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My struggles with colorism, and “You’re pretty for a black girl,” comments

“Did you hear about that one kid? That Kenyan kid Moe, who’s so black he’s purple?

This is a casual confab amongst sixth graders dining gourmet during lunch hour. Laughter explodes around the table before more jokes are exchanged.

From, “have you seen him? I heard he’s so black that last week when he went out late with friends, they were all like where’d he go?” to somebody giddily shoving a phone in my face asking me, among five white faces in the night, where the sixth person is. To my cousin who grew up with friends who say things like, “I’m so glad I met you, Dark One.” To being bumped with brute force in a grocery store only to hear the words, “well maybe I would have seen her if she wasn’t so black.”

These are actual events. Colorism is rampant in our society and while these examples are personal to myself and might seem like they’re obviously abhorrent, it is so granular in our culture that it has existed right under our noses throughout the course of our lives. A lot of it isn’t always visible, especially because of its ability to snake its way into our own cultures. To our own surprise, it’s been there all along. Knowing where it stems from, who benefits from it, and how we can combat it are the first steps towards uniting a collective in order to resist ideas, beliefs, and values that reinforce concepts heavily drenched in nothing other than racism.

Colorism is prejudice and discrimination within races towards those with darker skin. In many races and ethnicities, lighter skin is seen as more acceptable and appraised than darker skin tones, which is why many darker-skinned folk end up accumulating a deep sense of self-hate towards their skin colors. While colorism is similar to racism in the sense that they both have to do with prejudice according to skin color, colorism usually happens within races and is directly relating to hue. So, in layman’s terms, you could think of it like oranges being a superior fruit with privilege, as oranges are usually always the color orange. Then, you could think of apples as being those that are oppressed for being red and not orange. But within the community of apples, there are a plethora of shades, and thinking of the lightest apples as the best tasting apples and the darkest ones as the worst tasting apples is quite proportionate to the idea of colorism and how it is different than racism. Colorism stems from the early beliefs that white skin is the most prized skin and anything darker is strictly less, in short it is yet another system of white supremacy.  Colorism is not only present within the black community (black community meaning, African, African-American, Caribbean, etc.) but also within Asian, South Asian, Latinx and almost any non-white ethnicity. Colorism is everywhere. And knowing why it is everywhere is the first step towards dismantling its power over others.

For most of my life I have wanted to be lighter. I know I’m not alone. I come from two cultures, infused with the same conditioned beliefs on skin color. As a Togolese-American young woman, I can’t tell you how many times my mother has swooned about how my sister came out a little lighter because of her great-great grandmother’s German side. My mom emerges from the shower day after day smelling like Peau Claire, a body cream laced with bleach. She insists she’s not, “like those African women who bathe in bleach and come out of the bath looking like something decomposed,” she claims, “it’s just to give the skin a lil’ glow.”

My sister’s friend details about how her mother won’t let her physically fight with her sister, not because she’s her sister, but because her sister is light-skinned and any penetration will leave a mark, whereas if you’re dark skinned, it’ll all just blend into one unfortunate mélange. For a long time I thought that because I came from an African family that these were just radical, otherworldly stereotypes from “back home.” However, the impending truth inside that truth is that what is back home, is here too. Black people continue to pit themselves against each other in #TeamDarkSkin vs. #TeamLightSkin heated debates. But what’s craziest, what never fails to blow my mind is the realization that we do it to ourselves, and so many of us never truly question or realize why this might be.

Not very long ago I started ruminating on why such a contorted concept like colorism might even exist in the first place. I thought long and hard about the systems of slavery, and how it was historically  the blacker ones more malevolently treated, while those that were the spawn of slave and master, who came out with a more mulatto hue, were one step closer to purification than the next field slave.

You would think that we would stand together. You would think that we wouldn’t let radical notions of white supremacy noodle their way into the strength of our skin. But these fallacies that insist lighter is better root from racial inequalities enforced during slavery that were never truly fanned out. Instead, they became the Trojan horse in the center of black resilience and success used to pit blacks, Africans, and brown people everywhere against each other. We need to ask ourselves why light-skinned black folks have more job opportunities. Why so many black brothers declaring that they “don’t date black women.” I spent so much of my life wondering why I had to be born a wretched deep brown. Could I not have been Latina? Could I not have been Indian? If I could not be white, that would have to be a force I would  reckon with, but why, why, why did I have to be born the “worst color of them all,” in the deepest of hues?  

I was so accepting of this deeply rooted colorism that I was willing to insult the plight and oppressions of other people of color all because of society’s self-hatred for the skin I was in. It felt like a costume, and I would always feel so proud of myself when people would tell me that I was like an Oreo. At least I was light somewhere. Where my light skinned sisters had their skin to show their strength, intelligence and worth, the only thing I had to aid me was my whitewashed personality, bended at the knee of all those lighter than me. Without undermining the oppression that even our light-skinned sisters endure, it is worth noting the colorism tha

t runs through our society is not just colorism dark girls experience. You might think that I am an extreme case; nothing more than a self-hating black girl, but I lived like any girl did when I was younger. I never realized I believed in such radical concepts until I grew older and unearthed all that really lay within me.  I did this by asking “why” and implementing internal reflection. I know this sounds really obvious and goes without saying but I need to say it: it is paramount you question these things. It is paramount you ask why. Ask why on social media, in classrooms, in articles, in the work place. Asking why is the only way truth can be discovered, even if you don’t know why you’re asking. Asking why is the first step towards knowing why you had to ask in the first place.

As I grew older, I started wondering why brown people were always playing the villain, and even when they weren’t, the non-black actors would be dark clad, while the heroes and the angels swooped in with their snowy, milky garments to save the world.  I started wondering why it was that when I went into Abercrombie with my light-skinned friend, it was only me that was duly followed around every single corner. I started wondering why it was that I hated playing outside in the summer, for fear of growing any blacker than I already was. And as I grew even older, I wondered less and less and even went through a period where I actually started to believe, underneath it all, that darker people were less intelligent, less human, less worthy. Less.  My vibrant, ebony skin had become a malicious curse that would always make me part of what I believed to be the homeliest group you ever possibly be a part of. I know that I am not alone in thinking that growing up as a dark skinned black girl meant that you would never be pretty. I did not want to be a black girl. There were no books or stories or dolls about dark black girls who were ever as strong, beautiful and noble as the light girls, or so I thought.

The truth? They have always been there, they just haven’t been getting attention. But is this really a surprise? I lived so long with the mentality that people didn’t look at dark-skinned black girls and automatically think, “leader, beauty, gentle, delicate.” Who was pretty, was never who was dark-skinned.  I did not know then that pretty and black were not antonyms.  They never have been. Unlearning this took a long time. It took me so long to love my skin color, to realize that the color in me was part of who I am and by now I’m proud of it. Many  people will say that your skin color doesn’t define you, and it’s not a part of who you are. I believe this to be part of a brainwashed mantra that suggests we ignore our skin colors, all of our historical struggles, and embrace color-blindness In short: to continue colorist ways of thinking, living, being.  My skin is definitely not all that I am, but it is some. Ignoring that fact only furthers a cavernous ignorance that hopes to serve no other purpose than to destroy.

As for me, I don’t believe it.

I don’t believe that in a world rooted in the concept of colors, my skin is not a part of me now, that it is not something to be proud of. Maybe in a utopia without a racialized history present, it wouldn’t matter. But we don’t live in a utopia and the journey towards loving the color I see in the mirror everyday takes a strength that colorism attempts to rob me of. Colorism drives a wedge between people of color and when you first learn about it, you might think it’s a concept originated within black culture. But it’s not.

It comes from a white supremacy that we cannot ignore, a white supremacy that still exists. 

The only thing left to do is live a life in spite of it. The only thing left to do is attempt to unlearn the ways of thinking that made you believe those within your race who were lighter were better, somehow more. The only thing left to do is educate ourselves on the systems of privilege that continue to work in the favor of those with lighter skin. Realizing this helps combat a greater evil which suggests that pitting black people against each other using the one thing they cannot change will dismantle them and perpetuate deeply ingrained racism. If there is anything that I’ve learned—if you take nothing away from what I have said— it is that the social inequalities that are hidden from the naked eye are often those with the deepest roots.

I could talk endlessly about how colorism shows up everywhere, about how I only wanted Yasmin, Chloe and Jade but never, ever Sasha when playing with my Bratz dolls,  or about how I wanted to be light like That’s So Raven (ironic) and if I could just be like her, then I would truly be happy. Or  I could even tell you about how I hardly ever saw any dark black celebrities who ever did anything worth my praise growing up, how almost every decent black movie was filled with light skinned and biracial celebrities who (that subsequently every dark-skinned girl wanted to be). Again, it isn’t because they didn’t exist. It’s because the ones that did were often portrayed as belligerent, unintelligent jokes of film. Society was taught to associate light skin with strength, resilience and beauty and taught that black skin was anything but. Why could I not at least be television black? I started noticing more how light Beyoncé was, how pristine Yasmin looked and how there even seemed to be a little black salvation for the light-skinned actors in cinema.  

Now? I have grown older. There is a picture of five-year old me in my bedroom on the top of my desk, staring blankly at the camera, cheeks tear-stained, and in one of my hands is a white Barbie doll with platinum blonde hair. My old, neglected Sasha doll is now leaning across the picture frame, in a boisterous, bold position. I can’t believe I never saw how completely gorgeous she was. She is not pretty for a dark-skinned girl. She is absolutely stunning for herself.

I try every single day to combat the way I used to feel about myself, but please make no mistake. It will always be there. The fear that I am not beautiful in a way that my fellow light-skinned sisters are, that I am not as intelligent, or as strong as my light skinned sisters. That perennial internal struggle that tells me I will always be a little bit less for being a little bit darker.  The fear will always be there. Yet what gets me past this fear time and time again is in knowing that the root of this fear is based on a lie which whispers dark is not beautiful. And now, in a time where the cool thing is to be “a black girl”, I am still fearful. What happens next? What happens when society detrimentally takes host of another race or culture and black is no longer cool? I will be a dark-skinned black girl for the rest of my life, long after it will stop being a trend.

What I have learned is that now I do not need society to tell me that dark-skinned girls are or are not powerful, resilient and intelligent human beings. Dark-skinned girls can be gentle and delicate and pristine. And we can also be fierce and passionate and fervent. Perhaps the best of what I learned is in realizing we do not have to be what people insist we are. A horrible monolithic group soaked in white supremacy.

It goes without saying. Dark can be beautiful. Dark is beautiful. Let this be the last time we call beauties like Alek Wek, Lupita Nyong’o or Viola Davis “pretty for a dark-skinned girl.” Let it be known that it is precisely all that attempts to dismantle our love for our skin, the oppression of the darker-skinned that fosters a united bond of liberated, dark-skinned individuals. The oppression of our skin color does not hold us back. We take it with us, stronger and fiercer than we ever could have been under brainwashed beliefs of a society taught to hate us.

Have you never seen a moonlight sky, illuminated with glittering stars coated in an inky hazy? You have, haven’t you? Ask yourself why it often takes descriptions of inanimate objects before it can be known that dark skin is breathtakingly beautiful. No matter the hue.


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Written by Baudelaire Brookes

Baudelaire Brookes is a Togolese-American young writer who seeks to embrace feminism and social justice issues through the written word. She loves creating and being surrounded by good art and hopes to one day create writing that changes the life of anyone willing to listen, even if it is just one person. She also strives to create influential content on feminism and social justice issues on her YouTube Channel, the Somebody Campaign. She spends most of her time reading and loves films. She lives on deep, intellectual conversations and hopes one day that her life will become a collection of good stories as dramatic as the ones she writes. Baudelaire has never been great at short, concise autobiographies largely because third person biographies give the false impression that the only way you can ever be anything worth talking about is if it’s someone else talking about you. She wonders why first person is so unprofessional and then remembers it’s Earth we are living in. Perhaps self-praise is too arrogant; or rather our society and its people hate itself too much to address it candidly. But, she digresses.

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