My dad is Black and from the US. My mom is Scottish-Irish. I came out very light skinned. For most of my early childhood I was universally read as white. It wasn’t until I hit puberty and entered into a largely Puerto Rican middle school that I started being seen as Latino—a shock both because I am not, but also because I had rarely been identified by others as a person of color before.
Though I grew up in a somewhat racially and economically diverse neighborhood, my family is wealthy. My class status in addition to my light skin called my Blackness into constant question in class, in my after school program, and wherever else I met other Black people. Most of the slang and cultural cues I picked up to help me fit in were learned from friends, neighbors and Black popular culture, because they were not present in my household.
In Chicago where I currently live, other Black people usually do not acknowledge me. On my way to the train, passing folks on the sidewalk, there is usually no eye contact made, no attempt at a connection. Only when I am walking with my roommate, or another Black friend are the acknowledgements—head nods, handshakes, good afternoons—directed towards me through proximity. The racial context I inhabit changes quickly based on who I’m standing with, talking to, or whose arm is linked in mine.
In the youth work I do—both professionally and as an independent community member—I often reach out to other light-skinned, half-white and white-passing young people. I see them grappling with identity, self-acceptance, with where they fit into the larger Black community, and the struggles currently renting that community apart. I try my best to hold their pain, make room for their confusion, while also underlining the most important thing I can teach them: Being light skinned is a privilege, not a struggle.
I have always loved being Black. I have always loved other Black people. Having to fight for my place in the Black community, being called upon almost constantly to demonstrate my authenticity, prove my worthiness to self-identify, has at times left me exhausted, wounded, and enraged. Because I hold so much pain around not being seen as Black, it is easy for me to forget that there is a much greater amount of pain that comes with being seen as Black.
As a queer person, some of the ugliest anti-Blackness I’ve experienced has come from other queer people of color. At clubs and bars, in online chats, “I don’t like Black guys, but you’re cute,” or, “You’re lucky you don’t look Black,” are offered as actual pickup lines, not occasionally but frequently. Because these lines disgust me, it can be hard to remember that these moments, too, are a mark of my privilege. My body and my identity are being invested with value, and even when it comes from folks who won’t be coming anywhere near my bedroom, it still lends weight and power to my whiteness.
Across the board, we as light-skinned people have more power and access than is just. Economically, in education, opportunities for growth and prosperity are extended to us more regularly than dark-skinned Black people. When we accept those opportunities, we are more easily absorbed into the institutions that harm other Black people while providing us with benefits. We are at less risk of police and state violence, less likely to be seen as threatening or dangerous in ways that would drag us into the carceral system.
In movement and activist spaces, there are too many of us in leadership roles, too many of us called on to speak to issues we are undeniably less impacted by than darker-skinned members of our community. We need to step back from these positions of authority; other Black people have the right to question our authority when we don’t.
I am patient with the young, light-skinned, half-white and white-passing people I have these discussions with. It took me years—well into my adult life—to truly comprehend that the baggage I carried around my light skin had been given to me not by other Black people, but by the racist systems that invest my whiteness with power, shielding me from at least some of the violence rained down on so many others in my family, neighborhood and larger community. The tension between me and other Black people, which I still experience, is manufactured by the structures that give me power and value just for being a little closer to whiteness than they are.
Other Black people have every right to check me, distrust me, and even dislike me for this reality. While I claim as much part in creating it as they do, I am the one who benefits from it. I am the one who is charged with giving up my light-skin privilege, making myself dangerous to the structures that imbue me with a greater humanity just for being light. When I neglect to do this, I betray other Black people. I am the betrayer, not them.
What I try to teach young, light-skinned people is that the harm sometimes hurled at us from other Black people comes from a pain we don’t experience. It is the knowledge that our lives are made easier, our passage through the world a little safer, just for looking, being a little less Black. The injustice at the core of this tension is anti-Blackness, not anti-lightness. Every time we expect our experiences to be centered, that our stories of mistreatment as light-skinned people take the fore, we are contributing to this injustice. We are subtly refocusing Black struggle on ourselves, in a world that already gives us more focus, more attention and encouragement.
Centering ourselves means using our pain to erase the pain of others. It sends the message that light-skinned suffering—on offshoot of white fragility—is in greater need of addressing than actual anti-Blackness, and the white supremacy that generates it.
This is why “mixed” is an identifier I do not use. It is a term which privileges those of us who happen to know who some of our non-Black ancestors are, and which fails to acknowledge that most Black people on this planet are mixed—if not racially, then ethnically, culturally, geographically. In so doing, it actually erases histories of sexual violence and “mixing” that have occurred for centuries—long before it was ever spoken about in the open.
All our Black identities are layered, and the fact of my having a white parent does little to make my experience of Blackness more nuanced than anyone else’s. We can acknowledge the complexities of our varied roots, without imagining that separate categories of Blackness are needed—especially ones designated for those who are read as something other than Black, a position that always comes with privilege.
The most important lesson being light skinned has taught me, and what I try to pass on to other light-skinned Black people, is this: When other Black people distrust or dislike you for being light skinned, it isn’t actually about you. It’s about the pain we all experience as a mistreated people, and that you experience less of as a light-skinned person. Understanding the rage others in community feel as something they have a right to is about creating room for that rage, validating it and the deep trauma it is based in. Even when we feel it is misdirected at us, it is something we still must learn to make space for as Black people with light-skin, educational and economic privilege.
Understanding rage as something the more mistreated members of my community have a right to express has liberated me from the need to defend or prove myself. Recognizing that rage as something I did not create, but which I am responsible for minding and addressing, means I don’t have to take the shade or distrust I sometimes receive from other Black people as a personal challenge. It is just something for me to hold. It doesn’t belong to me, yet it is a reminder of the imbalances that exist within our own community, and that reflect the racial and economic imbalances of the world outside of it.
I don’t need to feel targeted, for in reality, I am not. I don’t need to feel aggressed, for in reality, it is dark-skinned Black people who are expected to absorb the aggressions of white supremacy—from employers and landlords, police and politicians, and from other Black people, usually Black people that look and act like me. The idea that folks who occasionally lash out as a result of their own oppression are oppressing me is a dangerous falsehood, and that attitude poses the real distraction from the ways racism is actually harming our communities.
Healing wounds within the Black community can only come from fighting white supremacy, the system which has generated them. Fighting together doesn’t mean fighting in the same way. The voices that have been ignored are the ones in need of centering. The identities with the least social value should be the ones imbued with the most by our movements, as we attempt to build up concrete alternatives to the xenophobia, patriarchy, transphobia and class stratification that mark the current order. No Black person should be silenced, but Black people who are men, cis, wealthy, skinny, abled-bodied, lighter, formally educated should see it as part of their work to step back, and hold up the voices of Black people who are women, femme, hood, fat, immigrant, disabled, queer, trans, and dark skinned.
Two weeks ago, the BTGNC Collective staged a vigil and shutdown in honor of TT Saffore, a Black trans woman killed last month on Chicago’s west side. As one of the participants, I spent a great deal of time interfacing with the police who were called to the scene, putting on my best smile, digging down to find my most warm, respecting voice. I do not relish engaging law enforcement, but know it is safer for me to do so. I know I will be read as nonthreatening, trustworthy, even before I smile and nod, before my tone conveys docile admiration. Stepping up to talk to police is a means of using my light skin to keep them away from my dark-skinned family–folks who will be seen as suspicious and threatening before they say or do anything. By making sure I dealt with law enforcement, other Black, trans and gnc participants were able to grab megaphones, hold banners and lead the procession, instead of worrying about defending themselves from the police.
Decentering light-skinned identity is decentering whiteness. Dismantling our privilege means stepping up in moments of danger to protect our comrades, and stepping back when it is time to speak, to rally, leaving visibility up to the folks whose voices go most unheard. Making room for the unbridled expression of Black rage means that those of us who are sheltered from the brunt of anti-Blackness should be quiet, should use our privilege to allow greater space for other Black people to vocalize their resentment, their pain and their needs.
It’s really that simple.