A friend sent me a really disturbing video the other day. In it, a young dark-skinned Black man spoke about not wanting dark-skinned children. As the interviewer probed as to why he wouldn’t want children with his complexion, the young man struggled to piece his words together. Visibly uneasy, he offered deflections like, “This a once in a lifetime thing”, and “This a dark ass shade”. As he smiled through his discomfort, nervously repositioning himself in his seat, the interviewer pressed further. “Don’t you want your children to look like you?”, he asked. The young man paused before hesitantly huffing, “Yeah”. I didn’t believe him, I don’t think he believed himself. The entire exchange was cringeworthy at best, but not nearly as cringeworthy as the comments.
Viewers were eager to diagnose the young man with a serious case of self-hate. Under the video, people expressed their disappointment. Comments like “This dude is sick”, and “He obviously doesn’t love himself”, cluttered the screen. “He grown and still ain’t gotten over being teased”, one viewer vocalized, to which others responded with laughter and applause. Hundreds of viewers questioned why he didn’t love himself, asking nonchalantly, “Who hurt you, friend?”. I thought to myself, how could it get any more obvious who’d hurt him? It was us.
Colorism as a concept may be fairly new to our public conversations but it’s certainly not new to our collective experiences. I’m a brown-skin Black woman whose biggest social obstacle as a child was being an African booty scratcher. Sure, I struggled with the aftermath of the shame I absorbed from my social surroundings, but my father’s intentional affirmation of my African identity provided much needed balance. My Black American peers may not have thought much of my heritage in their young age but my father instilled in me that it was everything to be proud of, leaving me with two perspectives to choose from as an adult. It wasn’t easy being the resident African, but there were many days when my complexion earned me a break. And when it did, it was only because the focus was shifted to the easier targets: the dark-skinned kids.
Day after day I watched as my dark-skinned classmates were tortured for their rich complexions. Despite being the only actual first generation African in my class, my dark skinned classmates received similar labeling. They were teased for their African phenotypes and referred to by their most prominent features, their kinky hair, the width of their noses, the contrast of their smiles. Unlike me, they never got a break. I was far too young to comprehend where these ideations originated, but I wasn’t too young to internalize the rhetoric. The older we got, the worse the bullying got. By the seventh grade, my teachers would often turn a blind eye to the behavior, telling the dark-skinned students to fight back, to toughen up. Some did, others didn’t have the strength to.
As we got older, it appeared all hope wasn’t lost, at least not for the dark-skinned boys. There were a few ways they could mitigate some of their struggle, one of them was by being funny. Being the Clap Back King could definitely earn you some respect or at least enough to keep you from winning “Darkie of the Day”. And if that didn’t work, you could always try sports. If you could run, jump, hop or skip faster than the rest of us, well, therein lay your value. It wasn’t rare to see the dark-skinned boys trying to outperform one another, whether that was on the field, the court, or the track. Sure, the light-skinned and brown-skinned boys were also trying to make their athletic debuts, but only to boost their popularity. For the dark-skinned boys, they were earning social capital, validating their humanity, proving their worth.
Dark skinned girls didn’t have it so “easy”. There was no #BlackIsBeautifulInEveryShade hashtag on MySpace and athleticism was never a social marker for female students, which essentially meant there was no escape. Juggling public ridicule with daily games of hide and seek from the sun, it was no surprise that some of the dark-skinned girl’s adopted ornery personas. Asking out the darkest girl in the class was a popular dare in middle school, people knew where to wait at lunchtime to see the gag revealed to the unsuspecting girl.
It wasn’t enough to torture a dark-skinned girl in private, you needed everyone to know exactly how you felt about her. And when that same girl would withdraw into her self, avoid social settings and become suspicious of any boy expressing interest in her, well then she was just being a bitch, typical. The dark-skinned girls didn’t have the luxury of being carefree and jovial, yet their logical responses to public shaming made them even bigger villains. Not only were they “ugly” but they were mean too. And who wanted to be nice to that?
Our community would love to pretend that these girls exchanged the toxicity of our middle school setting for the affirming halls of their high schools. And if that didn’t happen, then we’d dismiss those experiences by assuming college must’ve been better for them. And if that didn’t happen then we’d assume the “real world” must’ve been kinder to them, despite evidence that says the exact opposite. Not only does colorism get worse as we get older, but our self image follows suit. The Illusory Truth Effect is the idea that if you repeat something often enough, people will eventually accept it as truth. This concept has existed in the world of psychology since the late 1970’s, but only recently have researchers uncovered just how fated this phenomenon is.
An experiment published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology discovered that even in instances where subjects had prior knowledge disproving the lie, they still believed the lie if repeated often enough. This means a child can believe their dark skin is dirty despite taking daily baths and maintaining good hygiene. This means a child can be exposed to images of undeniably beautiful dark-skinned women like Gabrielle Union and Lupita Nyong’o and still believe darker skin is inherently less attractive. This means a child can internalize that their dark skin is indicative of ignorance and stupidity despite personally achieving academic milestones. Time doesn’t heal learned self-hatred, and make no mistake, self-hate is not self taught. But implying that people should age out of trauma rooted in intra-racial bigotry is asking them to do the impossible. Especially when the trauma is constant and ongoing.
Time doesn’t erase prejudice, it morphs prejudice, it evolves prejudice, it shape-shifts prejudice. It morphs into our dating practices as evidenced by research that shows, “light-skinned black women are more likely to marry spouses with higher levels of education, occupational prestige or income than their darker-skinned counterparts”. It morphs into the mistreatment of dark skinned children in schools as evidenced by research that says “African-American girls with the darkest skin tones were three times more likely to be suspended from school than African-American girls with the lightest skin tones.”
This study controlled for other factors such as parental involvement, previous incidents of delinquent behavior, and overall academic performance, and found these results to be consistent across racial-ethnic lines, meaning Black teachers also exhibited this bias against their dark-skinned students. It morphs into our social hierarchies as evidenced by the cavalier way we praise light-skinned women for their avoidant dating behaviors, flipped attitudes and unbothered savagery, all while demonizing identical behaviors when exhibited by dark-skinned women. What we’re really saying is light-skinned Black women have more suitors and better options and therefore can afford to handle male attention with disregard and “not text back”, while dark-skinned women should just be thankful they’re catching the male gaze at all.
Colorism is not a myth, it doesn’t work “both ways”, it doesn’t go away if we ignore it and it’s not resolved by dedicating Instagram pages to bikini clad Black women of darker hues. Self hate is not self taught and because we are complicit in the implementation of white supremacist structures within our community, simply acknowledging the existence of the issue is not enough. We have to be intentional about celebrating Blackness in darker varieties and highlighting dark-skinned members of our global communities as a standard, not to fill a quota. If the solution to racism involves an intentional focus on the visibility of Black people in historically whiter spaces, then the solution to colorism should also involve the intentional focus on the visibility of dark-skinned Black people in historically lighter spaces.
Liking a dark-skinned girl’s picture on Instagram does as much for colorism as white people attending our cookouts has done for racism. It may absolve you of your personal guilt, but does nothing to address the problem at a systemic level. Whether we’re talking about skin bleaching, skin bias in the judicial system, complexion preferences in dating, restrictive beauty standards, or intra-familial tension, colorism effects us all. We are not responsible for its’ inception, but we are culpable when we perpetuate its ideations within our community. If this conversation makes you uncomfortable or you find it to be divisive, it’s quite possible you stand to lose some of the benefits this oppressive skin system has afforded you. Sorry to break it to you, but there is no liberty without liberation for ALL Black people. Plainly put, we should all evaluate the ways in which we serve as vehicles of white supremacy, especially when it comes to one another.
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