The idea that lighter skin is more beautiful permeates within black America and beyond – measurable in microaggressions and systematic oppression.
For a black kid coming of age in the late ’90s and aughts, busting through the door, tossing your backpack wherever and clicking on music videos was the after-school move. Shows like Rap City and 106 & Park were the culture, a barometer of what was hot in hip-hop and a daily reminder of what we should covet – dreamy locales, flashy cars, fly outfits and beautiful girls.
I bopped along in my living room like everyone else, but something other than the music always penetrated my spirit. The vixens in these videos were almost exclusively cappuccino-colored or lighter, many a racially ambiguous barely beige.
I remember asking a friend once, “You ever notice that all the girls in these videos are light skinned?” My question lingered for a few moments; I hoped that it came across as nonchalant and offhanded as I’d intended it. I was curious what she thought, but I didn’t want to let her know just how much it bothered me that our culture’s assemblage of desirability didn’t seem to include me at all.
Her response: “Hmm, I never noticed.” Latte-colored herself, of course she hadn’t. Why would she? As adolescents, we are certainly the stars of our stories, and just as I hadn’t noticed that those videos also never featured fat girls, I couldn’t expect her to notice something that made no never mind to her young life. She hadn’t lived my experiences or developed the same insecurities that I had.
I don’t remember exactly when it started, but my dark brown skin was a regular point of ridicule during my early years. In school and in the neighborhood, kids would tease me with names like “choco,” “burnt” and “blackie.” To one particularly clever little taunter, I was “Dark Vader.”
I legit thought this was the actual name of the Star Wars character for years. These barrages would result in those deep from-the-soul, can’t-catch-your-breath ugly cries. Those kids would break my little heart. And these weren’t white kids. No, these were my people, barely out of diapers and already mentally mutilated.
My mother was compassionate and insistent that I was beautiful; my father was indignant. “She’s not even that dark,” I remember him saying one time. I’d lie in bed some nights and silently pray to God and ask him to make me just two or three shades lighter. I didn’t need to be yellow, I’d barter, just not so brown. Painful memories that, even as I recall them as a 30-year-old woman, cause a lump to form in my throat and a tightness in my chest.
Like most little girls, I went through a serious Barbie doll phase from age 5 to about 10. I had one Caboodle for all my hair ties and such and another for all my plastic girls’ outfits. It may have been playtime, but it was certainly not a game. In 1980, Mattel introduced its first African American and Hispanic Barbies.
When we’d go to Toys R Us and I was allowed to pick a doll, I’d always choose a Latina one. Even at that young age, I knew what I was doing and I felt guilty every time I’d forsake the sistas for one of the lighter-skinned chicas, but I wanted the prettiest one, and in my severely warped mind, that meant one with but a tinge of melanin.
By the time I reached high school, the teasing had stopped and, while an impending trip to Florida or all-day outing to Cedar Point brought with it some anxiety about how deep of a tan I could expect, I felt mostly comfortable in my skin – pretty, even.
There was a guy that I kind of liked who would flirt with me in that bothersome way that teenage boys do. My friend said she’d talk to him, get the intel and report back. The dispatch came in that evening over the phone. He thought I was cute, he liked me, but he did have one hang-up. “He said,” my friend relayed, “‘She’s just so dark.’”
A familiar gut punch. Never mind that he was a beautiful black coffee color himself, far darker than me. But it wasn’t his fault that he didn’t want to be with someone who looked like him, and it wasn’t my fault that I cared. After all, they did a deliberately meticulous, remarkably impressive number on us.
Fade to black
It’s inarguable that colorism – discrimination based on skin tone, typically favoring lighter skin – in black America is a direct descendant of slavery and the result of a steady infiltration of our identity with Eurocentric standards of beauty that extend beyond skin color.
It’s the brown elephant in our room that we only whisper about or, worse, pretend isn’t there. A 2009 History.com article reads, “A strict hierarchy among slaves (from privileged house slaves and skilled artisans down to lowly field hands) helped keep them divided and less likely to organize against their masters.”
That division was sometimes sewed along color lines, with lighter-skinned slaves being called upon for domestic work and dark-skinned slaves relegated to backbreaking field labor. Of course, enslaved Americans with lighter skin were often the result of the rape of bound black women by white enslavers and their sons.
As it was, one drop of black blood meant you were black and if you were born of a slave, so then were you. Until well into the 20th century, U.S. census takers were told that a person who was both black and white should be counted as black, “no matter how small the percentage of Negro blood,” according to Pew Research Center data. The first U.S. census in 1790 only had three racial categories: free whites, all other free persons and slaves. “Free colored persons” was added in 1820 and “mulatto” wasn’t added until 1850.
As Peter Kolchin describes in his book American Slavery: 1619-1877, some mixed-raced children of slaveowners were educated, or at least allowed to learn to read. Occasionally, an enslaver may have arranged an apprenticeship for his illegitimate son and freed him upon its completion, especially in the two decades following the American Revolution. Expertly program the machine and, before long, it no longer needs an operator – it runs itself.
The idea that brighter is better continued to pulse after slavery was abolished, with light-skinned affluent black societies that only procreated with other light-skinned blacks popping up all over post-Civil War America. Passing the infamous brown paper bag test was an admissions requirement at some of our most illustrious historically black colleges and universities, storied sororities and fraternities, and even churches.
In 2014, the University of San Francisco published a study titled “When an ‘Educated’ Black Man Becomes Lighter in the Mind’s Eye: Evidence for a Skin Tone Memory Bias.” In it, researchers were able to measure the effects of whether a black man is touted as “educated” or “ignorant” on how light or dark he is remembered to be.
Participants (students) were shown either the word “ignorant” or “educated” and then a photo of a black man’s face. They were then shown six variations of the target’s face (ranging from dark to light) and asked to correctly identify which photo they’d been shown just seconds before. The evidence supported the existence of “skin tone memory bias;” the same black man was more often and consistently recalled as lighter when contextualized as “educated.” Researchers suggest, “Black individuals who defy social stereotypes might not challenge social norms sufficiently but rather may be remembered as lighter, perpetuating status quo beliefs.”
Data research published in 2018 by Harvard University assistant professor of sociology Ellis Monk determined color bias within the criminal justice system with respect to African Americans. Monk writes, “I find that skin tone is significantly associated with the probability of having been arrested and/or incarcerated, net of relevant controls.
“Further analyses using a sub-sample of whites, drawn from the same nationally representative survey, show that disparities in policing and punishment within the black population along the color continuum are often comparable to – or even exceed – disparities between blacks and whites as a whole.”
And multiple studies suggest a correlation between skin tone and the ease of dating and marriage. Evidence suggests that lighter-skinned lovers are more likely to marry, to marry sooner and to have spouses of higher social status. Specifically, a 2009 study of 329 young black women published in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization found that light skin could account for an approximately 15% greater probability of marriage.
None of this to say that our melanin-scarce brothers and sisters don’t face their own unique set of challenges, within the community and beyond. Some light-skinned black folk, especially those of mixed race, detail feelings of rejection by the culture, of not quite being “black enough,” and some lighter-hued women may feel tokenized or placed on a pedestal upon which anything less than perfection is not allowed.
We must be careful not to adopt an us-versus-them attitude that only perpetuates the House Negro vs. Field Negro mentality, nor should we settle for an us-versus-white-folk fight. Instead, rage against the machine.
A widespread problem
Black Americans aren’t special. Colorism is a peculiar brand of friendly fire that disrupts communities of color all over. The whole world is whitewashed and, consciously or unconsciously, apt to endorse European ideas of beauty.
East Asians are getting double-eyelid surgery, or cosmetic blepharoplasty, to add the upper crease typically absent naturally. Skin bleaching creams boom in countries like China and Malaysia, in Caribbean nations like Jamaica, and in African territories like Nigeria and Togo.
Infant and child trafficking facilitated by gangs and illegal adoption agencies is a huge problem in India, with light-skinned babies being favored and sold for the highest prices. In 2016, the BBC reported on an operation in the Eastern city of Kolkata.
Authorities busted up the ring, rescuing 10 dark-skinned baby girls being kept in horrible conditions from a room above a house for the mentally ill; traffickers found them difficult to sell. Some were found chained and malnourished with coughs and terrible bed sores – they also found the skeletal remains of long-dead babies buried in the backyard.
Musician and Love & Hip-Hop regular Amara La Negra made waves a couple years ago when she started to speak out about the colorism she says she’s experienced as an up-and-coming artist. The espresso-colored Afro-Latina has highlighted the overt preference for light skin within the Latin community, particularly in the entertainment industry, and recounted criticisms of her dark skin and implorations to tame her wild ’fro.
The singer’s mother is from the Dominican Republic and immigrated to the United States through the Mexican border. “Here’s a classic one,” La Negra told HuffPost in 2019. “People consider me to be physically attractive, and I get the, ‘Oh my God, you’re a pretty black girl,’ or ‘For being black, you’re really pretty.’ I went to do an audition for a soap opera, and they told me, ‘You’re probably not going to get that role because they want someone who looks more Latina.’”
Beyonce’s dad, Mathew Knowles, credits some of his daughter’s tremendous success and worldwide acceptance to her digestibly fair skin tone – and, on the flipside, the elder Knowles thinks bandmate Kelly Rowland’s dark skin hurt her. Not to detract from Mrs. Carter’s talent, but the reaction from the black community was a collective, “Uh, duh.”
In a 2019 SiriusXM interview, Dad said, in part, “Programmers, especially at pop radio, have this imagery of what beauty looks like. … If you look back even at Whitney Houston, if you look at those photos, how they lightened her to make her look lighter-complexioned. … There’s a perception all around the world about color – even with black folks, there’s a perception.”
In 2019, The Guardian offered a series – Shades of Black – on colorism within the black community, exploring various themes related to the topic. Netflix’s She’s Gotta Have It actress DeWanda Wise penned a piece for the collection, “From Overlooked Extra to Spike Lee Star: How I Beat Hollywood’s Colorism.” In it, the mocha-colored beauty chronicled how after years of being offered stereotypical black girl roles like prostitutes, criminals and drug addicts, she caught Spike Lee’s eye.
She writes, “As an actor, I often see it during casting calls. I have had experiences where it was clear they wanted my vibe, but not my skin tone.” She says she got to a point where she wanted to be the leading lady, “someone considered attractive and intelligent.” Wise co-produced a movie, How to Tell You’re a Douchebag, which made waves at Sundance and garnered the industry’s attention – and Lee’s.
“If it weren’t for him insisting on someone of my complexion, I wouldn’t be here. It’s definitely a team sport: It takes allies and people in the industry to see you how you see yourself to make it work,” she writes.
There’s still work to do, but black bodies and minds of all types are more frequently and authentically represented in our cultural landmarks. That matters and dialogue helps, but the sad truth is that there is no cheat code for overcoming colorism. Only time will tell whether this shift will stick and continue to move us away from the sins of the past or whether we’ll revert to our learned behaviors. These are deep wounds, and some of these scars just may be permanent.
I cannot recall, in recent years, feeling like my dark skin has been a hinderance. For me, it’s a badge of honor and a source of great pride, and I’ve learned to love it with a fierce passion. And I can feel that attitudes have been amended, coalescing and coinciding with the most recent natural hair movement.
Instead of snide comments, it’s compliments from women and “hey, chocolate” from guys. Some dark-skinned gals don’t appreciate this last one because it can feel like fetishization, but compared to “Dark Vader,” I’ll take it. The hate is still often there lurking in the background, I’m sure, but now I refuse to give it energy; I just don’t care whether my melanin offends you.