Colorism is Still an Issue

by Dajae Gilliard

Yes, someone’s talking about colorism again. Why? Because it’s still an issue.

My mother tells the story of what became the introduction of how I would later see myself in this world and how the world sees me. Years ago, she and my aunt were in the grocery store with my cousin and me as a woman walked by and exclaimed, “She is so cute!” My aunt, eager for clarity, asked which little baby girl the woman was referring to. According to my mother, the woman pointed to my chunky, light skinned, little cousin.

I have seen both my cousin’s and my own baby pictures. I may be biased but I think we were both cute. Still, that woman chose one to consider “so cute.” This story stays with me and I frequently think about what informed that woman’s judgment.

The saddest part is that I have a plethora of stories from my 24-year-old life that are eerily similar to this one. Stories in which some way or another I wasn’t chosen as the one that was physically beautiful. Once my college roommate, another black woman, was video chatting with one of her male friends. I was pretending not to listen to her clandestinely tell him that I was in the room when he asked, “Is she bad?!”. She was hesitant at first, then she blurted out, “No,” as if I wasn’t even close to her and her friend’s standards of attractiveness.

I’ve recently realized the ways I’ve been victimized by these occurrences. I see the layers of thick skin I have cultivated in order to function in this world, and the facade I’ve had to put on to function in spaces where I’m constantly thinking about how people see me.

Do I think I’m beautiful? Honestly, my answer varies from day to day. The insecurity came from other people thinking and telling me, often in subtle ways, that I wasn’t pretty. I have made the conscious decision to recognize beauty as it exists outside of the norms in place. But, it is a battle adhering to my own definitions of beauty when I am inundated with the norms reinforced by the masses.

Let’s dismiss the old adage, “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” because we live in a society that does just that. As a result of white terrorism, European beauty standards, anti-blackness and colorism, black girls and women get the short end of the stick. Usually dark black girls and women with kinky textured hair, full lips, wide noses, and other features that are often related to the limited representations of African people get the tip of that stick.

I remember watching the video of the beautiful little girl with her locs and faultless dark brown skin talk about the boy who called her ugly at school. Every article I read praised her for her response, “I didn’t come here to make fashion statements… I came here to learn, not look pretty.” While that is true and I’m happy she was ready with a clapback, it angers me that so early in life black girls are attacked for the way they look. Her experience is not an anomaly and I’m sure she’ll never forget it.

It also saddens me that her response asserted her intelligence and academic focus but not her beauty. It’s as though she’s been encouraged to think, “You don’t have to see me as pretty, but you will see me as smart and focused.” I know this all too well. I’ve always been committed to my academic work. I felt confident that if you didn’t think I was pretty, you were going to know I was smart. Why can’t black girls and women be seen as both? Why is it the case that this little boy has already been imbued with notions about beauty that ignore the attractiveness of black girls?

This is not every black girl or woman’s story. Some black girls will grow up to be self-assured and confident in the way they look because they have people around them who deliberately redefine beauty standards for them. I grew up in a loving home, but this wasn’t the case. So what about those, like me, who don’t have this experience?

From childhood we are critiqued for our looks. In my own black family, as news of a child’s arrival is shared the first statements are made about the child’s hair and complexion. Immediately, it is decided how this child will fare in the world based off their looks. It’s tacit that the child whose looks and features are closer to whiteness will do best. Black people have to stop perpetuating the standards of beauty that exclude many of us.

It is not my intention to insult or ignore my lighter complexioned sisters. I am not here for tearing down one group of black people to uplift another. I know that oppression and anti-blackness can negatively inform the way all black people view themselves.

My point is that supporting the beauty chasm between black girls and making some inferior and others superior have real, harmful effects. I want us to acknowledge that the problem exists, then work together to fix it.

Whenever you encounter a black girl remain aware of what you are covertly or overtly telling her about herself. Don’t insult black girls’ looks, jokingly or otherwise. Tell black girls of all complexions and varied physical features that they are beautiful. Present them with examples of women who look like them through toys and media. Broaden your view of beauty so you are genuine about this compliment. Be sure not to compare the appearances of black girls or allow the media to influence how they view themselves. Instead, teach them that beauty comes in a myriad of ways and they don’t need to compete.

Photo: Shutterstock

Dajae Gilliard is an educator and writer. She is committed to doing work that encourages and uplifts children of African descent. She is currently writing her first children’s book. You can follow her on twitter @art_s_life.

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