I honestly didn’t know I was perceived as dark-skinned until I was in my early teens. Sure, family members would say things here and there, but it didn’t really start to stick until I was older. As a younger child I never really paid that much attention to my complexion. I considered myself “regular” brown, much like Rudy or Vanessa from the Cosby show. I knew I was black, and yes, when I was 6 years old one of the little white girls in my dance class told me everyone hated me because I was black, but colorism, as we understand it today, didn’t become an issue for me until I entered high school.
When I formed a new circle of friends as I entered high school the color divide became frighteningly real. There were the girls with boyfriends, and then there was me. I began to feel then that I had to make up for being so black. I did well in school, dressed in the latest fashion trends, and had my hair styled every other week at chic downtown salon.
I thought I could wash away the stain, the horror, of my black skin by being the anti-stereotype. When issues of color would arise, and someone would casually say things like, “you’re not that dark,” my insides would light up with glee. I had done it. I had successfully ensured my blackness was a non-issue.
Then I went to college, and one of my dorm-mates in a drunken rage screamed at me to “Just go back to Africa!” I knew then that I’d better start owning my blackness, my deep black skin, or other people’s perceptions of me would continue to haunt me all the days of my life. I was tired of being lulled into a sense of security with myself, only to have someone say something crazy to take me back to feeling like the 6 year-old everyone hated.
Were you ever bullied?
No, I wasn’t bullied, but given that my best friends were significantly lighter in complexion, I felt very much on the outside. During the summer we’d go to the beach and I’d watch as they’d lather their bodies in baby oil, happily baking beneath the sun’s rays while I’d pull my wide-brim hat down over my face.
Some people feel that certain skin colors come with privilege and others with a lack of privilege. Have you experienced light skinned privilege or a dark skinned deficit (ugh, for lack of a better phrase!) in your life time?
I can’t say with absolute certainty, but I know that as a black woman, a dark-skinned black woman, folks immediately make assumptions about me. I sometimes still feel the burden of not being what they expect. And then, of course, I am mad at myself and sometimes find myself wanting to be what they expect just for the hell of it. Fair skin is just so revered in our culture that it’s hard for me not to assume that those with fairer skin are afforded a sort of privilege I’ll never be privy to. Fairer-skinned women are perceived as beautiful just because. Their beauty is easy to digest. They are easy to digest. I have to sell people on me. I have to sell that I am beautiful, sell that I am not aggressive, and sell that I am not any of the things people associate with dark skin.
All in all I’m okay with myself. I’m married, so I’m not faced with colorism in dating, and I have a job so I’m thankfully not trying to be dark-skinned on the job hunt. So issues of colorism aren’t great challenges for me today. My concern really is for my son, and the other children we soon hope to have.
I love my skin today, but on some level, I know I haven’t fully conquered this demon. My husband and all of the men I dated before my husband don’t look like me. They are all fair-skinned. And if I’m going to be completely honest, when I imaged the children I’d have, even as a young girl, my children were all fair-skinned too. This, of course, makes me incredibly sad, but when folks tell you awful things about yourself as it relates to your skin color, the effects run deep.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Own it. Own and love every part of yourself that the world may tell you shouldn’t be loved.
Ladies, whose story do you relate to most? What has been your experience with colorism and light skinned privilege?