How I'm Using My Light-Skinned Privilege to Fight for Racial Justice

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by Zola Ray @ZolaMRay

Race is more than just skin color, but an effective dialogue about race is not complete without a discussion of the nuances of how skin color operates in society. As a light-skinned biracial woman who identifies as Black, but can often pass for white, I don’t experience the same level of racism that Black people who are darker than me experience. I used to deny my light-skinned privilege because I feared it would be equivalent to denying my heritage. But, ultimately, learning about my privilege allowed me to embrace my Blackness and to use it to speak out in the fight for racial justice.

Throughout the media, we see a number of light-skinned Black public figures using their privilege to make change. Earlier this year, some people expressed concerns that the face of young Black feminism is light-skinned and biracial, referring to celebrities like Amandla Stenberg and Zendaya Coleman. After Jesse Williams gave his moving speech at the BET Awards, others commented on the fact that he has light-skinned privilege. I thoroughly admire these influential celebrities for using their platforms to combat an unjust system without worrying about the comfort of the privileged.
While I would never denounce the passion with which these people fight for justice, it is true that the media often elevates the voices of Black people with lighter skin over others. There is no skin tone, way of dress, or behavior that can fully shield Black people from racism. But colorism does exist, and light-skinned people, like myself, benefit.

I didn’t always realize that I remain unoppressed by the system of colorism. Because I struggled to find my place in the Black community for much of my young life, I used to think my light skin was a curse. In elementary school, my Black classmates would often refer to me as a “white girl.” Sometimes this comment was in reference to my skin, and other times it was in reference to the ways I talked and acted. I felt that I was being stripped of a part of my identity.

Before entering middle school, my family moved to a predominantly white town. The area was racially segregated, and many people I went to school with couldn’t tell I was Black despite my textured hair. Consequently, they made racist comments in front of me, and I became afraid to  reveal my race.

As the years progressed, I became more comfortable with telling people I’m Black. I thought if people knew, they would stop. I was wrong. It was very difficult to discern who didn’t know and who just didn’t think of me as that kind of black. At the time, I resented my light skin. I wished that I could be visibly Black so that my presence would be enough to stop the overtly racist remarks. I felt guilty that I hadn’t said anything. I felt like racism affected me more than anyone else. I was horribly wrong.

In my college years, I started thinking more critically about the impact of colorism within the Black community and throughout society as a whole. I realized that the teasing I received for being light wasn’t the same as the oppression darker Black women face. Unlike many darker Black women, I have the privilege of finding makeup that matches my skin tone, and seeing people with my skin tone considered beautiful in the media. I’ve never been told that I’m “pretty for my skin tone.” Unlike more “visibly black” people, I have never had a traumatic experience with the police. In fact, the only time I was confronted by a police officer, he ended up joking with me and leaving. I’m disgusted and horrified to think that if I were darker, the situation could have ended much worse.

I have been profiled. Many people can tell I’m biracial, and others think I’m Latina. I get a little nervous when walking by the cops, but I wonder if my fear is even justified as I contemplate what race they think that I am. It is at moments like these that I can’t believe I ever indulged in the woe-is-me mentality simply because of my skin color.

I still, however, feel the pain of racism. When I hear a white person use the n-word, I feel humiliated and have to remind myself that the shame is not mine. When I see on the news that the cops have killed another Black person, I fear for my own family members and friends. When I notice that someone I consider a friend seems uncomfortable around Black people, I feel like less of a human being.

My skin color sometimes renders my identity invisible. But as much as I want to be seen, I know that the fact that my racial identity is not always apparent has benefitted me. I don’t ever want to hide my Blackness or lie by omission, but I know there must have been situations where I was unknowingly spared the physical and emotional violence that darker Black people are so often subject to.
Knowing my privilege allows me to invest myself more thoroughly in Black issues. It is important that I enter Black spaces and combat systemic oppression. If I were to separate myself from the Black community because I “look white”, I would be doing exactly what white supremacists would want me to do. I would be complying with, and ultimately contributing to, the horrific system that oppresses every Black person in this country.

If I don’t utilize my light-skinned privilege to combat racism, then I can’t expect these systemic issues to cease.

When I meet people who seem to only trust me because of my skin color, I use the opportunity to speak to these people about the oppression of people of color in this country. When people make racist comments around me because they think I’m white, I speak out against what they say. I don’t just say “Actually, I’m black.” I let them know where their harmful ideas come from and how perpetuating them contributes to an oppressive system.

Just as being Black intersects with other parts of our identities, it intersects with skin tone to create a system of social hierarchy that needs to be shattered,  and light-skinned people like me can’t stop speaking out until colorism do not exist.

Photo: iStockPhoto

Zola Ray is passionate about exploring race, gender and other aspects of the human experience through her writing. She’s a strong believer in the idea that if your feminism is not intersectional, it’s not true feminism. On her spare time, she can be found admiring cute animals or watching YouTube videos. You can follow Zola on Twitter @zolamray and visit her website:

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