How We Can Tackle the Difficult Question of Light-Skinned Privilege

by Stefani Cox

“I could never go out with someone really dark, you know, like Africa black,” said one African American guy to me on a tragic (and very final) OkCupid date a few years back.

We were sitting at a table in Ruby Tuesdays on a bustling Friday night, but suddenly, despite the world of activity around us, the only thing I could see was his judging expression. I felt a knot of indignation well-up in my chest for the beautiful “Africa black” women in my life, as well as a complicated sensation of surprise and confusion as to how he categorized me—not among the darkest black woman you’ll meet by any measure, yet not the lightest either.
When I pressed him on his reasons for the remark, he couldn’t really explain why he felt that way. From his perspective, not wanting dark women was a gut feeling, but my opinion is that his preferences have much to do with the way we privilege light skin in society, sometimes including us more medium-toned women.

The unfortunate date wasn’t the only instance of feeling surprise at how others see me. I remember a black female friend of mine making a passing comment that referenced our “light skin”. My first thought was that this was incorrect – she’s light, but not me. But after my initial reaction of denial, I realized that even though she might pass the “brown paper bag” test and identified as multi-racial, where I couldn’t and don’t, we were really not so many shades apart.

Before those two experiences I had never identified – nor wanted to identify – as a “light-skinned black woman,” a label that inserts mountains of tension into any conversation on African American beauty standards. I can summon quite well the sensations of what it feels like to be envious of black women with lighter skin than me. But it is not enough to tell just that part of the story. To be truly honest with myself is to recognize that I have likely also been one of those women to someone else.

When it comes down to it, colorism in the black community is more of a spectrum than a yes or no duality. You’re not either “light-skinned” or “dark-skinned.” Rather, there is a complex color gradient upon which we all fall, that when determined by others often has something to do with our social circles, level of economic privilege, body type, and countless other factors. Part of my surprise at a few people labeling me as light-skinned was in falsely thinking that color and privilege are packaged into neat, clear-cut yes or no categories.

It’s hard to accept that I may have been privileged by my skin color in some cases, because I have felt so unprivileged by it in the vast majority of cases. I have always felt that non-blacks see my skin color as a separating factor from themselves, as my foremost identity, whether I would like for it to be or not, and as something they cannot relate to.

Reflecting on the fact that the women with even darker skin than me sometimes have it tougher is sobering. It forces me to step outside of my personal sphere of racial encounters and to acknowledge the broad spectrum of experiences that go along with our broad spectrum of colors and hues as black women. The ways in which I have felt both empowered and disempowered by my particular shade of brown is part of the complicated experience of falling somewhere in the middle.

I will never know if I have been preferred for housing or jobs over a similarly qualified darker applicant based on the tone of my skin. It’s certainly not hard for me to believe, given the continuing presence of racial housing bias in this country. And studies have shown hiring preferences for lighter-skinned blacks over darker-skinned blacks. Likely, I’ve had someone look favorably upon me at some point in a manner that translated into an opportunity that someone else, someone darker, didn’t get.

In the worlds of media and modeling, rarely do we identify and praise famous black women who are very dark, partially because very dark women do not often get the chance to be famous. While we do see more models of color on the pages of beauty magazines these days, it is nothing new for me to note that few of these faces represent the darkest shades that we black women can embody.

In past conversations I have had with people about other kinds of privilege, there almost inevitably comes a point where someone asks, “Well yes I feel terrible, but now what do I do, what’s the point of just feeling bad about it?!” I get it, that we want tangible actions, we want to prove that we are above racism and privilege, but it’s not that easy. Privilege tends to build on itself. Even if my skin were to suddenly turn 10 shades darker, I could already be on a trajectory of social and economic success that has something to do with how pleasing to the eye I may have been perceived by certain people in the past.

What I can do about my medium-toned experience is to be aware of this sometimes-privilege and how it may be making my life in this world a little easier than life is for some others. Reflecting on what it means to fall closer to the unfair European beauty ideal than some others—while not assuming that all people see me that way—would be a good start.

Calling out racist comments about women with very dark skin is another step, as is examining my own thought processes and actions toward people with darker skin than me. Do I unconsciously favor women with skin color closest to mine? Do I seek friendship and support more often from women of medium and lighter tones? Am I truly open to positive social interactions with everyone in the world? How is even the act of mentally dividing women into “light”, “medium”, and “dark” tones a problematic process laden with privilege, and potentially hurtful?

This is just a start. There are many other ways to think about and address light-skinned privilege, and I certainly don’t have all the answers. But let’s remember to complicate the dialogue around who has some of that privilege, where it comes from, and what it really means. One thing I know for sure is that we are all a piece of the puzzle.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Stefani Cox is a writer and urban policy advocate based in Oakland, California. You can find her on Twitter ( or on her website (, where she often discusses topics of race, gender, and diverse literature.

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