I have decided to repost my personal narrative, which explores the nature of colorism within the intersection of race and gender, because I have been told it is an insightful analysis.
Walking into Treasure Island grocery store, as a woman of color, in Chicago’s predominantly white Lincoln Park neighborhood, I immediately made eye contact with the only other person of color there, the black female cashier and gave her a smile that she returned with a brief look of disdain and continued to look past me. As she briefly took in my appearance with her eyes, I knew that she had come to the conclusion that she and I came from separate worlds. At first, I ignored her look of disdain, I got used to receiving those looks from white people in Madison, WI, but now, after moving to Chicago, I receive them on a regular basis from black women, which has caused me to question: why is it so hard for me, as a self identified black and bi-racial woman, to connect and relate to the majority of black women?
Okay, so maybe I get those looks because of the fact that my hair is locked, my skin is lighter, due to my bi-racial background, I ride a bike all year round, and I dress differently than my black women counterparts; be rocking the converse all stars and skinny jeans, 24/7.
Thinking about it more and more I became curious to see if other light skin/mixed women of color had the same problem of connecting to other black women and I began to look into the history of interrelations between black women in the United States and I came across the term colorism. Defined, colorism is the practice of placing value on skin tones, where lighter skin tones are valued more so than darker ones. This practice is very prevalent in the United States and is practiced heavily by black women young and old. For example, it is practiced when we refer to straight, long hair as “good”, and kinky hair as “nappy”. One can also view BET music videos to see colourism at its finest, where the women depicted are lighter toned and have straight or loosely coiled hair. Colorism stems from our own internalized racism, which comes from our socialized conditioning to value western-European characteristics over African ones because representation of our own people in the media hardly exists and when there is representation, it favors people of color that posses those western-European characteristics.
Fundamentally, we have internalized the historical, racist ‘black people are inferior’ ideology that white people have projected onto us through the means of racial projects. According to Margaret Hunter’s Race, Gender, and the Politics of Skin Tone, racial projects are campaigns that set out to establish the meaning and construction of race in any given time period though the use of images, representations and explanations about racial categories. For example, during colonial times the racial project of racialization, through color, was established in order to justify the enslavement of African people. Consequently, the concept of blackness came to represent primitiveness, ignorance, and ugliness in the form of dark skin, while whiteness came to represent civility, intelligence, and beauty in the form of white skin.
However, throughout the history of slavery, a new skin tone of ‘light brown’ began to emerge among Americans, due to white slave masters sexually terrorizing and raping black slave women as means for maintaining social control and a number of enslaveable people. Yet, as a result of being the offspring of white slave owners, these light brown children were often given special privileges, such as access to education, opportunities for skilled labor, and essentially freedom and once economically secure, began to serve as leaders of local businesses, churches, and civic organizations. Accordingly, these violent sexual unions created a color hierarchy through systematic privileging of light skin mixed African Americans over dark skinned African Americans and led many whites to confirm that white blood and lineage was superior to that of black blood and lineage. We, as black people, have internalized and therefore come to believe this racist ideology as truth and have begun to perceive black light skinned people as better and more intelligent than black dark skinned people.
As a result of this internalization, the contempt that dark skin women hold for light skin women of color exists because society systematically privileges women who more closely resemble the aesthetic of ‘whiteness’. Studies from the National survey of Black Americans show that having light skin garners privileges in terms of educational attainment, income, mental health and spousal status. For example, using a five scale color palette, ranging from very dark, dark, medium, light, and very light, annual income increased $673 for every increment on the color scale. Essentially, a woman described as very light brown earns over $2,600 more per year than a woman of similar background who is described as very dark brown. Consequently, in this white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, light skin is seen as a form of social capital for women and therefore viewed as a valuable asset.
More so, this systematic privileging based on physical features not only reinforces racism, but sexism as well. Evaluating women by their physical attractiveness objectifies and commodifies women, by presenting women’s bodies solely for the male gaze. Even worse, this physical attractiveness or beauty is typically defined in the United States by whiteness or western European features. As stated above racial projects established dark skin as representative of primitiveness, ignorance, and ugliness and white skin as representative of civility, intelligence, and beauty. Therefore, some facial features are associated with the terms barbaric and ugly, while others are associated with modern and beautiful. Essentially, racism involves an aesthetic appraisal of physical appearances and features and that aesthetic is typically defined in the United States by whiteness and western European features, which is why light skin is deeply rooted in an aesthetic of whiteness. Therefore, beauty is a racist and sexist construct and many women of color are not viewed as beautiful by mainstream society, unless they possess light skin, straight, long hair, a sharp, pointy nose, etc.
Yet, beauty is an integral resource for women because society teaches us that beauty matters more than anything else and the pursuit of beauty becomes a capital investment for us. That is why much of the interaction among women of color over skin color and beauty is centered upon the perceived competition for the male gaze and male partners. This leads to a lack of trust or intimacy in some African American women’s relationships because of the perceived scarcity of African American men. As a result, some darker skinned women distrust and resent light skin women because light skinned women are considered by men to be more attractive than dark skinned women. However, that competition among women over skin color is a diversion from larger oppressive systems, such as racism and sexism and perpetuates them simultaneously.
The woman who gave me that look of disproval and the many other women here in Chicago who have ignored me when I have tried to smile or say hello have all been the victims of colourism. Yet, it is not her fault or any woman’s fault when she finds herself being distrustful and cautious towards other women of color, especially towards those who are lighter than she is. I have come to conclude that colorism is the reason why it is hard for me to relate to darker skinned women. In a sense, I have a double consciousness when I interact with people from my own race, meaning that I have an awareness of myself as well as an awareness of how others, such as black women, perceive me as a light skinned woman. For example, when I am around darker skinned women, I find myself on the defense for fear of rejection because I am aware of the feelings and thoughts that darker skinned women have towards lighter skinned women. But as light skinned women, we must not victimize ourselves, but rather take action by acknowledging that we are privileged in this white heterosexist patriarchy and that we have a responsibility to challenge and dismantle the discrimination of these systemic forces faced by all of our peoples.
Unfortunately, many people do not realize how these systemic forces condition them. And that is exactly what the master has always planned: to withhold that knowledge from the slave so as to maintain their systemic control over them. However, it is imperative that we understand these systemic forces as well as deconstruct ourselves from these conditionings by addressing these as pertinent issues in the black community because we are currently divided because of them. I once read a quote: “If everyone put as much time into making a difference as they did their hair and make-up, the world would be a better place.” I think that quote is quite applicable and I could not agree with it more. We must not use the media and its definition of beauty to define who we are. We must find new ways of understanding who we are as a people and the only way to do so is by beginning to think critically and talk amongst ourselves about our identity and the way we view ourselves within this white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.
So that I don’t sound like I am trying to dictate how we should view ourselves, how do you think women, women of color, and men alike how can deconstruct our minds from this patriarchal thinking? Or better yet, do you even think colorism is a problem within communities of color?