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.

For whatever the reason, a lot of white people seem to feel that since we elected a black man as our President, everything is A-OK on the race front. It appears that to them, the main goal of the civil rights movement was not to gain equal rights for people of color, or change hearts and minds, but to install a person of color in the highest office of the land. Anything else is gravy. So no one thinks twice about the level of rancor directed at our prized Black President or the fact that he gets 400% more death threats than Bush did, to the tune of 30 per day. Never mind that we have an almost entirely white movement calling for his head and hurling racial slurs at him and any other politician of color. None of that has anything to do with race, right? Because we’re past that! It’s just people, baby! White folks desperately want to believe this and for the most part they have blinded themselves to the actual truth.

So it’s unsurprising to me that people would act irrationally when confronted with an article about the danger of Obama becoming the “angry black man” stereotype in response to the oil spill crisis. Although, as the link says, most of the commenters on the article did not identify their race, I feel it’s safe to assume that the majority of the dissent comes from white people. I say that based on the comments themselves. For example:

“Why is CNN so race obsessed? Black in America part 27! Nobody cares about this stupid crap until they bring it up. The tiny slither of Americans that are racist against blacks are so small and insignificant it just isn’t worth mentioning.”

Somehow I doubt that any person of color would say “nobody cares” about race. The gall it takes to state that there’s only a tiny “slither” [sic] of Americans who are racist against black people could only have come from a white person. Contrary to what white people like the above commenter would like to believe, racism, both institutionalized and personal, is alive and well in the U.S. No need to retire those Klan robes just yet.

The level of ignorance regarding the significance of racial issues post-Obama is astonishing and somewhat frightening. What it reflects is white folks’ eagerness to not have to deal with the whole race thing anymore, without actually unpacking their privilege and doing the necessary internal reflection. Most white people have never wanted to work on their racism. They understand racism only as a personal thing, not a deeply entrenched part of our society. So now that we’ve made it to what white people consider the mountain top, it’s become offensive to call a white person racist because racism is over. Every time something happens that reminds us that racism ISN’T over, such as the Arizona immigration bill being passed or AZ outlawing ethnic studies classes, white people get defensive and angry at people of color who speak out against it for “playing the race card”. Sometimes, as a person of color, just EXISTING qualifies as playing the race card.

I become the Angry Black Woman when I think about how Obama has been treated by the white public. It’s hard for me to listen to criticism of him because so little of the criticism has substance other than just the underlying “he’s not in his place” sentiment. I’m not saying he’s perfect. But he does not deserve the level of vitriol expressed by so many towards him. Just like every other black person that succeeds in a white man’s world, he has to work twice as hard at the same job Bush half-assed for 8 years, and he still doesn’t get the respect he deserves. That makes me very angry. Maybe it’s because I identify with him; maybe it’s because I recognize injustice when I see it.

It’s hard to have a rational conversation about the pros and cons of Obama’s policy decisions in the midst of all the racist red herrings being tossed about by the likes of Glenn Beck and the Teabaggers. Mainly because most white people won’t accept the idea that he is being treated poorly because he is black. Being a black man and making it to the Presidency apparently means that racism no longer applies. I’ve spoken with people who are simply shocked that anyone would think that the hostile environment towards Obama is based on his race. When you look at what’s he’s done so far as President, he’s done nothing so egregious as to warrant an entire movement based on how he’s screwed up the country. But there they are, with signs that read “African Lion… Lyin’ African” next to a picture of a lion and a picture of Obama. Completely non racist, right?

So, I am an Angry Black Woman. I have to be angry to survive. I have to be angry to prevent myself from just giving up on social justice work period. I have to be angry to avoid the death spiral of depression that beckons to me every time I see a racist sign at one of those Teabagger rallies, or a man at an Obama rally with a semi-automatic weapon strapped to his back, or Bill Mahr on TV saying he wants a real black president — basically a thug with a gun.

Obama doesn’t have to be the Angry Black Man to rile white America. Just being a black man is enough.

While these ladies may or may not consider themselves feminists, as a young hip-hop fan looking for tracks that I could rap along to without 1) contorting my voice into deep tones, 2) having to change all the pronouns, and 3) convincing myself that the “hoes” referenced in the songs I was rapping to had nothing to do with REGULAR black women, I found them inspiring and much easier to enjoy. Roll call!

Salt-N-Pepa debuted in 1985 with “The Showstopper” but didn’t hit it big until 1986 with the release of Hot, Cool and Vicious which included the platinum hit “Push It”. I LOVED these ladies. They were the first female rappers I heard when I started listening to hip-hop in the early nineties, when they came out with “Let’s Talk About Sex” which actually was what made me aware of the issue of AIDS. Not only were they politically aware, they were sex-positive, too! And they could drop HITS that I shook my little 11 year old booty to. I did that dance from “Push It” to pretty much every song. When I got into my BMG/Columbia House scamming days, Very Necessary was one of the first albums I got with my penny. And if she/ wanna be a freak an’/ sell it on the weekend/ IT’S NONE OF YO’ BIZNASS!

Queen Latifah first got on my radar with “U.N.I.T.Y.”, which I recognize was pretty late. But the song provided a bumpin’ counterpoint to all the “bitch” and “ho” shit going on in hip-hop during the gangsta rap days (which have now become decades since “bitch” and “ho” never went out of style). And I have to admit I am a huge West Coast gangsta rap lover, but I internalized Latifah’s message, which enabled me to brush off the insults and characterize them as what they were — ignorance. With a bomb beat. Latifah’s been on the scene since 1989 with All Hail the Queen, which included the hip-hop feminist anthem “Ladies First”.

The Lady of Rage doesn’t get mentioned much, but as I stated before I was heavy into West Coast gangsta rap in the nineties so naturally I was interested in Rage, since she was featured on Dr. Dre’s The Chronic. She released “Afro Puffs”, which has since become one of my favorite nineties tracks, in 1994. She has AMAZING flow. I love rapping along to anything she does. She didn’t drop a solo album until 1997’s Necessary Roughness, but made appearances on Snoop Dogg and various other Death Row artists’ albums in the meantime. Without her, I couldn’t rock ruff an’ stuff with my Afro Puffs.

Da Brat was another one with amazing flow. She dropped her debut, Funkdafied in ’94. Her lyrical gymnastics give me chills and again, I pride myself on being able to sing along. The embed is one of my favorite songs, and she also did a HOT song with B.I.G. called “The B Side” that I count among my favorites, too. Brat is pretty much the only thing Jermaine Dupri did for me. She often collabs with my ultimate rap role model, see below.

Lil’ Kim ROCKED MY WORLD when the above track hit my ears. I was in love. Tight rhymes, fanciful subject matter, and the video was incredible. All those wigs! Hardcore dropped in 1994 and my life was not the same. I can quote Kim lyrics at will — the woman shaped my sexual philosophy. If you ain’t lickin’ this, you ain’t stickin’ this became my motto. I used’ta be scared of the dick/ Now I throw lips to the shit/ Handle it like a real bitch opened up the world of fellatio for me. Yes, I was at the tender age of 14 when it came out, but I rocked that CD until 2000 when she came out with Notorious K.I.M.. I will be the first to admit she is problematic. But when that woman ripped the mic out of Puff Daddy’s hand in the “All About the Benjamins” remix video, she ripped the mic out of the hands of all male artists. SHE CAN RHYME, y’all. I’ve heard her freestyle and it is on point. Her fashion is atrocious, the plastic surgery is awful and the feuds legendary, but Lil’ Kim still holds the crown of Queen of Rap. I could write an entire article on the institution that is Kim. Maybe I will.

Bahamadia will take us out of this article. Her style is so laid back, you might not notice that she’s a lyrical genius. Her album Kollage came out in 1996. She takes me back to the days of Latifah, when female rappers were more concerned with rhyming than catfighting. (I see you, Kim.) When I want to kick back but keep my mind stimulated, I put on either Kollage or her EP Bb Queen. She’s kind of an underground/indie type rapper (aka no guns or Gucci), performing with The Roots and Talib Kweli. That’s pretty much the main type of hip-hop I listen to now, besides Kim and old school rappers. I get tired of the horrible production value of the recycled crap they play on the radio these days. Now get off my lawn!!

This is by no means a comprehensive list of women in hip hop, and I know some of y’all are going to object to some of these women being labeled “feminist”. But they each empowered me in SOME WAY, and that shaped my worldview and thus my feminism as it is today.

More and more I’m hearing grumbling from the black community that Obama isn’t doing enough to help us out. From not appointing a black woman to the Supreme Court (and I do agree, it’s high time that bridge gets crossed), to taking too long to give black farmers their settlement money, Obama is looking like, well, any other president. As much as I would like for him to be the Great Black Hope and focus on lifting up the black community, I recognize his reality — his political opponents are all too eager to claim he’s playing the race card or offering preferential treatment to black people because of his race. I mean, these are people who expect apologies when they get called racist for calling a black person a nigger.

Let me take a second here to explain something. I feel kind of a kinship with Obama. We are both half white, both raised by a white mother and grandparent (his grandmother, my grandfather), both grew up with little to no contact with our black fathers, and both struggled with defining ourselves in a world that wants to put you in a neat little box. When all the drama around his radical black pastor, Reverend Wright, started during the campaign, I understood why Obama would attend a church led by an ideologue like Rev. Wright. And I understood why Rev. Wright was an ideologue. Because when you’re a light skinned black person, or half white, or in any way do not fit into the mold of what people think a black person is supposed to be, you feel like you have to prove yourself. You have to fight to be black. So, many go the militant route. I speak from experience, because I became intensely interested in African-American and African history partly in response to criticism I faced from other black folks that I wasn’t “black enough”. It became my mission to learn as much as possible about our history, culture, and current situation in the world. I’m glad I did, because it enabled me to be a much better advocate for equal rights, and a much more informed opponent of racism. I just wish the impetus for my enlightenment wasn’t me trying to defend my place in the black continuum. I think Obama may have faced down the same issues I did, so I can see the position he’s coming from.

Since Obama was elected, many white people seem to think race is no longer an issue and are annoyed when PoC point out that it still is. Barack is in a delicate situation. On the one hand, he full well knows that there are serious, systemic inequities between the races that need to be addressed. But on the other, any time he focuses on race, he’s accused of, well, focusing on race. To most white people, the objective is to be “colorblind”. Just don’t talk about race and it will go away. Unfortunately, things don’t work like that. We don’t need to deny that there are differences between races. We just need to recognize that those differences don’t mean that PoC should be discriminated against, and we need to fight for equality across the board. Sometimes that entails things that white people label “reverse racism”, like affirmative action. Sometimes diversity does need to be enforced because white people aren’t going to change on their own if they don’t have to. But since we apparently now live in a “post-racial” world, in white folks’ eyes, that is tantamount to racism towards white people. It’s an unfortunate truth that most white people don’t understand institutionalized racism. They see racism as simply a one-on-one reality. If they personally don’t hate PoC, they aren’t racist. If they personally don’t discriminate against PoC, racism doesn’t exist. If there’s a black president, we’ve made all the gains we need to to have equality between the races. Being white is a very self-centered identity.

So Obama must walk the tightrope between the actual realities of race dynamics and what white people think those realities are. Whereas our white presidents consistently focused on improving the situations of the members of their race, it was not seen that way by white people, because white is the default. If Obama spent his time focusing on issues that affect only black people or other PoC, he would be seen as being “racist” towards white people, or a militant ideologue. It doesn’t matter how small the issue is. To avoid that labeling, he must avoid race for the most part. He is constantly reminded that he has to govern for all citizens, and in America the majority of the citizens are white.

I want Obama to be bold and deal with racial issues head on. I want him to focus on creating equality between the races. But the fact is, he’s a politician. His job depends on keeping white people placated. So I don’t expect much different from him as far as racial issues than I would from any other President. Am I disappointed? Of course. Surprised? No.