Light-Skinned Reflections: Related Thoughts on Colorism


Youth artists of Kuumba Lynx perform at a gathering in solidarity with Bresha Meadows. Photo credit: Love and Struggle Photos

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.

5 responses to “Light-Skinned Reflections: Related Thoughts on Colorism

  1. Pingback: Light-Skinned Reflections: Related Thoughts on Colorism | Radical Faggot | O LADO ESCURO DA LUA·

  2. Colorism. Are we brave enough to go there? Because when someone gets brave enough to share what is real or significant to who they are and what makes them that, then I feel a bit braver to share *me* and what makes me who I am.

    I am so grateful I learned how essential this transparency is in the beginning of my journey. The issue of our skin color is the fulcrum on which so many of our experiences begin and sadly, stay. The molestation of our darker hue plays out every single day, no matter where we find ourselves on the spectrum of color. I am biracial and was raised in the black community. And even with my mother having abandoned her whiteness to the point of apologizing for it in hopes of being accepted by the blacks she knew and loved, her/our acceptance never…ever, was truly achieved. And thus began THAT dysfunctional journey of “proving.”

    Colorism is real and it is insidious and no matter where we go, what we achieve, how we talk, what causes we align ourselves with, who we marry, how we react, it’s there. Being my color may appear to be what is to be desired but I stand here before you today, humble, transparent, and honest and tell you that I too have suffered from our having our very dna tampered with in hopes of manipulating it into being fashionable and worthy. We all suffer from having the yoke of euro-beauty hung painfully on our necks. Sadly, this issue is just a tiny wrinkle of the many layers of pathology we contend with DAILY as we move in this world seeking to find a measure of success, a portion of true, unconditional love, and acceptance from a place and a realm that seems resolute in it’s resolve to never let any of that happen.
    Yours Standing in Solidarity,
    Ego Sum Fabulam Narrantem…
    (I am the Story Teller…)

  3. You wrote you were surprised by how many responders identified as light-skinned. Perhaps I’m mistaken (not knowing the whole context of the responses) but it seemed in your perception doing so was an investment in white privilege on their part. I thought it wouldn’t have to be always, it could in fact be the opposite, a statement of solidarity based on awareness of that very privilege and its destructive impact. But, in any case, what would be the appropriate identification for them in your mind then? I’m curious because I’ve witnessed that same reference to folks like that being light-skinned being made by darker skinned Blacks themselves.

    • That’s a good–and hard–question that I’m not sure I have a good answer for, or the right to answer. To clarify, people from across the color spectrum both connected with and felt offended by the original piece. I was surprised by how many folks in the offended camp self-identified as light skinned, though they represented a huge slice of the color spectrum. It revealed to me how many people have felt targeted for their skin tone–and not just very light or passing folks such as myself–but also how that feeling of targeting has led folks to invest in light skinned as an identity. You ask a great question, because I’m not sure how we identify ourselves that can empower our Blackness while also acknowledging that each of our relationships to it is different. I think there is something here about letting go of our need to defend lightness, though, which I think is about wanting to reinvest in our own proximity to whiteness.

      • Thanks for your answer and for providing the context for your initial comment. It clarifies your reaction as you described it. Identification is ultimately problematic because it requires categorizations and hierarchies. The mind will hold on to anything to maintain that activity. It uses it to convince us we are separate beings essentially, and therefore to create structures of separation. Unchallenged identification never ends. Disidentifying is a very difficult but necessary process. Personally I believe we must return to our true identity beyond identification: who we are at the center. I sense it’s much closer to the kinds of naturally-rooted beings we were before our rational mind took over and started dividing the world. Peace to you.

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