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4 Shades, 4 Stories: BGLH Writers Discuss Their Experiences with Colorism and Light Skinned Privilege

Avatar • May 24, 2015
BGLH writers (clockwise from top left) Geniece, Elle and Portia

BGLH writers (clockwise from top left) Geniece, Elle and Portia

On April 21 Huffington Post writer Kim Lute set off a firestorm with her article, The Problem with Black Women. In it the French Creole Peabody award-winning journalist asserted that she did not have black friends because they were jealous of her light skin.

Since moving to Atlanta in the millennia, I’ve befriended mostly white women. Why? The unvarnished truth lies somewhere between my own emotional hang-ups and the fact that most of the darker black women I’ve met are competitive, strident, pushy and critical of my decisions. As such, it’s been easier to socialize with those women who value my friendship without stipulations and constant backtalk. Thus, my friendships with white women are neat, unfettered and based solely on our likes and dislikes. And instead of forcing my friendship on black women who want nothing to do with me, I’ve allowed my other relationships to develop organically even if it meant there was a glaring absence of color that would cause my ancestral foremothers to spin in their unmarked graves.”

We were stunned by Lute’s assertion and our first thought was to post the article as a discussion piece on BGLH. But since BGLH’s writing team is diverse in skin color, hair texture and ethnic background, we decided to have an honest talk amongst ourselves and share it with you, our readers. Geniece is up first…

Geniece

Me, circa 1987

Me, circa 1987

Me in 2013

Me in 2013

If I’m being completely honest I didn’t really think about skin color, or at least the socio-cultural implications of skin color, until I was in middle school. Most of my immediate and extended family were generally in the same range of brown, not “light” or “dark” but a rich medium shade of brown. Moreover, I grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood and attended schools where at least 75% of the student body was black (African American and from the Caribbean).  As a result, I never had a distinctly positive or negative view of my skin color as a child because I blended in, in my relatively homogenous surroundings. It wasn’t until middle school, right around the time boys and girls begin the initial stages of expressing romantic attraction, that I noticed how certain characteristics were esteemed more than others.

For example, girls who “filled out” faster received more attention, as did those with longer, wavy hair. Skin tone was no exception to this and I suspect this had something to do with the images of black feminine beauty portrayed in the R&B and hip hop videos we watched after school.  Girls who looked like Faith Evans (I was in middle school during the peak of the Notorious B.I.G’s career) were considered highest on the totem pole by boys but easy targets for some girls. I distinctly remember a Haitian girl in my seventh grade class with a fair complexion, naturally light brown hair and hazel eyes being scornfully teased for being a “white girl” by other girls in the class. Simply by virtue of certain characteristics she was different and not worthy of inclusion in the sisterhood of other black girls. I remember thinking “I sure am glad that my skin is brown”.  You see, I was a quiet, bookish girl who was more interested in making female friends and earning good grades than attracting the attention of the opposite sex. To be teased or ridiculed because of my appearance was something I feared, so having a skin tone similar to Whitney Houston, rather than Mariah Carey, was much “safer” in the superficial and sometimes cruel world of middle school in Queens, NY.

I don’t think I truly examined the problematic association between skin tone and perceptions of beauty until high school and later college. I heard peers say things like “I have to marry a light skinned man/woman so that my children will be lighter than me”. Those were views rooted in pain they experienced as a child and broadly rooted in systemic colorism. I challenged myself to evaluate my own standard of beauty as a young woman. Maybe I didn’t have any hang ups about my own skin tone but did I harbor views about the beauty of others? I would peruse picture books of black women of different shades, with different features. I would look at the number of times a woman with dark complexion was the punchline to a joke in a film or a sitcom, while the fairer skinned actress was the love interest.  I knew I wasn’t immune to bias and became intent on examining my beliefs and being aware of the bias among my associates and loved ones.  I think in some ways examining how we as a people view each other and how those views are rooted in broader historical and social issues stemming from slavery and institutionalized racism initiated my interest in my current profession (sociologist) and firm belief in cultural self-love.

If I had to tell my younger self anything regarding skin tone and beauty more generally, it would be this: don’t allow the media to define beauty for you. You must define and re-define it for yourself.

Click to read Elle’s story on the next page.

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Hair Anomaly
Hair Anomaly
5 years ago

Why do I feel like I just read this 3 days ago?

I do have to say that in my experience, the privilege tends to be from an aesthetic viewpoint of the small minded.” Jc

That one line pretty much sums it up…could have started and stopped right there.

Petty minds produce petty thoughts that breed petty issues producing petty debates that perpetuate pathetic cycles.

Redseouls
Redseouls
5 years ago
Reply to  Hair Anomaly

Petty minds produce petty thoughts that breed petty issues producing petty debates that perpetuate pathetic cycles.” I second this!

nocturnalpianist
nocturnalpianist
5 years ago
Reply to  Hair Anomaly

Exactly. This is petty ignorance. I thought this was a site about caring for natural hair, not promoting white men and differences in skin tones.

Camille
Camille
5 years ago

I related most to Portia’s experience. I am from mixed family with a variety of skin tones and went to a mostly white school. Black is black to me. I’ve never been called any type of color name though- dark or light. Someone needs to tell Kim Lute that maybe black women don’t want to be friends with her because she sees them ALL as jealous of her. Whether she knows it or not, people can sense that, and it’s just as hateful as what she is complaining about. If she doesn’t see other black women as being capable of friendship,… Read more »

Camille
Camille
5 years ago

Someone needs to tell Kim Lute that maybe black women don’t want to be friends with her because she sees them ALL as jealous of her. Whether she knows it or not, people can sense that, and it’s just as hateful as what she is complaining about. If she doesn’t see other black women as being capable of friendship, she should also not see us as potential subject matter for articles. I related most to Portia’s experience. I am from mixed family with a variety of skin tones and went to a mostly white school where ALL the blacks were… Read more »

Valerie Arofin
Valerie Arofin
5 years ago

I really loved this article. I think the sharing of stories such as these is important in understanding the nuances of colourism in social media and the world at large. I do have a couple of things I’m not sure about though in this discussion. 1) I was surprised that out of the four writers, not one of them is (or is considered) dark skinned. I think having that perspective from someone who is a good writer, concise and fair in their portrayal of their experiences would have made this a bit more balanced. As someone who is considered fair… Read more »

thebravebird
5 years ago
Reply to  Valerie Arofin

Absolutely. Light skinned privilege manifests itself through subtleties, similar to anti-black racism. It could be via employment, dating, or just having one’s experiences and voice validated in a white supremacist society. I’m equally disappointed that nobody even mentioned the fact that light-skin privilege is NOT something we created– white colonists and slave owners did– and that it is not something we solely perpetuate intra-racially; colorism is promulgated extra-racially via media representation, re-telling of our history, and so on. Every colonized people still grapples with toppling the complexion hierarchy instituted by European colonialism, from Asia to Africa and the indigenous Americas.

sanjidude
sanjidude
5 years ago
Reply to  Valerie Arofin

Can we PLEASE stop calling it “fair” skinned? That word alone implies it’s better than all the others!

Valerie Arofin
Valerie Arofin
5 years ago
Reply to  sanjidude

I’m so glad you pointed this out. I wasn’t even aware of my use of the word. There are still a lot of things I need to unlearn myself. Thanks for letting me know 🙂

AfroCapricornette
AfroCapricornette
5 years ago
Reply to  Valerie Arofin

Valerie, did you grow up in Nigeria? If you did, you would know that we (I’m Naijan myself) don’t really do this colorism thing to the extent of its trend here in America. I’ve always considered my self and my mom dark with no issues or whatever till we moved here and people (read AA) consider her “fair” and me “dark honey” or what-not. Huh??? Back home, sure bi-racial, albinos or lightskinned ppl are jokingly called “oyinbo” but as far as that, no privilege, considering that probably >85% of the population is dark-skinned. In fact, being lightskinned is a risk… Read more »

Yemi
Yemi
5 years ago

Um, I’m Nigerian as well and grew up there and colorism is ABSOLUTELY a thing there! How else do you explain the popularity of skin bleaching products there or the fact that so many Nigerian women use them? Growing up in Nigeria, the dominant message was that lighter was better. Folks on the darker end of the colour spectrum were mocked for their skin tone while the lighter people among us were simultaneously envied and admired for theirs. Many Nigerian men express a clear preference for lighter skin and a lot of people subscribe to the belief that being light… Read more »

Annie
Annie
5 years ago

Am I supposed to feel bad for them or something?

Chel
Chel
5 years ago
Reply to  Annie

No, you were suppose to simply take in and process knowledge of someone else’s life experience. Someone who wants to share something negative/positive from their point of view (from a vastly popular subject); it is just simply that.

I swear some folks…

Annie
Annie
5 years ago
Reply to  Chel

Okay.

africaaa
africaaa
5 years ago
Reply to  Annie

hahahaha 😀

Ugonna Wosu
Ugonna Wosu
5 years ago
Reply to  Annie

No, God forbid you allow anything to make you understand someone else’s side and not just feel bitter and sorry for yourself as the only victim in a situation . Light skinned women never have problems , we’re all delusional.

Annie
Annie
5 years ago
Reply to  Ugonna Wosu

Whoa is you for having the easier life, and the rest of us are suppose to feel bad because you now want to associate with your “darker side”. The audacity for you to play the victim card is disgusting.

JoAnn Nash
JoAnn Nash
5 years ago

Geniece is brown skinned.

JoAnn Nash
JoAnn Nash
5 years ago

Excellent article! I really gain more insight when this topic is brought forward.

Jc Jc
Jc Jc
5 years ago

Elisabeth just to let you know, I was considered lighter skinned as was/is my dad (think Taraji P Henson) but every other person in my family was darker and my mother had/has the darkest skin (think Alek Wek) You spoke in your comment about offhand comments that people made and I also spoke about them in my piece.….…e.g I was beautiful because of my skin shade, my mother couldn’t possibly give birth to a lighter skinned child especially not ‘as light’ as I was. I could give a thousand examples more because the skin shade differences in my family seemed to… Read more »

Elisabeth Ashley
Elisabeth Ashley
5 years ago
Reply to  Jc Jc

I completely understand that, and I in no way want to try and negate what you went through. My main issue isn’t with anyone’s individual experience, but with the way this entire conversation was framed; I just realy felt like there was a chance to have an important conversation here that was handled by addressing the individual experiences of some light-skinned and brown-skinned women (which is awesome!) but doesn’t really address colorism as a whole? The reason I mentioned white privilege is because it is a structure, rather than just an individual experience; in the same way although individual experiences like… Read more »

AfroCapricornette
AfroCapricornette
5 years ago
Reply to  Jc Jc

Is Taraji P. considered light-skinned now? Nothing wrong with that but we are the same complexion and I’ve always considered myself dark-skinned, and proudly so too. Ok then.

Ugonna Wosu
Ugonna Wosu
5 years ago

Taraji isn’t dark at all. She’s not far from my complexion and I’ve always been called light.

Katherine Woods
Katherine Woods
5 years ago

I thought this article was interesting, because it gives the perspective of women who could possibly have experienced light skin privilege. I’m not light skinned so I cannot speak on it, although I see that it exists. I have always seen that. I do believe that society as a whole colorism needs to stop. Instead of viewing a beautiful person, sometimes we get caught up on the skin factor. He/she is too dark or too light or whatever the case maybe. Maybe a chronicle from 4 dark skinned beauties will be next but then again readers will also have a… Read more »

Brennan Bonner
Brennan Bonner
5 years ago

I thoroughly enjoyed this article, and recognize/respect that it is at the blogger ‘s sole discretion what they chose to post. However, I would have greater appreciated a few “dark” skinned submissions; which probably didn’t come forward because this is such a REAL and touchy t topic. Obviously, I’m on the paler skin completion spectrum of the conversation. I had more negative childhood memories of being ridiculed by schoolmates and family for my skin color than positive, by a long shot. Hardly ever from another race. So the topic of privilege is obserd to me. My social circles come in every shade… Read more »

april Guscott
april Guscott
5 years ago

This is an interesting series of articles. I don’t see why some are complaining about the lack of perspective from dark skinned women. Maybe because I’m dark skinned and can’t relate to any negativity that some other dark skinned women have experienced. But colorism is experienced but lighter skinned women as well and their experiences are just as valid. Sometimes it’s ok to cover one experience at a time.

Ugonna Wosu
Ugonna Wosu
5 years ago

Isn’t geniece brown?

Bethsaida CocoCreme César
Bethsaida CocoCreme César
5 years ago

I am dark Brown skin girl of a light skin black father and dark skin black mother and NEVER thought anything wrong about it! I went to a predominately Black, Caribbean and Afro-Latin school and lived in a neighborhood. I was in the magnet program throughout my years of schooling. The only thing I noticed was ‚not enough BLACK PPL (Black ppl= Different shades/hue). Until, I went to college, then I notice ppl took part into the light/dark BS and that was within the black student body. I went to a predominately white college. The white students saw all of… Read more »

WIROOTS23
WIROOTS23
5 years ago

This discussion is awesome!!! My mother was a beautiful African American woman that had beautiful brown skin and my father is from Grenada and his skin tone was light brown. Growing up, well, until I was about 5, I had never seen people of other races or interacted with them. So, when I had my first interaction, it was amazing and pleasant for me and no one ever pointed out my skin color and I never pointed out theirs. It was all about having friends that shared my interests. I had friends of many colors and nationalities and we loved… Read more »

Roslyn Chavda
Roslyn Chavda
4 years ago

I am just going to need all of us who are light-skinned to trust and believe that while we may not have noticed it, we have been the beneficiaries of “light-skinned privilege.” I am going to tell you what I tell my white friends (about their own privilege). Acknowledging privilege does not mean that you asked for it. Acknowledging privilege does not mean that you didn’t and don’t work hard. It doesn’t mean that you have not had obstacles in your life. It also doesn’t mean that you have not experienced backlash and some pain because some institution or person… Read more »

V-Yella Westcoast
V-Yella Westcoast
4 years ago

That’s a lie, these light skinned women have benefited from light skin
privilege. Either they are in denial or someone made up their dialogues.

Philysha B.
Philysha B.
4 years ago

Although both of my parents are black they managed to create four children that range in shades. Being the lightest child it was hard for me. I was constantly called names like the milk man’s daughter or light bright and my mother would just laugh. I was also bullied for it through most of my high school years. I always admired the beautiful complexion of darker skinned women. My sister was so obsessed with being darker she would spend every penny she owned on spray tanning. It hurt not to be accepted by the one race of people I was… Read more »

Liz
Liz
5 years ago

Echoing some other commenters, I don’t understand how you’re trying to have a conversation about colorism and..not have any dark or even brown skinned women interviewed? This would be like interviewing 4 white people and asking them about white privilege, the main issue being if you’re someone who has it privilege is more difficult to recognize in it’s entirety (but why it’s very obvious to black people because we don’t have it). And with colorism I feel like it’s even more subtle. It’s hardly ever seeing black women on tv, but seeing almost none that are dark or brown, and even… Read more »

sanjidude
sanjidude
5 years ago

As a “lighter skinned” person, my limited experiences with “privilege” has been few and far between. Whites treat me like any other black person, in that they see black and black only, not shades of light and dark. If they don’t like black people, they don’t like me any more than someone who’s 5 shades darker. I’ve been followed around stores by suspicious clerks countless times too. They only stop when I turn the tables and start following them for a while LOL. In my youth I’ve liked dark skinned guys who were totally uninterested and chased after light skinned… Read more »

Jordin Sparks
Jordin Sparks
5 years ago

This is what is wrong with the black community now – too much division over something that is meaningless! We need UNITY. There is NO such thing as “light skinned privilege”. Perpetuating foolish ideologies such as this is one the root causes of the division within the black community. Do ya’ll realize that while you’re sitting here harping on skin color – other races and cultures are sitting back and laughing at how foolish we are? When ya’ll realize that we are stronger together than separate – only then when things changes for us. Light-skinned people are still seen as “black” at the end of… Read more »

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