Light Skinned vs Dark Skinned: Are We Still Doing This?


Last week I sat in on a media literacy workshop at our Hip Hop in the Heartland Institute as we talked about this issue of colorism in the Black community. Yep…we are still dealing with this. I wonder how many of my Black friends remember either witnessing or participating in an activity where two Black people placed their forearms next to each other to determine which was “the lighter?” It was a silly thing to do but we did it anyway. Somehow being “lighter” meant being “better.” The notion of making distinctions between light and dark complexions may seem strange to some of our White friends but these distinction come from the overwhelming dominance of a Western European aesthetic and preference for “lightness.”

Some years ago while in Ghana at a slave dungeon I noticed a set of homes in front of the shanty’s on the shoreline that were clearly of higher quality than the others. When I asked about them our tour guide explained that when the Portuguese slavers raped the African women they often produced offspring who could not fit into Portuguese society and who they did not want to face chattel slavery in the Americas. Their solution was to create a separate class of people with special housing for them in Ghana. From the beginning the Europeans created a separation between “light” and “dark.”

Once in the Americas enslaved African women continued to be subjected to the brutality of rape. Children who resulted from that terror sometimes received the special treatment of being assigned to inside work rather than field work…hence we got the terms, “house niggers” and “field niggers.” The animosity that grew from that distinction (based primarily on skin color) remains with us today.

Some people might argue that we should be well past those kinds of separations. We should be, but we’re not. We have determined that the “pretty” women are those that look like Hallie Berry, Mariah Carey, Beyonce,  and Alicia Keys. We see women like India Irie and Lupita N’yongo as “exotic.” Black folks still buy skin-lightening creams; but rarely go to tanning booths. The image at the top of this blog post reflects our continued participation in the self-hatred that colorism produces. Our children are still selecting the “White doll” as the “pretty” doll. We still tell dark-complected sisters things like, “Oh, you’re pretty for a dark-skinned girl!”

I wish we could get to a place where we would tell our children how absolutely beautiful they are no matter what shade of the incredible color spectrum they fall on. Call them delicious dark chocolate, sassy espresso, cool caramel, mocha magic, or any other tasty name you can think of. But never ever call them ugly. Never juxtapose their beauty with their skin color. Share with them the awesome advantaged of more melanin (and in a later blog I’ll discuss the versatility of our amazing hair).

We have way too many other issues to confront in a highly racialized society–education, employment, health care, mass incarceration, and many more–to be “stuck on stupid” regarding skin color. As Iyanla Vanzant might say, “Just stop it!”

Stay Black & Smart!



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