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…
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.