trauma being passed down generation after generation.

After slavery ended, there was a continuation of this trauma inside of the Black community with the formation of Blue Vein Societies and Paper brown Bag tests to limit access to organizations and clubs that could provide valuable networking and resources with other Black families of means. Skin tone was not only limited to social clubs; many Black Americans shortly after slavery would often report skin color on their resumes as job advertisements. Colorism in my own family played out on my father’s side with ruinous results for my paternal grandfather and grandmother. Colorism while it does effect both Black men and women, it is often more of an issue for Black women.

Colorism exists in other societies though in many of those regions it was related to historical class assignments, as fairer skin could be attributed to not physically working outside. The issue with colorism is these preferences for lighter skin have real life consequences for those who do not fit into the range of shades. Lighter skinned actresses in Hollywood and the music industry, for example, outnumber darker skinned actresses and well known musicians. Darker skinned people are more likely to have dangerous encounters with the police and end up in jail. A study has shown that lighter skinned immigrants are paid more than darker skinned immigrants and the discrepancy in pay is widening. Black women of darker complexions are also less likely to be married, as colorism means darker women are devalued in dating pools. Additionally, darker skinned children are more likely to be suspended in schools.

This division is a plague on the Black community. It has led to a divide amongst Black people on who is and isn’t desirable, acceptable, and beautiful but this is only internalized hatred rooted in anti-Blackness. It has also lead to dangerous behaviors in Black women who to not fit into an “approved range of shades”.

How Do We Do Better?

California, I can say with joy, was the first to ban hair discrimination which has allowed for Black people to embrace their natural hair textures. However, I think that is not enough. We need to offer more opportunities to darker skinned girls and women to be seen as beautiful and include them in the standards of beauty by ensuring we offer nude clothing and shoes in all shades, that we demand make-up brands offer all shades though this has greatly improved. Support movies and films that have dark skinned women in them. Support ballets and designers that hire darker skinned models and dancers. Support Black politicians who look like Stacey Abrams if they have policies and ideas that would benefit everyone.

Colorism is hurtful and it stays with you once you experience it. It's like a deep betrayal as it often happens within the very community that one seeks refuge from systematic racism. If you are a Black person of lighter complexion, acknowledge your privilege over individuals of darker shades and use the space to uplift others that are darker than yourself. Skin color should never be a the determining factor when evaluating the value of people.

A Book for Children

Sulwe, book cover