Black Women Who Benefit from Colorism Must Confront Their Privilege

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by Tiffanie Drayton @draytontiffanie

Although the issue of colorism is often discussed within the Black community, it is seldom addressed in a way that can or will reconcile the problem. Colorism—the remnant of slavery, colonialism, and white supremacy—is a tool that divides people of color and creates infighting where there should be solidarity and unity. In many Black families, it is the reason for contention and misunderstandings. And within the Black Diaspora, it is a reason to self-segregate.

The big question that remains is: Who is responsible for reconciling the issues created by centuries of colorism that has perpetuated a set of social, financial, and economic hierarchies? In society at large, that responsibility falls upon the shoulders of Whites. However, when speaking amongst Black people—within our own families and our own communities, including those specifically between Black women—lighter-skinned Black people must shoulder that responsibility.

As a 25-year-old Black woman, I was not really confronted with colorism until I was 16 years old, when I spent a summer working as a lifeguard at the community pool.

"Oh, my god, but you have gotten so dark," my extended family exclaimed after I arrived at their home for a visit, my skin much darker than they were accustomed to.

Their preoccupation with my skin color caught me off guard. No one had ever openly made a statement about the hue of my brown. I stood confused, as my mother explained that I had been working at the pool all summer. After the discussion ended, I shrugged my shoulders and dismissed their ignorance as just that: ignorance. In my opinion, skin color wasn't important. We all were made equal. So, of course, I needed not to contemplate the matter.

When I broached the subject with older my sister, who is beautifully mocha-colored compared to my slightly lighter caramel hue, she told me: "When I was a kid, I remember all of the kids would talk about who was the prettiest and of course I'd usually be passed over in that conversation for a lighter-skinned girl."

I was born a lighter-skinned Black girl and, by extension, granted the privileges that come with it. As we often see with white people, it is easy for those in a privileged position to dismiss issues they are seldom confronted with. After all, it’s unlikely that there are too many dark-skinned Black women who would claim they haven’t been touched in some way by the realities of colorism. Oftentimes, they were forced to confront it daily—especially all throughout childhood—as society constantly told them they were not pretty or attractive based on their skin color. Women like myself, however, were not.

Her admission pained, even though I've had so many opportunities to be confronted with the reality of colorism and how it impacts the lives of women of color. After all, five of the 10 highest-paid Black actresses in Hollywood are biracial or lighter-skinned, despite biracial individuals only accounting for a marginal percentage of the Black community. The richest Black men in America are seldom paired with darker-skinned Black women and often times exclusively date non-Black women. And how many of us have watched the now infamous doll test where children were asked to choose which dolls were beautiful or ugly and stupid or smart and the negative adjectives always coincided with the darker-colored doll?

We know that colorism permeates every aspect of our society and that permeation has huge implications. For example, lighter-skinned Black women often have more access to wealth and social capital than their darker-skinned counterparts. So how, precisely, do we go forth in creating equitable friendships and relationships across these color lines?

Primarily, it is important to understand color and race to be nothing more than proxies for social class and status. We knew and understood this very well in the time of slavery where lighter-skinned Black people were socially elevated to housework, while other slaves remained in the field. This elevation meant possible access to education via their white masters—and perhaps better housing circumstances and even access to healthcare. The best known example can be found in the memoir of Frederick Douglas, who learned the alphabet after working in the home of his slave master. Phillis Wheatley became the first African-American published poet after her slave masters not only provided her access to an education, but also publishing rights with the help of their family friend Selina Hasting, Countess of Huntingdon. A closer proximity to whiteness meant social elevation and a chance to "assimilate" and find success.

There are other many well-known Black figures in history that were able to benefit from skin color privilege. Like W.E.B Dubois who attended integrated, mostly White schools all throughout his childhood in the late 1800s when most Blacks were still “separate but equal.” Even our own President Barack Obama, who is half-white, has most likely experienced benefits during his life. Indeed, access to Whiteness and white people are almost required for most notable Black figures to be "successful.”

This reality is especially detrimental to darker-skinned Black women who are not only discriminated against within their own community, but are also further discriminated against in our white-dominated society as well. And yet, whenever I talk to lighter-skinned Black women, somehow they still manage to make themselves the victims in this equation.

Some months ago, Kim Lute wrote a piece at The Huffington Post titled, “The Problem with Black Women.” In the piece, Lute—who is a lighter-skinned Black women—acknowledges the reality the divisive lines "created generations ago, remain frustratingly in place," yet offered very little to actually combat that reality. Instead, she decided to wholly avoid befriending darker-skinned Black women in favor of White women, because she found Black women to be "competitive, strident, pushy, and critical.” She also offered a very brief history of her upbringing as the token minority family in a predominantly white Denver suburb and questioned: "Is my lack of Black girlfriends due to my childhood? Or am I naively assuming my interests are exclusive to white women?"

Yes, absolutely. By its definition, cultural assimilation "is the process by which a person or a group's language and/or culture come to resemble those of another group." When a Black child is raised amongst whites, that child culturally assimilates into white culture. Lute’s story is not the first or last of its kind that I have played audience to over the past few years. A very close friend of mine, who is also lighter-skinned and was raised in a mostly white environment, still struggles to this very day to reconcile her relationship to darker-skinned Black women.

"I feel like they don't see me as Black," she expressed to me, "but it's not like I don't experience racism on a daily basis from white people.”

Bringing whites into conversations around colorism is a plain and simple derailment. Just because one experiences racism from whites does not negate the many ways the individual has not only internalized, but also benefitted from white cultural assimilation and light-skin privilege. Any attempt to obfuscate that fact merely maintains the same social hierarchies that oppress Black people as a whole.

If I and all other Black women who have benefited from colorism in any way understand this to be true and sincerely do care about Black women as a whole, we must accept the responsibility of not only being receptive to the feelings expressed by all women of color, but also begin to dig into ourselves and weed out our own internalized biases while mentally re-aligning ourselves with "Blackness." Unless the goal is to be absorbed by whiteness (and I don’t believe it is), we must empower Black women of all skin shades and colors to realize themselves in a world that constantly tries to shut us out.

The brunt of that responsibility will fall upon the shoulders of lighter-skinned Black women on a peer-to-peer level. For women like Kim Lute, that means giving her darker-skinned sisters the space to air out grievances, concerns, and ways that her behavior may be marginalizing to them. In my relationship with my sister, that means feeling her pain and confusion instead of running away from it or pretending her experiences are of no consequence. For my friend, that means understanding she comes from a place of privilege that has allowed her access to an "assimilation" that is far out of reach for many people of color.

This is only where the work begins. For there to be true social change, we must see to it that an equitable reality is created for people of color, wherein whiteness is not the only vehicle of social elevation or success. We must begin to believe that all of our Blacks are beautiful, and thus, create the spaces—in our lives, homes, and communities—that reflect that.

Tiffanie Drayton is a freelance writer focused on social justice issues. Follow her on Twitter @draytontiffanie.

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