The first time I ran from the cops I was eighteen.
I was visiting New York on my own, staying with friends in the Bronx. While walking back toward the apartment, police rolled up on me in an unmarked van without identifying themselves. Without understanding what was happening, I ran, thinking I was in mortal danger. When I realized who was chasing me and stopped running, four officers tackled me onto the hood of a car and handcuffed me. The car alarm went off, and my friends looking down from the upstairs apartment were able to stop me from being taken away. I was still served a summons and made to show up in court several months later in a city where I did not live.
This was my first violent interaction with police. Though I’ve thought of it often in the years since it happened, it’s a moment I’ve learned to see differently in the midst of current scrutiny of police violence in Black communities. I’ve wondered, given the mortal danger Black people regularly face in police interactions, how much being light skinned helped me survive that confrontation. There is no way for me to know, but I suspect it played a large role.
Last week I wrote an article on colorism and light-skin privilege in Black communities, and the role of light-skinned Black folks in both addressing and undoing their own power. It was well-shared, started some difficult conversations, and received some important challenges. I wanted to take a moment to address the significant ones.
The most astute critique the piece received was the need to distinguish between colorism and white-passing. There is a huge difference, commenters pointed out, between being read as Black while being light, versus escaping the perception of Blackness altogether. I appreciated this distinction–one I did not actively make in the original article. Some commenters argued that addressing white (or non-Black) passing privilege requires a different pathway than does addressing light-skin privilege. The deeper realization is that race itself is founded on perception, and undoing white supremacy must also be about undoing the racial caste system. This critique went much deeper than the original piece, and I’m excited to engage questions about racial justice based on challenging race as a structure, in the near future.
I was disappointed at how many light-skinned folks reacted to these discussions with the same defensiveness I was hoping to challenge. Many spoke out about stigma they felt for being light skinned. Some claimed they’d never benefited from light-skin privilege, and faced all the same violences as other Black people. Others listed the names of light-skinned figures from previous and current movements as proof of the legitimacy of light-skinned leadership.
I would like to underline one last time: Being light skinned is always a privilege. And while it is distinct from white-passing, economic and educational privileges (other conflations folks challenged the article on) there is too much overlap between these categories to be ignored. That we remember the names of so many light-skinned leaders from previous eras is a testament to that.
Like any other privilege, being light skinned doesn’t mean individuals who are light can never experience oppression. But that oppression is never, ever the result of being light skinned. Those who claim they’ve never experienced any special treatment or opportunities for being light betray a lack of understanding about how privilege works; By definition, it obscures its benefits to those receiving them, leading them to believe that their experience is the standard.
I can never know, for example, what could have happened to me the night I was attacked by police in the Bronx if I were dark skinned. Yet there is enough evidence within my community, and as the historical layers of the police system are peeled back ever further, to tell me that I was lucky to survive that encounter. I was also lucky to get off with little more than a legal chastising. How many times have I been lucky in ways that were invisible to me, in ways that other Black people who do not share my privileges have not? To imagine that what happened to me those years ago was just about my being Black is to erase the many other factors at play, how I am constantly being both subjected to and protected from violence, how my powers and oppressions work together in ways I cannot see if I refuse to look at my circumstances with scrutiny.
Something that surprised me in the wake of the article was how many responders from across the color spectrum self-identified as light skinned. While I appreciated criticism from folks with such a wide range of experiences, presentations and relationships to Blackness, I was jarred by how important it seemed to so many to identify themselves as light. What does our investment in claiming the identity ‘light skinned’ tell us about the very issues we are seeking to challenge? Can we fight colorism, acknowledge the vast disparities between the different reaches of the Black community, all while investing in our Blackness, instead of our proximity to whiteness? Can we stop measuring these conversations, and our relation to them, through the unit of lightness? I would argue that in order for this to happen, dark-skinned voices need to be the ones shaping the dialogue.
The final concern I heard expressed was that the article was making room for, or justifying, abuse in the Black community. The question I ask is, what do we qualify as abuse, and what gets left out? We are often able to recognize interpersonal violence—name-calling, exclusion—as harmful, while ignoring the ways colorism lifts up certain bodies and voices while defaming others.
The practices of judgement, ridicule, and shaming are not things I celebrate. They are damaging to our bonds, and do nothing to combat the systemic injustices we face as Black people. Yet by focusing solely on interpersonal violence–especially when it is directed at light-skinned community members–we overshadow the structural violence that breeds it, violence which is often borne more heavily on the shoulders of those who lash out at the privileged.
The cruel ways I have at times been treated, and the hurt I see others in my community still working through and trying to get over, are not justified. But we must understand the pain these things are based in if we are to effectively confront them. My question is, will we confront pain by calling on our privilege, or by getting to its root? Will we continue to read cruelty within our community as an attack on lightness, or as the response to a deeper cruelty we have yet to fully address as a people?
In deep love and solidarity.