At the Crunk Feminist Collective last week, writers Moya B. and Summer M. started a dialogue of sorts on colorism — specifically light skin privilege. That post got thrown a bit of shade by some commenters, so they responded to the ruckus with a follow up post fleshing out the topic a bit more. As a light-skinned black woman myself, I felt a bit uncomfortable and defensive reading the initial post at first, typically a sign for me that I’m reading an article that is challenging some assumption I have or something I take for granted, which is a good thing. After I got into reading, though, I found myself for the most part agreeing with the points Moya and Summer were making, and I began to examine my own relationship with light skin privilege.
For much of my young adult life, I felt that some darker skinned black women were “discriminating” against me because I’m light skinned. Not that they had wielded any particular societal power over me other than to treat me with disdain or question my blackness. Pretty much all of my friends have been darker than I am, so it’s not like every black person darker than me has rejected me or mistreated me. While when I was in Christian elementary and middle school I was one of few black children attending and therefore experienced hefty doses of racism, when I got out and into public school, I was just one of many other black kids so it wasn’t a big deal. Whereas at my private school I was naturally close with the few other black kids there, in public school all the black kids didn’t necessarily have to hang out. I found myself on the outside, not only as a new student but also as a light skinned black girl among peers that were on the whole darker than I was and had preconceived notions regarding light skinned girls in general.
I don’t need to go into the various hurdles I jumped to get accepted by my black peers, especially the girls. The narrative is familiar. At the time, I recognized that they thought I may be haughty about being light skinned, like I thought I was better than them. I didn’t really know exactly why they might think that because at the time I was no scholar of African American history. I was bitter that they had these ideas about me and bitter that they were the gatekeepers of acceptance into the black kids’ group. Now that I have the benefit of hindsight and education, I understand why they felt that way.
I know now the privilege I had and do have due to my lightness. I see the way people treat me versus how they treat my dark skinned friends. I’m considered safe and non-threatening. White people feel like they can ask me ignorant questions about black people and assume I won’t get offended, even though they know I’m black. It’s like they think the lighter skin makes me more docile and sympathetic to their ignorance. Friends who know both me and my sister will often come to me when they have problems with her, because I’m seen as the “good” one. Black guys treat me differently, I’m considered exotic and in many cases preferable to a dark skinned woman. Basically that whole “Light Skin Privilege” list, I live it. And for the longest time, I had no idea. I thought I was the one being treated unfairly. I couldn’t understand why they were distrustful of me. Years of being treated as “less than”, less than white and even less than other black folk, will make people be distrustful. However much it hurt me that they were, they had every right to be, just like we as black people have every right to not immediately trust that white people aren’t going to be racist or prejudiced against us.
For me it’s important to say out loud that I am privileged because of my light skin. I need to be mindful of my privilege when I talk about my experiences navigating life as a light skinned black person. I need to understand that dark skinned black people experience a great deal more discrimination and racism than I do. They’re on the front lines. I’m bringing up the rear. So it’s essential to center their voices in conversations about racism and colorism. Being defensive about it serves no good purpose. Yes, we all experience racism. Yes, there is intra-racial tension between dark skinned and light skinned black folks and we can both mistreat the other group. I’m not saying it’s ideal for dark skinned black folk to resent lighter black folk. There’s a deep history behind that resentment, though, and it’s not going to go away by me bemoaning that it exists.
I write this as a recognition of my privilege and also to bring attention to the topic. Since the original post by Moya and Summer, Sister Toldja of The Beautiful Struggler has also opened a dialogue with her readers. I want to continue to foster the dialogue. Recognizing your light skin privilege does not make you less black. It simply places you in solidarity with those hardest hit by racism.
It rings true: either we’re all free or none of us are.