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“I hate black people — not your kind of black people though, Lauren,” one of my white ex-friends once said to me.
When talking to my white and non-white friends alike about issues of discrimination within the black community, I was surprised that many of them didn’t know that these issues exist. Others knew but simply couldn’t put a name to them.
Colorism, also referred to as the color complex, exists all around the world and is a hierarchical ideology that ranks individuals by skin tone. It is different from racism in that colorism occurs between people of the same race. Colorism provides light-skinned people of color certain privileges it denies to dark-skinned people of color.
The issue of colorism has been swept aside for years, brought to the forefront only in films like Spike Lee’s 1988 School Daze, which deals with colorism at a university level, and Marita Golden’s 2004 book Don’t Play in the Sun: One Woman’s Journey Through the Color Complex. Colorism is just as insidious as any other form of discrimination, and research has shown that it infects political, economic and social aspects of a person’s life.
Data analyzed by Harvard University shows a correlation between skin color and prison sentencing for first offenses: Unsurprisingly, the darker the convict’s skin, the longer their sentence. Controlling for type of offense, “light-skinned Blacks received sentences statistically indistinguishable from those of Whites, while medium and dark-skinned Blacks received sentences 2.7 percent longer” Light-skinned black people are recommended for hiring more than dark-skinned black people who hold the same credentials, light-skinned black people are more likely to marry and people with dark skin are “more likely to grow up in difficult circumstances,” according to Harvard.
Beyond statistics, the experience of dark-skinned men and women is much different than those with light skin. As a mixed-race woman with light skin myself, I am unable to speak with a firsthand experience of the extreme racism and colorism dark-skinned black folk endure every day — I’ve never been followed in a grocery store by policemen or employees like my father has, I’ve never been turned away from a party because of my skin color like my friends have, no one has ever crossed the street to avoid me and I’ve never been told the much too frequently uttered phrase, “you’re pretty for a black girl.”
Colorism has, however, had a large presence in my life. I remember trying home remedies to lighten my skin and being asked by my white classmates if my hair was a weave, if I could wash it or even get it wet. Men, to this day, ask me, “what are you mixed with?” as if it’s a compliment that they acknowledge that I’m not all black, while putting down dark-skinned women in the process.
I’m considered “exotic” and am fetishized by words like “redbone,” yet the same people who fetishize my skin color have given me backhanded compliments like, “White girls are just too pretty for me.” I, like many light-skinned or mixed race people, have struggled with the idea of not being “black enough” for black people or “white enough” for white people.
But this isn’t the worst of colorism — it’s certainly bad, but it’s not the worst. I don’t mean to downplay the negative experience light-skinned people have, and I will not try to speak for us all, but I will also not pretend that the color complex is a system I haven’t benefitted from.
The fact of the matter is that while colorism affects both light-skinned and dark-skinned people, it is a system that seeks to perpetuate the oppression of black people by targeting those with darker skin. Dark-skinned men face stereotypes of untrustworthiness and poverty and are seen as criminals. In a study done on unconscious bias, participants were shown photos of the same black man’s face altered to represent several shades of skin. Participants most associated the word “educated” with the light-skinned photo rather than the dark-skinned photo.
It is no surprise that our first black president has light skin himself and is racially mixed. In fact, people with lighter skin are disproportionately represented in government compared to other shades of skin in the U.S. According to the Harvard study, “Of the twenty-two Blacks in Congress during and after Reconstruction, all but three were of mixed race. About half had ‘marked Caucasian features – light complexions and straight hair,’ and ‘some of them may have identified more with Whites than Blacks.’”
Dark-skinned black women struggle with beauty standards, living without the European features to be considered beautiful by mainstream America. Society polices dark-skinned women’s bodies in a way that it does not for light-skinned women — dark-skinned women are told they cannot wear certain colors, they’re pressured to have mixed children and they’re told they could be prettier if they had lighter skin.
Men have commented on dark-skinned women’s photos on social media with statements like, “Imagine if she was lightskin though smh.” Magazines often edit images of black women to lighten their skin, and dangerous skin-bleaching products are on the rise.
The black community cannot and should not be blamed for this color complex — colorism is rooted in the oppression of people of color by white people, forming from its history of slavery and colonization. Light skin came to be preferred to dark skin because lighter slaves were used as house servants rather than field workers. Light skin indicated that the slave was the offspring of the slave owner — most often the product of black slaves being raped by their white owners. These slaves, though not typically claimed as relatives by slave owners, were given preferential treatment, and the paper bag test (wherein a brown paper bag was held against a black person’s skin) was used to decide whether or not a person was light enough to attend college.
Colorism is not just a black issue either — cultures marginalize darker skin all over the world, including in the Asian and Latin communities, and the history of these specific colorisms aren’t much different. Colonization and the transatlantic slave trade brought colorism to Latin countries like Brazil and Mexico, while economic hierarchies solidified the ideology in Asia.
Internalized racism is the result of centuries of oppression and is not an issue that can go away overnight. While we have to be understanding toward some color-based injustices in the black community, we also must work to end the stigmatization of dark skin and the identity erasure of light-skinned people of color. To do so, we must realize destructive patterns of colorism in media and in our own lives — think twice before you call a dark-skinned girl “pretty for a black girl” or assume a dark-skinned man is less educated.
I’ve seen too many light-skinned people tout their skin color as better than others and too many dark-skinned people only desire lighter-skinned romantic partners. People don the divisive labels of “team light skin” and “team dark skin” when they would be better served coming together as one community to improve the experience of all black people. Stereotypes based upon skin color may not be our fault, but their perpetuation is something we can and must minimize. Racism is already plenty to deal with— we don’t need to add insult to injury with colorism.
Contact CU Independent Opinion Columnist Lauren Arnold at firstname.lastname@example.org.