Color Still Matters
When I think of colorism, I think of light-skinned versus dark-skinned Black women. I think of how perceived attractiveness, intelligence, and worthiness is measured based on the hue of one’s skin. These ideals come from my own community, and have shown themselves in various forms throughout decades. My mind shifts to this, as we continue to be in the thick of racism in this country. It’s a reminder of how complexion has changed the course of history, and have waged internal wars with ourselves in the mirror.
Colorism is a “touchy subject” that no one likes to talk about or acknowledge that it even exists. It’s deeply rooted in childhood trauma. It’s painful and uncomfortable but something that has to be acknowledged and discussed.
Growing up, I created my own narrative about the worthiness of my dark-skin, based on the representation. Television, movies, and magazines projected the standard of beauty to be White. Which explains why I was obsessed with Orphan Annie – a little White girl with red hair and freckles. I saw the movie, the stage play, had the soundtrack, and the clothes. I wanted her dog. I wanted to be Annie! It was also why I tried to find myself in White Barbie dolls, and books about White girls that did not resemble my life.
My mother was light-skinned, with beautiful long hair that didn’t need a relaxer. At 12 years old, I begged her to let me get a relaxer to tame what I thought was nappy and out-of-control hair that that went down my back. I thought having relaxed hair would make me pretty. I wanted to have “good hair” like my mother. She would eventually give in. And on one Saturday morning I became a slave to the creamy crack. I soon realized that it didn’t bring me the joy I thought it would.
It was the the time I was told by a Black man that he didn't date dark-skinned women because they were “angry and different”, or arriving at a college party only to be told I couldn’t stay because it was “light skins only.” There have been many instances in my life that I allowed to diminish my self-worth. There were times when I took responsibility for other's ignorance.
So many of us are brainwashed by White supremacy and don’t even know it. As a result, a lot of us project colorism – associating skin tones with someone being better, more attractive, or less confrontational, using phrases like “good hair” to describe a person, or being surprised when someone with a dark complexion excels in a particular area.
Nannie H. Burroughs was a dark-skinned civil rights activist and educator. In a 1904 speech, she said: “Many Negroes have colorphobia as badly as the white folks have Negrophobia.” She continued: “The white man who crosses the line and leaves an heir is doing a favor for some black man who would marry the most debased woman, whose only stock in trade is her color, in preference for the most royal queen in ebony.”
Another activist at that time was Alice Dunbar Nelson. Both Burroughs and Nelson were schoolteachers but Burroughs was denied a place in the D.C. public schools because she was dark-skinned, while Nelson went on to achieve much success. She was deeply conflicted around the subject of color. She attempted to write about her feelings in an essay Brass Ankles where she described persecution that she experienced from other children growing up and from dark-skinned teachers in her workplace. “To complain would be only to bring upon themselves another storm of abuse and fury,” she wrote. The essay was never published. Nelson did not want to publish it under her own name and black journals refused to publish it under a pseudonym.
These two women were both outspoken about color but had enough shame to avoid talking about it in public. It proves you cannot separate the painful stereotypes of colorism from misogyny, in part because of the fundamental fact that light-skinned black people’s heritage in the U.S. stems from the practice of sexual slavery, sexual abuse and sexual exploitation inherent in American slavery.
I don’t have the answers to how we get free from the trap of colorism. What I do know is that most change in life starts with open conversation. The time has come to have those difficult conversations, to acknowledge when they make us uncomfortable, and to remind us of our own individual pain.