The Brownest Eye

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.

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  • http://crunkfeministcollective.wordpress.com/ Moya

    Thank you for your comments on the blog and this post. I really appreciate hearing your story and the complexity of your navigation of colorism in familial and social settings. I'm still learning how discomfort can be productive and what it means to have privilege and be oppressed at the same time. It's so hard and I thank you for bearing witness to your process publicly!

    much love,

    Moya

    • Tasha Fierce

      You're welcome! Thank you for opening the dialogue and getting me to think critically about my privilege, that's always a good thing. Much love to both you and Summer.

  • http://mariposatales@blogspot.com Felicia

    As a dark-skinned woman with colorism on my mind lately, I applaud and thank you for taking the time to acknowledge its existence. Either we're all free or none of us are… Most def!

    • Tasha Fierce

      Thank you for reading and commenting!

  • http://mariposatales@blogspot.com Felicia

    As a dark-skinned woman with colorism on my mind lately, I applaud and thank you for taking the time to acknowledge its existence. Either we're all free or none of us are… Most definitely!

  • http://www.inconsequentiallogic.com Roschelle

    loving the "run tell that" slogan associated with your social bookmark and loving your new layout!

    thank you and the crunk feminist collective for starting a dialogue about "light skinned" privilege. i can remember my great grandmother telling me not to go off and get pregnant by some man darker than me – to ensure that my children would be my color or lighter. mind you, i'm not light skinned by no stretch of the imagination nor am i dark skinned. i fall in the paper bag/mocha/brown hue.

    this was simply her way of "protecting" my investment.

    there is no other ethnic group in the world that comes in such an array of colors as people of color. the complexity of our feelings about color stem from the days of slavery and the privilege (although, seldom) "massah's" offsprings received over the untainted african slaves.

    we've come so far as a race of people. but this type of systemic brainwashing isn't easily erased.

  • farfree

    beautiful blog sister! i am a light skinned sister who has cursed out many men for talking about they don't date dark skinned sisters like my aunts and cousins. and i don't date ignorant men like that. we must stand together against this self-hatred in our culture that is just another sign we have not recovered from slavery. beauty comes in all colors!

    • Tasha Fierce

      I don't date men who only date light skinned chicks either, it's insulting to me and to dark skinned sisters. I do love the hues our skin comes in. All beautiful.

  • Jerome

    I hope this doesn't come across as a threadjack (if so, please tell me to shut up), but did anyone happen to catch My Mic Sounds Nice: A Truth About Women in Hip-Hop on BET this past weekend? It was a fantastic hourlong documentary about the history of female emcees, told primarily by the artists themselves, all the way from Sha-Rock to (of course) Nicki Minaj.

    ANYWAY, a few of the artists touched on this topic during the show. When they were discussing artists from the mid-90's, it was mentioned that (I think) Foxy Brown had an especially difficult time being marketed because of her dark skin, especially compared to her main rival Lil' Kim who is much lighter. That got me thinking because I had viewed their careers, at least in the beginning, as almost completely comparable. It hadn't occurred to me that one artist who is almost identical in subject matter, flow, etc. would have such a distinct disadvantage due to colorism, but there it was. (I know, that's called privelge being checked).

    Anyway, great post (as usual) and it's definitely had me thinking.

    • Tasha Fierce

      I DID watch that doc, (I think I will again right now, actually) I thought it was pretty good. I wished they had spent more time on kim because I love her, but it was still good. The funny thing about Kim and Foxy is that Foxy is part filipino and that didn't seem to make her more marketable per se, like you'd think it might (being "exotic" and all that).

      • Jerome

        That's true. I also thought it was interesting how much time was devoted to Lauryn Hill. I agree with everyone in the doc that she is incredibly gifted and that she had a profound cultural impact, but she isn't one of my personal favorites so to my eyes, it seemed like overkill. I would've liked a longer segment devoted to, say, MC Lyte, or Shante, or some mention of some less well-known old-school artists (notably absent: Sparky-D, The Real Roxanne, Antoinette).

  • Jerome

    One more nitpicky notable absence: Gangsta Boo. She helped break the 3-6 Mafia sound nationwide and is probably the most notable Southern female MC other than Trina.

    • Tasha Fierce

      I think they left out a lot of female artists, like Bahamadia, who is amazing, and they didn't talk about Da Brat really other than Jermaine Douchebag who mentioned he "developed" her. I know there's more, and if they had spent less time fawning over Lauryn (and yes, she is amazing but they treated her like she was the second coming or something) they could have included more artists. It really should have been longer than an hour.

      • Jerome

        I forgot about Bahamadia, but she would've been a fantasitc addition (especially since The Roots' ?uestlove was in the film as well). Her talent is on another level. Her first album ("Kollage") was criminally slept on. Hell, so were the other two. Okay, /threadjack.

  • http://www.Sezin.org Sezin

    Great piece, Tasha, and it speaks to many of the issues I am discussing in my Occupied Bodies piece and for that reason I won't go into too many details.

    But yes, I agree that lightness something we all have to struggle with whether we have fair skin or not. I'm multi-racial as well and I'm the darkest skinned among the two sisters with whom I was raised. I'm the only one who has even a semblance of the Sri Lankan genes I was given – my one sister looks like an African/Caucasian mix, the other looks Greek or Italian. I've experienced far more racism and discrimination in my life than than they have. Nobody has ever said to them, "Oh, you speak such good English", which is a comment I hear often and to which my responses have gotten snarkier and snarkier.

    At one point in my life, after a string of failed romances, I toyed with the idea of having my Sri Lankan father arrange a marriage for me. I figured, "I've given this Western dating thing a try. Not working. Let's see what the East has to offer." Apparently, I would have had Sri Lankan suitors lining up around the block because of my "fair skin", relative in comparison to the much darker complected Sinhalese and Tamil locals, as well as my American passport. I decided against entering into that situation for a number of reasons, but it was the first time in my life that I heard about a segment of the global population who actually think I have fair skin.

    After three years of living in Prague and never seeing the sun, my complexion has lightened even further. Even so, I am clearly not Czech, who are almost Nordic in their blue eyes and blonde hair. I've experienced some horrible moments of racism and discrimination here, but when I tell people about it the response I now get is: "But you're not even that dark." I always want to say, "Well I'm dark enough for that to have happened, b*tch." But I bite my tongue because they clearly have no concept of how totally racist a statement like that is.

    Thank you for this insightful and brave piece, Tasha. It is indeed difficult to admit in which ways we find ourselves privileged, but so very important to do so. There wouldn't be dialogue without it, would there?

    All the best,

    Sezin

    P.S. Reading this piece made me even more stoked for Occupied Bodies. I am going to be finishing up my submission hopefully in the next week and I can't wait to hear your thoughts.

  • Tasha Fierce

    Thank you for commenting, mama! I can't wait to read your piece. <3 Love.

  • http://notdeadyetstories.wordpress.com/ S.B.

    Great post, Tasha.

  • http://tea-and-catastrophe.tumblr.com eli

    (This is a bit jumbled…)

    Thanks for this post. It's taken me awhile to realise the privileges that being light-skinned has given me.

    I grew up being bullied for being lighter, for having freckles, for being nerdy and "acting white". I was always sort of an outsider. And I resented the black community for it, because I didn't ask to be elevated for something I couldn't control. But with perspective, that is really nothing compared to the way they were treated in the black community.

    I have benefited in ways I don't even know about, and that is messed up beyond belief.

    • Tasha Fierce

      It took me a while too really, I mean after I became educated in African-American history I understood what light skin privilege was but I never really processed it until many many years later. Hell, I'm still processing it, hence this post. It's hard to reconcile your valid feelings about the way you were treated growing up with the equally valid historical context that the way you were treated arises from. It's probably the privilege I have the hardest time dealing with because it shaped my life so completely and invisibly.

  • lifeonfats

    I'm also multiracial with lighter skin (I'm more of a a brown/caramel color) and there have been a few times where I was mocked for being mixed and that I talk like a white woman. Well, my mother is white and I sound exactly like her. It's DNA, society, and that's something that's out of your hands. My stepdad can't tell us apart on the phone sometimes, and since I''m also from Maryland, I inherited the infamous state accent. Since I realize I had no control over who my mother wanted to have a child with, I don't let the prejudice get to me.

    • m006

      "I talk like a white woman."

      I'm sick of hearing that too. I know all-white people who speak atrocious English.

      I'm sick of hearing that speaking Standard American English is "acting white". I heard it all my academic life growing up. I speak like our current First Lady. Is anyone going to say she's "not black" (though I'm sure she heard that "acting white" mess growing up as well)?

      I had to fight with my elementary administration — as a teenager — to learn Castilian Spanish in school, because it was said that "you'll never need" anything but the Latin Spanish. Yeah, well — unless you plan to visit Spain and don't want to be looked down on because you don't know the vosotros form, because "black" is "black" over there.
      And you'd better believe that when *those* young girls learn English, they learn it with a *British* accent because in Spain that's touted as the most "proper" form of the language.

      Only in African-American — and to a lesser extent, more of America now — hands is learning disdained and mocked and ridiculed.

      I think it's a d*mn shame that a person has to fight to *learn* something in this country.

  • m006

    " Recognizing your light skin privilege does not make you less black."

    Yeah, well … sometimes I think it's the darker-skinned girls who need to hear that *about* us.

    Because I for one am quite sick of their ostracism.

  • Tasha Fierce

    Thanks for the link to that performance. It's excellent. I was much darker as a child and as I grew lighter with age I would try to tan to go back to the bronze I was when I was younger. But now I can only really reach "golden beige". I gave up on trying to change my color many years ago. We always want what the other has.

  • Tasha Fierce

    I think coming to terms with your color is kind of a rite of passage that all black girls have to go through, light and dark. Kind of like the journey to natural hair, and some girls just don't make it. Thanks for the link to your post, I'll go read it.