The Lighter Side of Colourism

I grew up in a fairly “woke” household; Malcolm, Martin and Nelson lined the walls. So, while racism was something that I understood (as well as any kindergartener could) I was raised to be proud of my Blackness. Little did I know, this wasn’t the same for everyone and there were those who thought that some black people were better than others. Colourism is something the black community will often sweep under the rug, but can we truly consider ourselves woke if we ignore it?

When I was 5 or 6, my father introduced me to the concept of colourism. “In life, some people are going to treat you nicely because you are a cute light-skinned girl; that does not make you special.” He told me to watch out for teachers who would treat me differently than my darker-skinned friends, and I did. As I grew up, I looked for examples of colourism, and I found them everywhere.

One of the most common places to spot it is in dating. Our racial dating preferences, and the features we deem attractive can be swayed by eurocentric ideals. The idea that attractive black women have to be mixed is a huge problem. A store clerk once “flirted” with me by saying, “You’re so pretty, what are you mixed with?” I curtly told him that I was not mixed, just black. His response was “just black? But you’re too light and pretty, you must be mixed!” I know I’m not the first black woman that’s heard something around these lines, and it is honestly not surprising considering the media’s main focus on light-skinned or biracial women of color.

For me, this colourism found its way into my dating history from the very beginning. My first boyfriend told me his mother was a racist but she wouldn’t mind him dating me because I was “lighter than a brown paper bag.” He genuinely did not understand why I refused to meet her. The relationship did not last long. Unfortunately, I would face those same attitudes in every single one of my interracial relationships. My blackness was a problem that was only mitigated by the lightness of my skin tone. I got around this issue by grilling dating prospects about their views on racism and its consequences from the get-go. Needless to say, I was single for a substantial amount of time.

However, it is important to note that colourism doesn’t just affect dating. The stigmas associated with skin tone can also affect career and job opportunities. For those of us of a lighter complexion it works in our favour but that doesn’t make it right. Remember that you just happened to be born with a shade of skin that is deemed more acceptable due to its proximity to whiteness. You did nothing to earn the advantages your skin colour afford you. Nothing about light skin is inherently better than dark skin. For example, I got the first restaurant job I applied for on the spot despite not having any experience. I was the first Black girl working there and most of my coworkers were surprised to find out I wasn’t biracial. A few months later, I refered a friend who had way more experience in the food service industry than I did. My boss told me that based on her C.V. and phone interview, the interview was just a formality but coincidentally, my darker-skinned friend never got the job. Shocker.

Being disregarded by other races can be disheartening, but colourism isn’t only perpetuated by non POC. Unfortunately it is something the black community has internalised, and it affects dark-skinned WOC daily.  

In college, a classmate asked me to model for his Black History Month photo series. Before agreeing, I checked his Instagram page. I saw dark-skinned Black men, light-skinned Black men and every shade in between. I saw light-skinned Black women, light-skinned biracial women and white women… In a series for BHM, the photographer managed to include white women before dark-skinned Black women. When I asked him about it, he was shocked, then defensive. According to him, he could not find a single dark-skinned Black woman to participate (nevermind that there was a gorgeous dark-skinned girl two rows down from us). The white women were included to show that the Black community was accepting of everyone which I find ironic. It is important in instances such as this that those of us with privilege recognise it. Being truly woke is recognising that representation for some is not representation for all. Dark-skinned WOC are underrepresented across the board, not just in small college campaigns. One of the most frustrating things about this person’s response was the idea that I was making a fuss about nothing because colourism works both ways. He believed that I was making it about color when it didn’t matter because we were all black to begin with.

Light-skinned people face discrimination too! If the only time you recount your experiences with colorism is to disregard dark skinned women, don’t. Being teased for being “pale” as a child is not a reason to derail present day conversations about colorism. Just keep it to yourself or share it with your mental health care professional. As important as is it to speak up when you notice instances of discrimination it’s all about balance. You have to know when to shut up and step down too.  I let the photographer know that I would be glad to participate once women darker than a paper bag were included. On the rare occasion that they do get that positive representation, we must support and hype up our dark-skinned sisters! However, on this occasion I never heard from him again.

To some, discussing colorism is pointless as it only reinforces differences within marginalized ethnic groups. However, there is no way for us to change colorist attitudes if we cannot acknowledge our part in promoting and upholding them within our communities. History has often proven that  problems do not simply disappear because people keep quiet about them.

N.B. This was written from my point of view as a Black Canadian woman of Caribbean descent, with dark-skinned Black women in mind. However, colorism and it’s effects can be felt throughout the world and therefore these tips should be applicable no matter where you are!

Written by Allie S.

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