Last night, I watched my twitter timeline light up with commentary about Bill Duke’s latest documentary – the alternate perspective of his earlier documentary Dark Girls, aptly titled Light Girls.
And, for the record, no, I didn’t watch it – I was a little too interested in continuing my binge-watching of Psych… because Dulé Hill is bae, that’s why.
I don’t have a criticism of the movie – I can take an imperfect exploration of the topic, because the ensuing conversation is often full of information and polite corrections that help everyone come out smarter, myself included – but some of what I saw reflected in the tweets was painful. And, as a part of my personal policy of “empathy first,” I spent more time listening than I did talking.
So many people blame black women for colorism, for engaging it, for perpetuating it, and – like many other systems of oppression (because it’s time to call colorism what it is: a system of oppression) – it’s true that the people who are most negatively impacted by a system are also often complicit in its upkeep. We cling to it, as if it is our duty, believing that upholding it will curry us favor in some way.
Believe it or not, colorism isn’t the black person’s burden. It didn’t originate with us, it isn’t our load to bear, and it isn’t our dragon to slay. It isn’t about “house negroes” or “field negroes,” either – that’s more of a symptom of the problem than its cause, to me. If anything, it has far more to do with survival, upward mobility, and the ability to curry favor – all of which are things that, for a very long time, have not been within the control of minorities, dating practically back to colonialism.
You can’t talk about colorism without talking, very frankly, about tacit white supremacy. People may not be running down your streets screaming out “white power” and burning crosses in your front yard and defacing your property with racial slurs anymore, but what has always happened is black people’s futures were susceptible to systems run by people who let their racial hatred and biases determine the outcome. Black people were at the mercy of white people who built fortunes off of taking them for every penny they earned; burned every business they tried to create, and thereby erased their free market competition; and were lynched, murdered for even the most imaginary of transgressions.
The future of blacks in America has almost always been tied to how much power whites have held over them, and how benevolent they chose to be in wielding it.
It would then make sense that “passing” would become a thing, no? If your adjacence to whiteness appears to be some kind of determinant for how brutalized you were, wouldn’t you pass? If it meant life or death, wouldn’t you slick your hair back, slap in that perm, and very carefully draw attention away from your full lips and nose? If it meant your husband would make it home for dinner every night, and your kids would always have their father to kiss them before bed each day, wouldn’t you want them to be as light as possible?
And, if one’s ability to pass becomes a determinant for one’s potential to succeed, wouldn’t you almost expect organizations that have a desire to bring together “the successful ones” to prefer them to be as light as possible, in order to guarantee the relevancy of said organization?
If you grew up seeing terrible things happen, and were given no explanation from your parents – because hell, we barely understand anything now, let alone understanding it in the midst of feeling shock and fear – you likely tried to rationalize what was in front of you through low-inference data, otherwise known as drawing logical conclusions from things known as true or real. If all you see are dark-skinned men being brutalized, dark skinned girls being bombed in your neighborhood church (as was the case in my family), and you see the passe blancs of the nation being able to fold into white society as easily as a hot knife cuts through butter… what does low-inference data teach you? What kind of “logical conclusion” do you draw?
And do you ever realize that racism – that thing that simultaneously calls black men lazy and super-human, seeing black women as both the hyper-sexualized whore and the mammy-fied mule – is rarely logical?
What happens when you grow up in a passe blanc family whose success is earned largely from their ability to pass? What happens when, as you get older, your mother passively dismisses any potential partner who’s of a darker skin tone, in favor of someone who ‘looks more like you?’ What happens when, as a minor, you hear conversations-you-shouldn’t-be-hearing from the family elders about the skin tone and hair of a neighboring family or child? How does it disconnect you from your peers? Even worse, how does it affect your self-esteem when you begin to date, and you’re approached by countless partners who’ve been taught that something you have is the key to success? What do you begin to base your worth on – your looks? Something that changes and, for many, shifts as you age?
What kind of resentment does this brood between two groups, seemingly on opposing ends? When you pick up on the implication that you’re less than because of your dark skin, does it make you resentful? When you’re told – directly or passively – that you’re better than someone else, does it affect the way you talk to them, the way you interact with them? What kind of pain from past experiences do you start to project onto others – usually centered around either telling someone or being told they’re “not black enough” – based on your skin color? How does that play into the cycle of that resentment?
We teach people to prize fair skin, and it happens across the world.
When “white” is idealized as being “the most beautiful,” in a world where women are solely valued on their worthiness to men – their appeal, their ability to present as a trophy, their whiteness – and where being a husband to a wealthy man is the best, most guaranteed, tried-and-true tested way to earn a living for women (women, by the way, who are earning 23% less than men on average), you should absolutely expect women to bend to the will of what men find most attractive in order to achieve success. If that means being as light as possible, then so be it.
Low-inference data teaches us that “whites are the successful ones,” and therefore our success is based on our visual proximity to whiteness. Any stark differences and contrasts are clearly met with consequence. It’s why so many black American women fear wearing their natural hair – the stark difference from their peers may cause them to stand out in ways that result in them being considered “not one of us and, therefore, expendable.” It is why, all across the globe, skin bleaching is a serious business; the industry is worth an estimated ten billion dollars.
Yes, with a “b.” “Billions.”
In the 21st century, we were raised by people who have lived this in one form or another. Praise for “light eyes” and “good hair” stems from this. Our adjacence to whiteness – be it in appearance or “demeanor” – determines our success. It’s not that “whites are the successful ones,” but that “whites are the ones who have profited from unpaid labor for hundreds of centuries, built generational wealth, bought property with deflated prices and inflated value once owned,” whereas blacks in America has been free for, comparatively, ten minutes. We’ve got a long way to go, and we don’t have the privilege of unpaid labor (read: enslaving people) to get there.
When I think about the tweets I saw blaming black women for colorism, I balked at the need to blame black women – once again – for something they didn’t create and cannot fix on their own. I cringed at the fact that, even as black women might be a part of the perpetuation of colorism, the same could be said of black men. They weren’t met with the same criticism, however. Much like I cringe at the way we blame black women for The Downfall of the Black Community (TM) instead of blaming racist public policy, police precincts and municipalities that fund their pensions by criminalizing everything black men and women do, and companies that took their well-paying factory operations to foreign lands instead of employing Americans; I cringed at this. It is a form of punching down. It’s hard to punch up when the person above you has their thumb on you.
At any rate, it does me more good to ask questions instead of force my version of answers down everyone’s throat. My own family is as diverse as they come – the pictures above are of my grandmother holding me on the left, my mother holding me on the right – and I can’t say that, as brown girl, colorism was ever on my radar. However, when I look at it from what feels like the outside through a lens of empathy, I feel like I can understand. Maybe a little empathy – combined with a whole lot of patience – can help us think together, work through how colorism affects the way we treat one another together, and maybe even weather the storm together.