Colorism: Reflections from a Complicit [Light-Skinned] Black Girl—Part 1

-Note: This Blog is uncomfortable as hell to write, but it is my truth.

Paper Bag Test—  required people of color to measure their skin tone against the color of a paper bag to gain access. Skin tones that were lighter than the paper bag where granted special privileges and rights like admissions in to churches, universities, organizations, night clubs, and bars. (Yes, this is me! I’m a weirdo doing a paper bag test.

Paper Bag Test— required people of color to measure their skin tone against the color of a paper bag to gain access. Skin tones that were lighter than the paper bag where granted special privileges and rights like admissions in to churches, universities, organizations, night clubs, and bars. (Yes, this is me! I’m a weirdo doing a paper bag test.

I am in the process of understanding colorism and my own complicity through promotion and profiteering. Colorism is a subsystem of anti-black racism, privileging people with skin tones that are closer to white. The stratification of skin color allows lighter-skinned people to be favored for economic advancement, educational attainment, professional mobility, and attractability, thus lighter skin can be used as a form of social capital. Most notably, the "paper bag" test required Black folk to measure their skin tone against the color of a paper bag to gain access.  Skin tones that were lighter than the paper bag where granted special privileges and rights like admissions in to churches, universities, sororities/faternities, night clubs, and bars. Today, lighter-skinned Black folks still experience racism and discrimination, but also, in many ways, benefit from their proximity to white skin. I am writing this blog to confront my own privilege and reflect on my own complicity.

For most of my life people, specifically Black people, have always valorized my beauty—eyes, hair, and my light skin. I was not explicitly told that I was better, but I was treated better. I observed and noted the ways that my darker-skinned peers were treated at school and at home. My teachers favored me and the other lighter skin students—disciplining us less, allowing us to be class room monitors and teachers assists (AKA teacher’s pet).  I also noticed the way that Black boys treated dark Black girls, referring to them as Burnt, Crispy, Dirty (among other derogatory names). All because they existed in darker-skinned Black bodies. I wish that I could absolve myself and pretend like I was not complicit in the belittlement of dark Black girls. I was not above the mocking. I grew up poor, so when my peers would talk about my off-brand Payless shoes, I would divert attention from me to jokes about the dark-skinned and fat-bodied girls. Dark Black girls and fat girls where a convenient target because most children in my neighborhood school understood and accepted poverty but no one just wanted to be dark and fat.

 
 

Colorism influenced that ways that my family supported me.  They encouraged do well in school, otherwise I would end up in a failing school “where girls fight me because I was pretty and light-skin.” I began to associate my beauty with the lightness of my skin. In the same breath, I was bullied by my siblings for having the lightest skin. I was called Egg Shell and Casper (yep, after the friendly ghost). I hated the way that it felt to be bullied, but I also understood that my experiences with skin-color bullying was very different than the experiences of dark Black girls. In hindsight, I clung to whatever acceptance and comfort that my skin privilege could afford me because I was insecure and uncomfortable with myself.  I've struggled with self-love and self-confidence my entire life, constantly vacillating between self-doubt and Beyonce’s Flawless. Albeit true that I've struggled with my self- esteem, it is equally true that the reason I struggle would never be because my skin is light. Not when society overwhelmingly tell light skin girls that they are beautiful and more worthy.

I first began to interrogate my relationship to colorism when I was a senior in college. I was dating a Black man with golden yellow skin from an upper middle-class family. It was late that summer when the police murder Micheal Brown Jr., an 18- year old unarmed Black Boy, in Ferguson, Missouri. My sorority sisters and I planned to marched the Baton Rouge Capital building. We championed the #HandsUpDontShoot protest to demand accountability, justice, and the eradication of police brutality. I recall that day being an excruciatingly long day. I went home that night to my Black boyfriend with intentions on having a conversation about safety and policing.  He met my concerned eyes with staleness as he said, “I’m not concerned about anything like that happening to me. Have you noticed that people who get treated like that by the police are dark-skinned niggas? People like me and you are safe.” This was not true.  Light-skinned Black people are killed, and we were not safe. It had been a long day, so I did not argue.

He and his entire family could pass a paper bag test after even the longest, hottest summer in Georgia.  During rush-hour, he, his sister, his dad, and I were all stuck in Atlanta’s traffic. If you know anything about Atlanta, then you know that we were in that car for nearly two hours. His sister was narrating her experiences in her new role as a middle school counselor. She described feeling that she couldn’t relax and use Black colloquialism at the majority White school where she worked. She feared that she would be perceived as ghetto. Her dad pacified her concerns saying, “there’s nothing about you that people would consider ghetto.” Without missing a beat, she asked, “I don’t know Dad.  Do you think that White people can tell the difference between the Black people and the niggas?”  Her words evoked a queasy churn in my stomach, but I did not interject. I knew something was wrong with her statements, but I also didn’t want to confront her. After all, these were my potential in-laws and I was just an insecure Black girl looking for love in, what is clear to me now, the wrong place. So I sat there in the uneasiness of it all, trying to discern why the conversation was not sitting right in my spirit.

I don’t recall the remainder of that conversation or even the rest of that day. However, over the next several years, I would come to revisit those moments and consider how classism and colorism had influence their views on Blackness. More importantly, I examined how I might be complicit in colorism, the ideologies that I needed to unlearn, and action steps that I would take to disrupt anti-blackness. Stay tuned for part two of this blog, where I describe my strategies to unearth colorism and employ a healthier Black Feminist praxis.  

-Natasha M. Lee