Friday, July 22, 2011

Color Consciousness

So I go off on racism a lot...I'm gonna switch things up a little bit and talk about colorism amongst peoples of the African diaspora in the United States, though it should be noted that it's a worldwide problem affecting peoples of many different races.

Wikipedia says: "Colorism is prejudice or discrimination in which human beings are accorded differing social treatment based on skin color...The term colorism refers to when lighter skin tones are preferred and darker skin is considered less desirable or darker skin tones are preferred and lighter skin is considered less desirable."

Urbandictionary is more limited and more blunt: The discrimination of African Americans by Skin tone in their own community, usually subconsciously done, as most Blacks dont realize they're doing it until some dumb rapper or famous person makes a stupid untrue statement about darker toned women. Perpetuated during slavery and by the media which seems to suggest lighter skin females to be of a higher stance than darker ones. Perpetuated by rappers who often show more lighter skinned women in videos and hardly any darker ones. Perpetuated by some Black men who treat lighter skinned females in a higher regard than darker toned ones. An untrue Inplication that darker skin girls cannot be as fine as lighter ones. Bullshit.

A confession: like many things, colorism isn't something I really had a good idea of until coming to Princeton. Blame it on never having really had close black friends [with one notable though short-lived exception] growing up. Well, rephrase: I had a distorted understanding of colorism. Let's go through notable color-related memories/experiences; they all have to do with my family, because let's face it, they're the only black people I ever really interacted with. 
1) If my father was a woman, soooo many things would make more sense he would be called a redbone. Light Bright. [Sn: Evidently these terms are androgynous. I've never heard them used to describe men before. That touches on an issue too big for this side note...] I remember when I was a little kid, I legitimately thought he was White. My mom noticed that I colored him with the "apricot" Crayola crayon as opposed to the brown I used for the rest of us, and called me out on it when I was a little kid, which led to my first discussion about the fact that Black people come in all different shades of beautiful. [I'm sure that's not what she actually said, but let's go with it.]
2) Starting in middle school I began to get the "Are you mixed? What are you mixed with?" questions left and right, and people never seemed to believe that I was just black. [Well, okay, we've been there already. I am an eclectic mixture of backgrounds that combines into Blackness.] 
3) My mother avoids the sunlight like she is a vampire. She hates going to the beach, and always has an umbrella and some ridiculous hot whenever my grandmother would drag us to Atlantic City's historically black "Chickenbone Beach" (I kid you not) while I was growing up. It wasn't until the beginning of high school that I finally asked her about this bizarre habit, and she said very nonchalantly that she was trying not to get any darker. 
4) Fast-forward to the summer after freshman year of college, when my friends made me realize that I do, in fact, love the beach when it does not involve other members of my family. I would come home from a day full of sun, sand, and surf with a tan (I tan easily) and the first thing any member of my family would say upon my return is "Daaaaaang you got dark!" If that family member was my sister, she would probably make some joke about how we should take a picture before I lose my tan, I "actually look like I belong in this family." Which meant that within the course of my daily life, I looked like an outsider.
Now let's go beyond my family to the Orange Bubble. My freshman year roommate was pretty color-conscious, and whenever we would talk about things like makeup or fashion choices, she would bring up the I could/she couldn't wear this thing or that thing because I'm light-skinned/she's dark-skinned. When I went natural, a lot of conversations with black women of various hues about how my texture varied from theirs, with either implications or direct statements about the amount of White/African/etc. in our heritage. Somewhere along the way I began eschewing the term "light-skinned" and calling myself "caramel" colored, a term I'd first heard in a hip-hop song in elementary/middle school but had never thought of as applying to myself before, an example of the common practice of fetishizing black people skin colors (as came to light recently in the Naomi Campbell Cadberry chocolate ad scandal). Skin color came up as a groan-inducing topic in meetings of various Black cultural organizations and was a featured tough-topic in student-written plays. When I changed my profile picture to one of my Ghanaian-American ex-boyfriend and I, my best friend of 7 years commented not on how cute we were, but that in all that time, he'd "never noticed how light-skinned" I really am. My friend of 14 years liked that comment, as if she agreed. And I couldn't even get mad, because I couldn't deny that holding his hand made me feel like the lightest-skinned person in the world. Little by little, I started to recognize that it was kind of a big deal. 
But it's still kind of hard for me to wrap my head around all of this. When I hear about Twitter battles between #teamlightskin and #teamdarkskin I don't know where I fall--well, okay, I fall on #teamantidiscrimination, but you know what I mean. Do I "pass" the brown paper bag test? It depends on what season you're testing me during. I tan as actively as any white person during the summer. Back when I used to wear powder on my face, I had a winter shade and a summer shade. But beyond any of that, THIS IS SO FUCKING POINTLESS. I have two words to say here, INTERNALIZED RACISM. That's all colorism is. Like the belief that straight hair is any better than nappy/kinky/curly hair or the desire to walk a little faster when there's a lone black man behind you on the sidewalk at night, any belief about the shade of one's skin implying something about their character or inherent value is damn foolish and racist as hell. 
If I hear one more sister talking about how she has to marry a light-skinned brother (or a White man) so her kids won't bear the stigma of being dark skinned, I am going to SMACK THE SHIT OUT OF HER and say hey, why don't we work on changing the societal norms that say your skin color isn't beautiful? Rihanna is the woman with the most fans on Facebook right now. People are calling this a victory for black women everywhere! ...Oh but she's light-skinned. Of course. Womp womp. Or everything about how Michelle Obama changed the way dark-skinned Black women are seen in popular culture, and the people who have the nerve to say they respect Barack more because he married a dark-skinned woman? NEGROES PLEASE. I can't even. Why can't both of these women's achievements be recognized as victories for black women everywhere, regardless of their complexion? I don't think Dr. King knew imagined had to be talking to his own brothers and sisters when he dreamed that his four little children would grow up in a world where they would be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. Whatever shade of brown my skin is, whatever delicious food item I want to relate it to, at the end of the day, I am just a Black woman, like all the rest of you. These divisions are pointless and downright counterproductive...and those are the hardest kind to get rid of. Le sigh.

Do you know what I see here? 3 different shades of gorgeous. The end.

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