A Dialogue on Institutional Colorism and Moving Toward Healing with Dr. Yaba Blay

For Harriet is nearly five years old, and I've learned there are a few topics that are sure to spark contentious debate. Colorism is one of them. Discussions on colorism provoke strong feelings in Black women, in particular, and it seems that rarely do the conversation's participants walk away with a deeper understanding of the institutional consequences of colorism or the ways we can move forward in combatting them.

What Bill Duke's Light Girls documentary sorely missed was the voice of a Black woman colorism scholar, so I felt compelled to speak with Dr. Yaba Blay about how we can have a more effective conversation on colorism in our attempts to heal. Dr. Blay is Professor of Political Science at North Carolina Central University. She's the artistic director and producer of the (1)ne Drop Project, and she was a consulting producer for CNN’s Black in America 5.

Read her phenomenal book, (1)ne Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race.

-Kimberly Foster


Kimberly Foster: This is Kimberly Foster, the founder and editor of For Harriet. And I'm so happy to be speaking with Dr. Yaba Blay. Dr. Blay is currently co-director and assistant teaching professor of Africana Studies at Drexel University. She's the artistic director and producer of the (1)ne Drop Project and a consulting producer for CNN’s Black in America 5. Dr. Blay is also the author of a phenomenal book, (1)ne Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race.

Alright. So Dr. Blay, I wanted to get your side on Light Girls but also talk to you about colorism and our racial and intraracial perception in Black America. So first of all, let’s talk about Bill Duke’s Light Girls. How did you feel about the documentary?

Yaba Blay: [sighs] Light Girls, Dark Girls is one of those things and I wrote about this [clears throat] after watching Light Girls. I'm very hesitant in a particular way to offer critique, I mean I will. I'm just hesitant because on the one hand, color isn’t something that we absolutely have to continue to talk about, right? And so for better or for worse, like it or not, both of these documentaries have put us in a position to continue to talk about colorism, has put colorism at the forefront of our public dialogue which is an excellent, excellent thing. And so I don’t want to take away from that.

But as a scholar, somebody who studies global skin color politics, there are some positives and there are some negatives. And for me, the biggest critique that I have of Dark Girls, Light Girls, really not much different than my critique of Good Hair. I think that when you don’t properly contextualize this conversation within the system of white supremacy, then you render black women pathological. It just seems that we have issues and we don’t know any better and we just keep fighting each other.

It’s difficult because again, I want to have this conversation but I just cringe at the way the conversation is had. For me as a woman, as a black woman; as a dark-skinned black woman; as someone who’s absolutely interested in healing modalities for black women particularly around issues of our self-image, our self-reflection, colorism, and other identity issues, I just cringe because we can afford to be at war and we can afford to continue to have these images and these portrayals that are inflammatory. And so I have questions. I question the intent of the comedian Chris Rock, for example, doing Good Hair. And again, no conversation about white supremacy, no conversation about the beauty industry and beauty centers such that they put black women in a position to be compared to a white ideal. Instead, it just looks like we like to spend money and billion and billions of dollars on weave and on perms, and there's no real critical conversation.

And again, for me, once I understood that it was Chris Rock and a comedian, it became a comedy for me looking at Dark Girls. I think Dark Girls and Light Girls were a little different. Light Girls absolutely look like there was a little bit more budget [laughs] in terms of quality, but I just question the lineup. There were some phenomenal sisters in there who I appreciated seen, and then there were comedians and I don’t think that this is funny.

Kimberly Foster: I absolutely agree with you. And you know what, I thought Light Girls was going to go a little bit different because it started with some really interesting historical context and I thought yes, we’re going to lay the foundation that since it was a little bit less and veered into that pathology that you were talking about. And I want to make sure that people understand. So by pathology, what bothered me about the way that women were talking about their experience in, the way that they had experienced colorisms within their community, was a lot of it was about insults that they had received from “black girls.”

Yaba Blay: Yes.

Kimberly Foster: Taunting and harassment and there were a couple of people detailed some violent encounters. And I think it’s important for them to be a heard. Everybody should be able to express the pain that they’ve endured, the marginalization and the alienation that they experienced growing up. But how do you feel about centering the conversation on that pain and those traumatic experiences.

Yaba Blay: I mean it’s real. I think that’s part of the issue, I mean I think we absolutely have to tell our stories. I think it’s important to give personal reflection on the ways in which colorism impacts our lived experiences. I'm very much big on the phenomenology of particular issues. And so yes, we need personal stories. But we also need historical, political, economic, social context within which to understand this personal phenomenon because it’s not just personal. For me, my commitment to talking about colorism and studying colorism is as strong as it is in terms of my commitment to studying and talking about racism. And I think, for whatever reason, we treat those two things much differently.

So we have to understand that they are intertwined and interconnected. So colorism oftentimes gets rendered as this personal thing. People like to throw the word "preference" around a lot. But we don’t talk about preference when we talk about racism, right? So when we have these conversations about racism, it’s the same thing as when people start to just talk about personal prejudice without being able to look at institutionalized racism.

So yes, everybody has a story. We can talk about being called the N word here or not getting these jobs there, and those things are absolutely true and valid and you need to hear those stories over and over again. But we also need to drop some statistics. We also need to talk about the history of white supremacy so that it doesn’t just become what these individual white people do. It becomes about the entire system that makes what these white people do in action for them. And it’s the same with colorism.

And so that’s why, for me, the whole idea of the pathology is like you are setting up this conversation like this is something that we do to ourselves like it just flowed out of nowhere and like we have no longstanding investment, that the society itself doesn’t have this longstanding investment in us finding whitenesss superior.

Kimberly Foster: Absolutely. And could you explain a little bit more about the context from which colorism arises?

Yaba Blay: Sure. I always joke and say that colorism and racism are kissing cousins because colorism is a manifestation of racism. It’s an outgrowth of racism. A lot of times, people will talk about it in terms of intraracial racism to suggest that colorism is what we do within our communities and that is true, but I also think it’s important for us to understand that colorism also guides racism that we have different experiences with racism based upon our skin color as well. So it’s not just what we do to each other but it also informs what other people do to us.

And so racism, I tend to use the language of white supremacy much more than racism because I think it’s more deliberate in drawing out attention to the idea that it is an institution, it is a longstanding institution. Oftentimes, we use racism too loosely and I also think we don’t really understand racism. So when we talk about racism, oftentimes, we’re talking about prejudice. We’re only talking about individual instances and we’re not talking about again systems and institutions.

So white supremacy, I think, draws our attention to a longstanding system about who has power and who does not, and who should have power and who should not. And so within that context of white supremacy that ultimately concentrates all things of value and power with white people, colorism arises. And for me, I'm a visual person so when I talk about this with my students, I use the visual of a ladder to suggest a hierarchy and so white supremacy concentrates power and all these things that we might just loosely say a positive at its highest rung and everybody underneath is somehow trying to get up a rung here, a rung there to get closer to that power.

And so with that same metaphor of the ladder and the hierarchy, white supremacy would have whites on top and blacks at the bottom, these two binary opposites, the extremes on the color palette, if you will, with everybody else somehow floating in between literally, whether it’s culturally speaking or just racially speaking. Colorism still keeps white at the top. White is somehow not even on the ladder when we’re talking about colorism. It’s somehow hovering over the ladder and that spectrum of colors, like the closer you get to that whiteness, the closer you get some access to all those things that whiteness represents. And so you can’t have one without the other. You can’t talk about colorism without talking about white supremacy because again, that word that keeps popping off is preference, peoples preference and it’s like, “No, it’s people’s pathology. Where did that preference come from? Who told you that that was something that is preferable?”

Kimberly Foster: Right.

Yaba Blay: So that’s why for me, it’s so important to contextualize it within white supremacy because then what we come to understand and that’s what for me – and this is the other thing I want say. I'm all over the place; I hope you can edit this to make sense of it. [laughs] I am not opposed to the Light Girls conversation and I think there are a lot of people who are. So I want to be clear about that in terms of my position. When I talk about colors and I actually really think that we all need to be sitting at the table. I made a comment online in 140 characters as best I could that this idea that we cannot talk about the experiences of colorism from both sides of the fence as it were without talking about the fence, and that fence is white supremacy. I want us to get on the same side of the fence. We can still talk about our personal experiences, but let’s not forget that the fence is standing here.

And so once we’re clear about what that fence is, let’s attack the fence together because it’s the same way that patriarchy disempowers and dehumanizes both men and women. Colorism disempowers us all period. Now there are different and varying degrees of that disempowerment, but we have to able to recognize what supremacy for what it is and all of the insidious and nebulous ways in which it operates. We got to check white supremacy at every entry point because otherwise, we’re confused and we only think it operates in a certain way. It’s no different in the way in this moment, when I say white supremacy to my students, they're only thinking of the clan. So that if they don’t see the clan marching down the street and black people being attacked by dogs, they don’t believe racism exists. They think we’ve come a long way.

You got to be able to recognize the ways in which white supremacy remixes itself. It’s very slick. And we have to stay up on that and so for me, I think there are a lot of people who critique me that I talk about white supremacy too much. I put too much blame on white people. And that time, I think we have to be sharper than what we are because this thing is getting at us in different ways to which we think it’s us.

Kimberly Foster: Right.

Yaba Blay: We need to just be having a conversation about Light Girls and Dark Girls. In this particular moment at the top of 2015, given what we experienced in 2014, we cannot afford to not be on the same side of the fence.

Kimberly Foster: Right. I absolutely agree with you and that is one of the things that is so frustrating about seeing these conversations online is because so many people so quickly jumped to this is a black folk issue. We just need to fix ourselves. If we don’t look in the mirror and stop it, then why would they ever stop looking? Why did they ever stop perpetuating it? And I think that that is really dangerous and it’s abusive at this kind of…

Yaba Blay: Yeah. It’s dangerous, abusive, dismissive, elementary. The basic question is how?

Kimberly Foster: Right.

Yaba Blay: So just to love yourself, tell me how. Where’s the framework? What's the paradigm? What in this society encourages me to not only love myself but to love my sisters? Show it to me.

Kimberly Foster: Absolutely. And when talking about loving my sisters, I really did want to thank you because I think I saw a conversation online between you and Michaela Angela Davis that absolutely transformed my thinking about how to accept and embrace women with color-privilege/light-skinned women. When they're talking about their pain because I definitely use to be somebody who was like, “No, this is not how it works.”

Yaba Blay: Yes.

Kimberly Foster: Dark-skinned women are disproportionately feeling the effects of colorism, so I don’t want to hear you talk about your hurt feelings in middle school. However, because I'm deeply invested in the wellness and the wellness of our sisterhood, of creating those connections, of making sure that we can relate to each other and honestly and truthfully and share all parts of ourselves with each other. I really was forced to understand that something is real and it’s valid and it is not up to me or anybody else to try to say, “Those feelings are not – they're not real.”

Yaba Blay: Right.

Kimberly Foster: I did want to say thank you guys so much for that and I think you made a comment about – and somebody said it Light Girls as well – about how we often say, “Oh, you were light so you would’ve been in the house.” They're like the help and so what it would be like.

Yaba Blay: Right. [laughs]

Kimberly Foster: There are certain sets of traumas that accompany being in the house, too.

Yaba Blay: Right. And that’s the thing, they're just different and it was doing interviews with the participants in (1)ne Drop, and (1)ne Drop changed me because I had to sit and have these conversations with over 75 people from all over the world and it was one sister from Trinidad who’s in the book who said people always talk about the helps. They always talk about the helps but how do we get in touch with what the house experience might’ve been like because at the end of the day, it was all enslavement. When you're out in the field and again, we should never be in the position to compare but you get off even if it’s for three hours, you get off. You go to sleep. When you're in the house, you don’t get off.

Kimberly Foster: Right.

Yaba Blay: Who’s dumping Ms. Anne’s pee in the middle of the night.

Kimberly Foster: Right.

Yaba Blay: Who does massa have an easy access to? And so again, it’s not to say yours is better mine, it’s worse. At the end of the day, can we talk about the fact that we’re all still enslaved?

Kimberly Foster: Right.

Yaba Blay: And so for me, it was definitely a learning curve because moving out and I want to also move out of the plantation explanation for everything also, you know what I mean?
Kimberly Foster: Absolutely.

Yaba Blay: It’s an example. But that just came like a metaphor for me in this moment, in my lived experience, no light-skinned sista, your pain may not be exactly like mine but it’s pain nonetheless and if I want you to hear my pain, I have to somehow model it. I have to model that it’s okay to actually accept the fact that someone else is in pain. It’s not necessarily your fault, but it’s pain nonetheless.

Kimberly Foster: Right.

Yaba Blay: I just think it sets up a situation otherwise where if we’re going to say, “Oh, no lights can see you. I'm not trying to hear that.” But for you, how we get mad when they do the same thing to us.

Kimberly Foster: Right. Absolutely. And listen, I am so there but what I always come back to when I think it’s difficult to balance an acknowledgement of that pain and making sure that nobody is trying to invalidate your experience but also making sure that we acknowledge the consequences of having dark skin in a white supremacist society are different, right?

Yaba Blay: Yes.

Kimberly Foster: So the experience of having dark skin and being dehumanized for your dark skin, being continually rendered invisible because you have dark skin is not exactly congruent to the experience of being harassed because you have light skin or being objectified because you have light skin.

Yaba Blay: Absolutely.

Kimberly Foster: And so this goes to the third rail of colorism conversation that I see particularly within black community and that is when you talk about “light-skinned privilege” or color privilege, things go down hill.

Yaba Blay: Always. [laughter]

Kimberly Foster: Right. Because we associate privilege with other isms, right? You associate privilege of racism or sexism or homophobia. But the idea that within black community, there are few people can be afforded different experiences. They do not have any control over for some reason. There's a lot of backlash.

Yaba Blay: Yeah.

Kimberly Foster: These people will fight you tooth and nail and say it doesn’t exist, that you all see us the same. But that’s not true, right?

Yaba Blay: No, it’s not true. I mean for me, just from my vantage point as somebody who identifies as Pan-African and nationalist, I will come back and say at the end of the day we’re all black. But I'm also very aware that it’s not necessarily how all white people see it because, again, the way that hierarchy works is that they are more comfortable with people who look more like them and that's just how it functions.

Kimberly Foster: Yeah.

Yaba Blay: That’s why we see colorism mediated in the media in a particular way. Your news anchors and your celebrities and the people get put in particular positions, their aesthetics tends to be more along the lines of that white ideal. There's a reason or that. But again, I think we have to call out the ways and the places where we struggle. I don’t have an answer for that, and I think that’s okay but I want to get to a place where we can get to an answer together like, “Yes. As soon as you say privilege, we don’t really know what to do.” And so I tried to also think about, “Okay. Well, how does this function when we do work in the realm of white privilege and anti-black racism?” We want light people to recognize their privilege.

Well, why do we want them to recognize their privilege? Because somehow we think that in recognizing their privilege, they’ll be more active participants in, I don’t know, doing away with the system that gives them privilege or at least recognize in ways in which their privilege tends to oppress other people. I think we want something similar and like Yaba – not Dr. Blay but Yaba, the black woman, is saying that just the real, real of it. I know for me in conversation with other women particularly lighter skinned women for whatever reason, right or wrong, something in me needs to hear them acknowledge that their skin affords them privilege before I can even move forward in the conversation.

Kimberly Foster: Right.

Yaba Blay: And that’s just about our interaction and our ability to interact because the minute you reject the privilege and say, “Oh, there's no privilege in it because X, Y, and Z,” I'm feeling negated.

Kimberly Foster: Right.

Yaba Blay: Because there's something about your privilege that is impacting my experience. And so I know people will say, “Okay. Now is the privilege, and then what?” I don’t know. I would say it opens up the door for us to be in a different place the half of conversation but that could be something about our personal interactions.

Kimberly Foster: Right.

Yaba Blay: It’s the same way that if white people would say and I've heard some white people say this, “Well, I'm poor and my family came from the hills of West Virginia. I'm not privileged.” Then you don’t understand how white supremacy works.

Kimberly Foster: Right. And so do you think it’s difficult for us to and of royal us speaking in broad community terms. Do you think it’s difficult to acknowledge privileged because so much of what happened within black America is painted in individual terms because we’re not talking about systems and people feel like if you're pointing, acknowledging that this sort of privilege exists, it’s a personal indictment?

Yaba Blay: Yes, absolutely because then people want to tell you all the ways in which they are personally not privileged. And that’s not the conversation, right? We’re not talking about you individual necessarily even though I'm sure if you sat and thought about it, you might be able to pinpoint and name those individual ways that you are privileged but that’s the thing. So for us to talk about privilege, we need to do it in such a way that also not personalized.

Kimberly Foster: Right.

Yaba Blay: Right? It’s just to reflect and say that because that's thing. Why is supremacy in the system? It’s not going anywhere in our lifetime. Let’s just be real. So we can’t do anything about the fact that it exist. The only thing we can do is control the way that we operate within it. And something about acknowledging that that privilege exists, I want to believe, can transform the ways which we operate within it. For example, I've heard many light-skinned sisters say and Michaela has said this probably as well that I recognize that I make white people comfortable. I recognize that if something’s going on and they need a black woman, they might be more likely to pick me, then you Yaba. So when I go in that building, I want to make sure that I'm very clear on your position on X, Y, and Z so I can bring that to the table. It’s like strategizing in a particular way. But you got to recognize how white supremacy functions before you’re even able to do that.

Kimberly Foster: Right.

Yaba Blay: Again, I think it’s just the challenge of figuring out what it mean for us to recognize that privilege and what to do now that we have recognized that that privilege exists. How do we fight that against it? Can you give the privilege back? No, but you can still work in your own ways to at least attempt to dismantle it.

Kimberly Foster: Right.

Yaba Blay: To at least check it, to pull some people with you if can you can to call people on this stuff because I'm convinced that there are things that even in the work that I do in the academy, there are things that my students, my colleagues are more willing to hear coming out of the mouth of a lighter skinned woman probably with a particular aesthetic than they will hear from me.

Kimberly Foster: Right.

Yaba Blay: And that’s just because of what my body and my particular embodiment of blackness communicates to them.

Kimberly Foster: Right.

Yaba Blay: And we just have to be aware of those things.

Kimberly Foster: So it’s sounding like there aren’t any hard and fast answers in there.

Yaba Blay: Yes.

Kimberly Foster: To the colorism conversation; I feel like one of the issues that I have is both like girls in dark though I do appreciate that some human beings made, a part of me does appreciate that, I think that it tries too hard to wrap up a conversation or it just feels like we’re trying to eliminate this problem or that is much bigger than our self. And so if you had a desire for how we can proceed in dismantling colorism and dismantling racism and how we can continue this conversation in a productive manner, what would you want?
Yaba Blay: I mean for me, I'm big on critical thinking. So of course, I just want us to keep thinking critically about it, thinking about it in nuance ways. For me, Yaba Blay, I don’t know that yes, documentaries help. As a professor, they are teaching tools. But what is the intent in making them? What is the end game in making them, with colorism particularly, with racism specifically? They can open up a conversation but let’s not think that they can even touch and get us moving even necessarily in a particular way because we have no control over the ways, and we see that just in Twitter. You have no control. We are all watching the same exact things. We have no control about how people are processing.

So for me, I think we do need to have different conversations. Some of those are public conversations; some of those are very intimate conversations. We can’t lose the sight of the fact that most of our very early experiences with the most painful experiences with colorism happened in our own families. So how do we change conversations at the dinner table? How do we change conversations when we’re watching TV as a family? For me, I think we all have work to do. Those of us who do work in the media, we have to continue to call the media out on insidious ways in which they manifest and predicate colorism. That can’t ever get old. We can’t get tired of checking that and calling people on those images if they continue to put out.

In terms of our interpersonal relationships, I think we have to do a lot of modeling. I think we’re all doing our part. Even in ways in which we’re committed to having the conversation online. I think there's a lot of modeling that’s happening. I think we are encouraging people to continue to not only just tell their stories for the sake of telling their stories, but understanding that there's even something to learn in reading and in hearing about other people’s stories. I'm just in this moment where particularly after Light Girls which is very sealed for me that I'm like, “Okay, I made a conscious decision that’s right a reflection on Light Girls like I did with Dark Girls.” I feel like I want to let it out in my work. I'm very much bothered by this. There's a few things and it's a free thought, so I hope it makes sense. I'm bothered by black men pathologizing black women.

Brittney Cooper online said that it’s a way of colonizing our narrative. And it’s not to say that all brothers are ought to get us. I'm not even saying that they did it on purpose. I'm just saying that we are capable of telling our stories. I saw someone else preach something like, “Well, everybody who has a critique of Dark Girls and Light Girls should make their own documentary.” That's real basic because we don’t get access.

Kimberly Foster: Right.

Yaba Blay: Which is interesting enough. We don’t get access to own [laughs] in a way that Bill Duke does. You know what I mean? And so it’s about access also and that’s something that’s bothering me in terms of who gets to sit in front of the camera and tell the story?

Kimberly Foster: Absolutely.

Yaba Blay: If you're interested in really getting to the root of the issue, who are you calling on to sit in front of the camera? Comedians, to say inflammatory remarks?

Kimberly Foster: Right.

Yaba Blay: Where is the healing in that? And so for me, it’s just like this is the work that I'm going to do after the camera’s turned off, after the credits roll. I’ll be doing this work when it’s not sexy anymore. And so for me, it’s just important to make sure that we are beyond the persona, the public persona that we all embody, those of us who do public work. It’s also about us mirroring this even in our own interactions and we know as a black woman who do public work, we are also dealing with our own personal stuff. So I think we have the model sisterhood differently as well.

Kimberly Foster: Right.

Yaba Blay: Just at a very basic level. And again for me, because I'm so very much wrapped up in the ways in which this work does impact my life on a personal level, I mean again I learned a lot about myself doing drafts, for example. I'm learning a lot about myself doing Pretty Period. There's a lot of just basic simple modeling that we can do that makes a wave of change just in our circles and in the ways that our circles become intertwined. I'm convinced of it.

Kimberly Foster: I absolutely agree. Somebody said to me recently that activism starts in your own backyard. And so I believe that my work is having these conversations among black women in new and different ways. I think that is so important. I think it’s so important for us to know our work and to be focused on our work and do it unashamedly and not ask for permission.

Yaba Blay: Absolutely.

Kimberly Foster: Yeah.

Yaba Blay: And to add to that, it’s recognized in our own humanity, Kimberly, such that not being afraid to say what you feel publicly and being open to being checked because we all get checked. [laughs]

Kimberly Foster: Yeah.

Yaba Blay: Being open to being checked because we learn in that process as well. So if you are going to apply that to the whole thing with colorism, to some degree the whole Twitterverse thing is about saying what you think as quickly as you can say, going back with some folks. Sometimes folks reply to you and you just need to sit with that. It’s not about having witty response to be like, “Oh no, you're not going.” No, no. sometimes people check. You need to sit with that because it’s only going to make you better. And so if I say something that is inflammatory or taken a particular way, for example, by a lighter-skinned sister, any remarks on colorism, I have to be open to hearing their response to it.

Kimberly Foster: Right.

Yaba Blay: And vice versa. It’s not just about again, my opinion is harder than yours or be quiet, you have nothing to say. No sister, absolutely speak your truth. And if we disagree, we disagree and that’s fine but we have to walk away from that at the end of the day and still be like, “That’s my sister.”

Kimberly Foster: Great.

Yaba Blay: So again, we can’t afford to be at war. We cannot afford to be at war. I hate verses. I hate conversations that pit natural verses permed the same way that we pit light verses that we don’t have time for that.

Kimberly Foster: Right. [laughter] Yeah, absolutely. We need each other at the end of the day.

Yaba Blay: Yes.

Kimberly Foster: Well, thank you so much, Dr. Blay. This is a wonderful, wonderful conversation.

Yaba Blay: You're welcome.

Kimberly Foster: I appreciate you for taking the time.

Photo Credit: Yaba Blay

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