Before we begin to understand why colorism cannot negatively affect light-skinned Black people, we must first be honest about what Blackness is. For all the pride and love that label has painstakingly bred in Black people, Blackness is a stain, a mark for oppression. That is no indication of who we are as a people but rather an indication of how we are perceived and positioned.
We celebrate, appreciate and exalt the rich brown skin, full lips, wide noses and kinky hair. We honor and sing the praises of the culture we’ve preserved and created as the descendants of enslaved Africans, disconnected from our home by geography but still connected through music, food, dance and style. We love our Blackness. We embrace, guard and adores it. Who we are is a valid source of pride in us. After all, we come from greatness and beauty.
But those facts, our indulgence and obsession with who we are phenotypically, culturally and spiritually, do not change the reality of what our racial designation means. Blackness communicates to the world that its possessor is a part of the permanent racial underclass, with humanity and liberty both negotiable. There is nothing beneficial to Black people about the label “Black” however magnificent we are.
So this common idea that having one’s Blackness questioned is bullshit. We live in a world where one can only benefit from being distanced from Blackness. As such, the lighter you are, or the closer you are to being white, the better your positioning in this world.
I know, I know…We’re all Black. White people see us all the same way and apply their racist methodology to us all equally. In short, light or dark-skinned, white people and their systems see no difference and fuck us over in the same way. Except they don’t…
To begin, we all know that light skin during chattel slavery meant literal better positioning. Sure, light-skinned Black people were still enslaved, but they were not subject to the same kinds of harsh physical labor as their dark-skinned counterparts. They received coveted work in the big house, with whatever proportional freedoms came with such an assignment. Slightly better food, better clothing and better sleeping quarters were tangible benefits of having lighter skin. Summarily, light-skinned Black people were better off even though they were still subject to the most inhumane, state-sanctioned system of torture and enslavement ever recorded.
Now if we understand and accept that we’re living in the afterlife of chattel slavery, where we are no longer chained or legally held in bondage but are still the “capital” in capitalism to be exploited, subjugated and murdered with impunity and zeal, then it becomes evident that when the setting shifted from the plantation to the factories, stores and offices, the colorist hierarchy accompanied it. White people still remain the absolute power and authority socially, politically and economically and among the Black people they need to keep their system running, the lighter of us are still preferred.
So, no, white people don’t actually see us all the same. “There is solid evidence that white people do indeed see significant variation in African American skin tones.” And given that white people hold the reins to all the systems we need to function as members of society – employment, academia, justice, politics, housing, healthcare, etc. – the fact that they can and do see significant differences in the complexions of Black people matters in that they create the framework that creates the disparity in opportunities and services received by dark and light-skinned Black people.Thus your ace-in-the-hole clapback falls flat because though we all suffer from racism, light-skinned Black people actually still experience the effects of that racism on a lesser scale the same they did during chattel slavery.
A study found that dark-skinned Black women are on average sentenced to 12% longer prison sentences than their light-skinned counterparts. That means that if a light-skinned sister is sentence to 10 years for a crime, on average, a dark-skinned sister would be sentenced to more than 11 years for the same crime. The New York Times reports that “darker-skinned African-American defendants are more than twice as likely to receive the death penalty as lighter-skinned African-American defendants for crimes of equivalent seriousness involving white victims.”
Just as astoundingly, another study found that while Black girls are 3 times as likely to be suspended from school as white girls, “the darkest-skinned African American girls were three times more likely to be suspended at school than their lighter-skinned counterparts.” That means that the disparity in suspension rates between dark-skinned and light-skinned Black girls is equal to that the disparity in suspension rates between Black girls and white girls. So while a light-skinned girl is 3 times as likely as a white girl to be suspended, a dark-skinned is 9 times as likely as a white girl to be suspended.
In 2006, a University of Georgia study found that “a light-skinned black male can have only a bachelor’s degree and typical work experience and still be preferred over a dark-skinned black male with an MBA and past managerial positions.” And The Washington Post reports that “white interviewers are several times more likely to judge an African American they see as light skinned to be above average in intelligence, regardless of that African American’s educational credentials.” Considering these two facts, it’s understandable that “the wage gap between lighter- and darker-skinned African Americans is nearly as large as the gap between African Americans and whites.”
Now that we’ve covered the very real systemic ways that colorism works in tandem against dark-skinned Black people, let us address the “dark-skinned girls were mean to me” rebuttal that pops up like an ass pimple every time dark-skinned women try to facilitate productive conversations about colorism. Let’s just say that I accept that dark-skinned girls are universally jealous of light-skinned girls – I don’t! Seriously, I DO NOT! Like, FOR REAL FOR REAL, stop this shit because it’s completely untrue! – wouldn’t that then say that light skin is coveted among Black people and actually bolster the argument that colorism is real? After all, one doesn’t envy for no reason. If light-skinned women perceive all the strife between them and dark-skinned women as a result of jealousy, then they must also believe that light skin is enviable and advantageous, right?
But let’s leave that argument and allow me to make a request: Without google name me three skin-lightening creams. Now do the same for skin-darkening creams. And if on the slight chance you were able to list skin darkening creams without google, now google and see that the there are more than nine times as many results for skin-lightening creams as there are for skin-darkening creams. Perhaps that’s because people are several times more likely to want to lighten their skin and receive the benefits that accompany that lighter skin than they are to want to darken their skin and burden themselves with colorism.
Honestly, when discussing colorism, light-skinned people – and those who are brown and think they’re light-skinned, but that’s a whole other essay that I’ll write one day and title “Filters and Fantasies”– sound nearly identical to white people who refuse to see their racial privilege. “We’re all Black” sounds suspiciously similar to “We’re all human.” And, “Dark-skinned hated me because I was light and pretty,” is nothing but the colorist version of, “Black kids were mean to me because I was white and they thought I was rich.” Now surely I don’t view light-skinned Black people the same way as I view white people, as evidenced by the fact I’ve spent more than 1200 words thus far trying to explain why light-skinned Black folks can’t suffer from colorism when I wouldn’t spend 2 words explaining to white people why they can’t suffer from racism. But I do think that-that comparison is the best one to try to help the beige brigade try to understand why their hurt feelings don’t equate to colorism.
So forgive me and other dark-skinned folks – or don’t because whatevs – for not placing equal weight on you being called
“white girl” or “light bright” as we do on ourselves being discriminated against more in employment, education and the criminal justice system. Sorry – not really – that we can’t stop to give you a shoulder to cry on because we’re too busy trying to overcompensate in interviews, walk on egg shells not to be suspended from school and pray we don’t get lengthier sentences for doing the same shit as our light-skinned sibs do. Apologies that we can’t stop to give a fuck about you being “traumatized” by someone pulling your hair and calling you a banana in 8th grade. It be like that when you’re just trying to navigate the double dead bolt of racism and colorism.