Brave Love is Beautiful

“I wrote these words for everyone who struggles in their youth.” –Lauryn Hill, Miseducation

For me (and I suppose for some of you too) true love is an act of intense courage.

This first occurred to me in high school when one of my classmates called me brave for wearing my naturally textured hair. I simply let my hair grow the way it naturally grows from my scalp, as it always has since birth. And for that, I was considered… brave. Even as recently as this year, people still refer to my choice of personal style as an act of bravery.

While it seems to defy gravity, my hair in its natural state (and especially when I cut it really short) also defies the norms of this society—a society filled with fairytale princesses like Rapunzel who are called to let down their golden hair, time and time again. Even I remember literally praying for long, straight hair that stretched down my back when I was a little girl.

Yet despite the constant propaganda of long-haired beauty and my former girlhood fantasies of long flowy hair, I came to love my natural black hair. When I cut it “all off,” I was shocked by how good it looked and how good it felt, both to my hands and to my spirit.

But, no matter how much we like what we see in the mirror, we are constantly confronted with the reality that the world does not reflect us.

Anyone who dares defy social norms is bound to suffer social punishment. So we must ask ourselves every day whether or not it’s worth the trouble.

Is my very short, natural hair worth the puzzled looks, stares, smirks, speculations about my sexuality, mistakes regarding my gender (“Mommy, is that a girl or a boy?” or “Yes, Sir… I’m sorry, ma’am”), interrogations (“Why don’t you let your hair grow out?” or “You sure you want it that short, like a MAN? Why you wanna do that???”), rejection, guffaws, the risk of not looking the part for the job, being dismissed as militant, being told your hair (the way it naturally grows from your scalp) is just a misguided political statement (it seems as if black girls and black women make a political statement every time we wake up, just by existing in a world that doesn’t seem to care whether or not we do), or just being overlooked, ignored, invisible.

In addition to natural hair, my personal style, especially throughout high school and college, often consisted of eclectic combinations of clothes. Skirts over jeans. Dresses over pants. Mix-matched prints. Mix-matched earrings. Loud colors. Layers of second hand pieces. I remember days when I’d pause at the door, my hand hovering over the knob, and I’d have to choose. Do I want to do this? Do I want to go out into the world in this conspicuous, quirky expression of myself? Is it worth having derogatory statements thrown at me from a third-story balcony? (That really happened, btw, but of course the offenders were literally hiding behind a curtain the whole time.)

And then there was colorism. This issue may seem most acute when we are young. I struggled with this mostly alone and in silence my entire youth. I did not find the courage to speak about my experiences and observations until I was in my mid-twenties. We are often told, in subtle and not so subtle ways, to suppress our voices and truths so others won’t have to feel uncomfortable, so others can remain the center of attention, and in order to protect others from pain, blame, or guilt.

You may be very aware of how society and many individuals in it go the extra mile to instill in us that we are ugly, unworthy of human respect and dignity, and less valuable than others. They try to bring us down with what they do and don’t do, say and don’t say.

It wasn’t just what other people of all races said to me or about me that was prejudiced and hurtful (with a major stank face: “Ew! You’re so black!” or “I like your sister better than you because she’s white and you’re black,” both real statements made by a black girl and white girl respectively). It was also the moments when they did not say anything about me that hurt me and exposed their prejudice. You know, when the colorstruck woman (related to you or not) dramatically praises and goes on and on about the lighter skinned sister, cousin, friend, or neighbor and is conspicuously mute, obviously silent about the darker skinned girl(s) present? Yeah, that happens all the time…

And we’re certainly not supposed to notice, call out, or try to change patterns in the media that over represent lighter skinned black women in certain kinds roles. Because if we do, we’re just hating and being petty. So as a dark skinned girl you’re supposed to just passively and silently accept the status quo, cus “that’s just how it is.”

But brave love compels us to speak our truths and stand up for the causes we believe in no matter how others might respond. Brave love means knowing and believing in our beauty and brilliance no matter how many girls call us ugly, no matter how many guys laugh at us, no matter how invisible we seem in movies and television, and no matter how many times we’re outright attacked or outright ignored.

I know at my core how hard it is to face negation and hostility every day, how scary, frustrating, and wearisome it is. But that’s how I know that deciding to love yourself anyway is often not so easy. It’s a choice we have to make every day. It’s a choice that requires a significant store of strength and courage.

Every day we have to answer for ourselves, yes it’s worth it, or no it’s not. After several years of this and having just turned the corner of 30, I can look back and say: Yes, it was all worth it. And it still is.

“Whenever we submit our will to someone else’s opinion, a part of us dies.” –Lauryn Hill, Unplugged

You see, the most important thing to remember about courage is that it’s the only route to freedom. And freedom is fun, even though the process of winning that freedom isn’t usually fun or easy.

We humans are constantly tussling with the chains of other people’s opinions, expectations, and rules. It takes a bunch of mettle to break that metal—especially for us as girls and women constantly pressured to fit inside a ridiculously tiny box of lady-like behavior and physical attractiveness. Out of fear, many of us go to great lengths to fit inside that small container, usually cutting off significant parts of ourselves so that we take up less space.

“I get out. I get out of all your boxes. I’ll get out. You can’t hold me in these chains. I’ll get out.” –Lauryn Hill, Unplugged

So I empathize with the girl who really wants to experiment with short hair, but is too afraid or anxious about it. Or the young woman who wants to try a brightly colored print, but doesn’t dare stand out in that way. Or the girl who doesn’t want to wear heals, but believes she has to in order to become a woman. Or the young woman who’s nervous about standing up to the guys or girls trying to tear her down. I see you, and I see myself in you. Everything I do now as an adult is for you (and for that younger version of myself that travels through time to check on me every so often).

As a black teenage girl, I was blessed to have something which I’m afraid this generation of young girls doesn’t particularly have—popular images that show them alternative ways of being. I was fortunate to grow up in the “neo-soul” era. People compared me to India Arie before I even knew who she was! Erykah Badu quickly became my idol. Angie stone and Jill Scott graced TV screens, airwaves, and magazine pages all the time, back then. And even though they came before the neo-soul era, I really can’t say enough about Zhane! (It’s a Groove Thang!) I benefitted tremendously from having the “neo-soul” wave swell during my adolescence; and though that wave eventually crashed, its effects had already been deeply planted in my psyche and spirit. I often tell folks that a VHS of Lauryn Hill’s MTV2 Unplugged recording helped get me through my senior year of high school. I’d watch/listen every morning before leaving the house. She spoke to me like no one and nothing else at the time.

Today it seems these types of women are completely marginalized in the media. Even so, I’m encouraged because I continue to witness the bravery of young girls and young women who dare to be themselves in a society that relentlessly disavows their minds, spirits, bodies, and identities. I witness them loving themselves but also loving and supporting each other! That’s the double helix of Brave Love: loving yourself as you are and loving others as they are, knowing that igniting another fire doesn’t extinguish your own.

For every few people who tried to diss me, there was at least one other person (besides me) who thought my style was dope, and maybe more who just never told me. And I realized that courage is contagious. Every time a person chooses to walk in courage, they broaden the path for others to follow (or depart from) just like the women of neo-soul did for me.

I’ve been blogging since 2011, and I’m sure this is the most personal piece I’ve written so far. People often talk about self-love like “I woke up like this.” But for me true love is an act of intense courage. On some level, I wanted to share this because of the women who call me brave, strong, confident, etc. I think it’s important to remember that bravery is not an inherent quality. It’s a choice that we must make every moment of every day. And mostly I just want to acknowledge that it’s often a difficult choice.

Courage is like a muscle. The more we use it, the stronger our courage becomes. When we pass up the smaller, everyday opportunities to be courageous, we let our courage atrophy and find ourselves lacking courage just when we need it most. I believe all of the small, daily acts of courage prepare us for even greater moments.

For the young girls and young women still trying to figure out if expressing their uniqueness is worth the hassle of possible ridicule and rejection, I encourage you to try on a little Brave Love. You might be surprised at how great it looks on you.

Colorism is a Symptom and System of Oppression

Colorism is a symptom of oppression as well as a system of oppression.

The specific oppression I speak of here is racism or “white supremacy.”

Colorism is both a product and a tool of the umbrella institution of white supremacy.

When I began reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, I did not expect to find so many ideas relevant to colorism and colorism healing. Freire wrote Pedagogy in 1968, and it was translated from Portuguese to English in 1970. The book is based on Freire’s work with poor working people in Brazil. However, that very specific context of oppression has parallels with many others, and lots of people have reapplied Freire’s ideas in different contexts. But as far as I know, no one has applied his ideas to colorism.

I want to share with you some powerful ideas from Freire’s book that I believe reveal a lot about the sources of colorism and possible solutions to colorism. What follows is a small selection, but I hope you are inspired to take up the book and read all that it contains.

Why Colorism Exists

A divided house cannot defend itself

“As the oppressor minority subordinates and dominates the majority, it must divide it and keep it divided in order to remain in power. The minority cannot permit itself the luxury of tolerating the unification of the people, which would undoubtedly signify a serious threat to their own hegemony. Accordingly, the oppressors halt by any method (including violence) any action which in even incipient fashion could awaken the oppressed to the need for unity. Concepts such as unity, organization, and struggle are immediately labeled as dangerous. In fact, of course, these concepts are dangerous—to the oppressors—for their realization is necessary to actions of liberation.” (Freire, p. 122)

“Submerged in reality, the oppressed cannot perceive clearly the ‘order’ which serves the interests of the oppressors whose image they have internalized. Chafing under the restrictions of this order, they often manifest a type of horizontal violence, striking out at their own comrades for the pettiest reasons” (Freire, p. 44).

Freire quotes Fanon to support this. Fanon writes:

“The colonized man will first manifest this aggressiveness which has been deposited in his bones against his own people…. for the last resort of the native is to defend his personality vis-á-vis his brother.” (Fanon as quoted on page 44 of Pedagogy of the Oppressed)

A whole lot of people, especially African Americans, acknowledge that colorism divides the community. Unfortunately, many people mistakenly think that dialogue about colorism is the source of division rather than the colorism itself.

I must say that colorism continues to divide us because we fail to confront it (due to fear, guilt, shame, pain, ignorance, selfishness, etc.). For unity and healing, we need all parties to acknowledge how we are each complicit and responsible. For unity and healing, we need all parties to acknowledge our pain and our privilege.

We’ve internalized white supremacy

“The more they mimic the invaders, the more stable the positon of the latter becomes…. For cultural invasion to succeed, it is essential that those invaded become convinced of their intrinsic inferiority. Since everything has its opposite, if those who are invaded consider themselves inferior, they must necessarily recognize the superiority of the invaders. The value of the latter thereby becomes the pattern for the former. The more invasion is accentuated and those invaded are alienated from the spirit of their own culture and from themselves, the more the latter want to be like the invaders: to walk like them, dress like them, talk like them.” (Freire, p. 134)

“Self-deprecation is another characteristic of the oppressed, which derives from their internalization of the opinion the oppressors hold of them. So often do they hear that they are good for nothing, know nothing, and are incapable of learning anything—that they are sick, lazy, and unproductive—that they become convinced of their own unfitness” (Freire, p. 45).

In colonial societies and in societies where slavery existed, whites used and perpetuated colorism to divide the oppressed people. However, as the two quotes above state, the oppressed people internalized, believed in, and became convinced of their own inferiority and of the superiority of whiteness. Colorism among African Americans and other people of color took hold as we began to hate our blackness, began to strive for whiteness, and began to place a higher value on those people of color who more closely resembled and enacted whiteness.

Even though the era of old colonialism and slavery has long passed, its legacy lives on. Even now, people of color continue to loathe blackness but laud whiteness and those who more closely resemble whiteness.

Today, however, it’s not so black and white. White supremacy is no longer stated in explicitly racial terms. Instead people use rhetoric like, “straight hair just looks more professional.” What’s concealed by such statements is that straight hair looks more professional because straight hair is associated with whiteness, and whiteness has always been associated with professionalism.

So how do these ideas spread?

“All these myths…the internalization of which is essential to the subjugation of the oppressed, are presented to them by well-organized propaganda and slogans, via the mass ‘communications’ media—as if such alienation constituted real communication.” (Freire, p. 121)

Society consciously and most often unconsciously maintains white supremacy on a grand scale through mass communications and propaganda in all of its various forms throughout history. This includes, but is not limited to: books, literature, music, art, newspapers, movies, television, magazines, billboards, advertisements and commercials, video games, websites, social media, flesh-tone products, stock photography, dress codes that regulate hairstyles, jeans that fail to accommodate a curvier body, fairytales like Rapunzel, music videos (including ones starring artists of color), dolls and other toys, and… Well, you get the picture.

Why Some People Deny Colorism & White Supremacy

There is no critical intervention when intervention “would contradict the class interests of the perceiver…. The fact exists; but both the fact and what may result from it may be prejudicial to the person. Thus it becomes necessary, not precisely to deny the fact, but to ‘see it differently.’ This rationalization as a defense mechanism coincides in the end with subjectivism” (Freire, p. 34).

What Freire says here relates to colorism and white supremacy because certain people benefit from these forms of oppression. Those who benefit might not want to lose their benefits, and they often do not even acknowledge that they receive any benefits. They therefore try to dismiss dialogue or action aimed at undoing these forms of oppression.

When we receive information that somehow portrays us or people we identify with in an unflattering or unfavorable light, we might not deny the facts outright, but we try to justify them or rationalize them. We dismiss the information by saying, “Well, I guess I see it differently.” Even when the information doesn’t explicitly describe us, it might contain facts that incriminate us or those with whom we identify.

I’ve said before that colorism healing takes courage. One of the most courageous things we can do is admit that we are complicit—all of us. We need courage to admit that we have certain privileges because of our outward appearances. We need courage to admit that others have an equally valid story to tell, even if the story implicates us or someone who looks like us.

The Myth of “Reverse Discrimination”

Even when a more equitable situation is established, “the former oppressors do not feel liberated. On the contrary, they genuinely consider themselves to be oppressed. Conditioned by their experience of oppressing others, any situation other than their former seems to them like oppression…. Any restriction on [their former way of life], in the name of the rights of the community, appears to the former oppressors as a profound violation of their individual rights” (Freire, p. 39).

Though Freire is writing primarily about class inequality, I think a similar thing happens when it comes to race. The notion of Affirmative Action as “reverse discrimination” is perhaps the most infamous case of this type of condition.

In many societies around the world, people’s race, skin color, hair texture, facial features, or body size and shape often lead to un-merited advantages (advantages gained through no effort of your own, like an advantage given because of race or skin color). Basically, the loss of an un-merited advantage often feels like a disadvantage (Why am I being punished for who I am?). The reason this feels like a disadvantage is because many of the benefactors of racism are not aware (or in denial) of how they are privileged in that institution. To see things differently would require not relying solely on one’s personal experiences (individualism) and instead acknowledging the larger societal patterns, probabilities, and historical legacy.

When individuals or whole societies make conscious and direct attempts to rectify/compensate for society-wide disparities, rather than understanding it as a more equitable share of pie for everyone, many of the previously privileged view such efforts as merely a smaller slice of pie for them, one that will no longer be served on a silver platter.

For healing to take place, we have to be brave enough to admit when we’ve had easier access to the pie than our other brothers and sisters. Even when we personally have not had a disproportionately large share of pie, we can at least acknowledge that those who have, tend to look like us rather than the rest of the family.

Taking Action

Have the courage to be free

“Some, however, confess: Why deny it? I was afraid of freedom. I am no longer afraid!” (Freire, p. 17)

I must confess: For a long time I was afraid to talk about colorism. I was afraid of what people would think, afraid people would think I’m just jealous or hating, afraid people would think I had low self-esteem and didn’t love myself, afraid people would say I was causing division.

I am no longer afraid!

“the oppressor is ‘housed’ within the people, and their resulting ambiguity makes them fearful of freedom.” (Freire, p. 144)

Not everyone wants to be healed. I sometimes observe that people seem completely content with colorism. In some cases this is because they’ve enjoyed the benefits of colorism and don’t care to lose those. In other cases they’ve so fully subscribed to colorism that they believe it’s the natural order of things. It almost becomes an enjoyable pastime, like the memes and hashtags on social media suggest. And in other cases they’ve been so complicit in perpetuating colorism that they don’t want to deal with the guilt they might feel if they awaken their consciousness about colorism.

“Fear of freedom, of which the possessor is not necessarily aware, makes him see ghosts. Such an individual is actually taking refuge in an attempt to achieve security, which he or she prefers to the risk of liberty…. Men and women rarely admit their fear of freedom openly, however, tending rather to camouflage it—sometimes unconsciously—by presenting themselves as defenders of freedom. They give their doubts and misgivings an air of profound sobriety as befitting custodians of freedom. But they confuse freedom with the maintenance of the status quo; so that if [consciousness] threatens to place that status quo in question, it thereby seems to constitute a threat to freedom itself.” (Freire, p. 18)

You probably know this story just as well as I do. The guy who proudly proclaims: “I only date light skinned chicks,” then shrugs and says, “That’s just my preference.” Others who support this way of thinking will also shrug and say, “Everyone has a right to their own preference.”

Of course everyone has the right to prefer who and what they want, but…

We might also see this defense of personal preference (like a defense of personal freedom), as really just a cowardly defense of the status quo, a fear of freedom (for reasons stated above).

Rather than questioning the possible reasons for or sources of our preferences, rather than considering the social and historical construction and conditioning of our preferences, it’s easier for some people to believe that preferences are simply a personal, individual, biological, natural, and harmless matter. It’s easier to believe so because true belief in the opposite requires action, which requires courage.

Believe that society can change

“the oppressors attempt to destroy in the oppressed their quality as ‘considerers’ of the world. Since the oppressors cannot totally achieve this destruction, they must mythicize the world. In order to present for the consideration of the oppressed and subjugated a world of deceit designed to increase their alienation and passivity, the oppressors develop a series of methods precluding any presentation of the world as a problem and showing it rather as a fixed entity, as something given—something to which people, as mere spectators, must adapt…. [The oppressors] deposit myths indispensable to the preservation of the status quo.” (Freire, p. 120)

This quote builds on the idea that people hide behind notions of personal freedom because they are too afraid or unwilling to even question, much less resist, the status quo. Even when they express sadness about colorism, too many people respond with resignation and passivity, as if nothing can be done about it.

Well, we have to realize that societies are always changing and that we can and should be active participants in shaping that change. We must believe that we can help change our society for the better. Yes, it’s a huge and overwhelming task. Yes, it takes a ton of effort and risk and courage. But we can do it.

Bear Witness

The first action step for colorism healing is to speak our truths—to bear witness. Here’s what Freire says about bearing witness:

“The essential elements of witness include: consistency between words and actions; boldness which urges the witness to confront existence as a permanent risk; radicalization (not sectarianism) leading both the witnesses and the ones receiving that witness to increasing action; courage to love (which, far from being accommodation to an unjust world, is rather the transformation of that world in behalf of the increasing liberation of humankind); and faith in the people, since it is to them that witness is made.… in dialogical action, daring and loving witness serve the ends of organization.” (157-158)

Let’s bear witness—daring and loving witness.

Understand the Causes of colorism

A second action step for colorism healing is to make sure we understand root causes:

“As long as the oppressed remain unaware of the causes of their condition, they fatalistically ‘accept’ their exploitation. Further, they are apt to react in a passive and alienated manner when confronted with the necessity to struggle for their freedom and self-affirmation.” (Freire, p. 46)

When we remain unaware of the causes of colorism, the problem seems impossible to solve. Understanding colorism’s causes helps us to see possible solutions. The device no longer dumbfounds us when we take it apart and see how it works. Let’s find the power source and unplug it to stop the system of colorism. In most society’s that struggle with colorism, the source is white supremacy.

Have Dialogue about colorism and white supremacy

According to Freire, dialogue requires love, humility, faith, hope, and critical thinking. I add that it requires courage. Once we’ve gathered our courage, come to believe that change is possible, born daring and loving witness, and examined the causes of colorism, we need to continue to have courageous yet humble conversations amongst ourselves.

“Human existence cannot be silent, nor can it be nourished by false words, but only by true words, with which men and women transform the world. To exist, humanly, is to name the world, to change it…. Human beings are not built in silence, but in word, in work, in action-reflection…. No one can say a true word alone—nor can she say it for another, in a prescriptive act which robs others of their words.” (Freire, p. 69)

I am writing this post, using my words, but I can’t be the only one. We need your words too. Whether you’re a writer, singer, tweeter, small-talker, big-talker, lecturer, poet, or any other form of human being, we need your words!

Reflect. Act. Repeat.

“The insistence that the oppressed engage in reflection on their concrete situation is not a call to armchair revolution. On the contrary, reflection—true reflection—leads to action.” (Freire, p. 48)

“‘Cultural Revolution’ takes the total society to be reconstructed, including all human activities, as the object of its remolding action.” (Freire, p. 139)

By reading this, you’re already engaged in the cycle of reflection and action. How will you continue that cycle from here?

Will you talk to someone about your experiences with colorism? Will you listen to someone else share their experiences? Will you give a child a book, movie, or toy that affirms who they are? Will you make a conscious effort to support magazines, movies, and TV programs that promote diversity? Will you give attention to the person everyone else ignores?

Reflect on the actions that feel right to you, then take those actions. Repeat.

A Necessary Act of Liberation

“A necessary act of liberation within myself was to acknowledge the beauty of black black women, but I was always aware I was swimming against the tide.”

—Alice Walker

Is Colorism Affecting your Relationship?

Not long ago, a theology student in Atlanta emailed to ask my opinion on how colorism affects couples and how pastors could help couples dealing with colorism. Though I’ve previously written about colorism in relationships, this email and a recent conversation with a friend prompted me to revisit the topic from a slightly different angle.

We usually discuss how colorism influences people’s decisions on who to date or marry, but we rarely hear discussions about how colorism continues to affect relationships beyond the initial decision to be or not to be with someone.

If colorism is an issue for a couple, here are five ways it might negatively impact their relationship, followed by suggestions for what individuals or couples can do about it.

1. If a partner is insecure about his or her own skin color, this can lead to jealousy, distrust, neediness, and hypersensitivity.

The insecure partner might constantly worry whether or not they’ll be replaced by someone lighter or darker. According to psychology and relationship experts, insecurity in general causes people to need constant attention, affirmation, and reassurance. This neediness often becomes a burden or obligation for the other partner to constantly prove their love and commitment. Even when the other partner gives all the reassurances they possibly can, an insecure person might continue to question or doubt the sincerity of their partner’s show of affection. An insecure partner might also frequently misinterpret words and actions of their partner as insults or criticism. The tension created as a result of personal insecurity usually creates problems where problems would not exist otherwise.

2. People who are insecure about their own skin color or their partner’s skin color might also be controlling or abusive.

The commonly depicted case involves a man trying to control, belittle, or abuse a light skinned woman either to “cut her down to size” or “show her who’s boss” or to keep her from cheating with other men (since the belief is that she could have any man she wanted).

Although this is a common story to tell, I want to emphasize that insecurity can lead to abuse no matter what complexion each partner has. I’m sure we all know that both men and women of every race and color may be perpetrators and/or victims of physical and psychological abuse. And, of course, the complicated issues that lead to abusive relationships cannot be boiled down to colorism alone. However, colorism could be a factor.

One case I know of involved a husband controlling his wife’s appearance, specifically not letting her wear certain colors (bright colors) because he thought they clashed with her very dark complexion. Even more common, perhaps, is controlling a partner’s choice in hairstyles, not letting female partners “go natural” or  insisting that they wear extensions if their natural hair is “too kinky.” Women in these circumstances experience high levels of fear, anxiety, and shame in trying to meet their partner’s standards for physical appearance.

3. Colorism might be an external force on relationships in the form of resistance or rejection from friends or family.

Unfortunately, some families are still color-struck, even now, insisting that family members “better the race” or “stay true to the race” by only seeking partners within a narrow range of skin shades. In many cases, couples have to deal not only with rejection of a partner, but rejection of their children also if the children don’t turn out to be the desired shade of the family. Relationships are already difficult due to their own internal conflicts. The added stress and anxiety of rejection, criticism, and mean-spiritedness from one’s own family or a partner’s family could perhaps draw a couple closer or drive a wedge between them.

4. Colorism may lead to anxiety about having children.

Many people base their mating decisions, at least in part, on how their offspring might look. I’ve heard several women bluntly say they’d like to have children with a light skin man, white man, Hispanic man, etc. so that they’d have “pretty babies.” I’ve heard men make similar comments about babies, though men in general might be less direct about their desire for children with particular physical attributes. Genetics may be a science, but there’s no way to guarantee what a child will look like (at least not by ordinary means). In a color-struck relationship where one partner is dark and the other partner is light, one or both partners (and usually their family and friends) will spend the entire pregnancy guessing, speculating, hoping, wishing, praying that the baby will have a certain complexion, hair texture, eye color, and facial features. In some cultures, the woman, no matter her complexion, is blamed and ostracized as having a “dirty womb” if the baby has dark skin and kinky hair. Women in these circumstances have increased anxiety about what their children will look like. Sometimes a color-struck parent may display favoritism or even abuse a particular child because of that child’s skin color.

Not all relationships involve children, but when they are involved, colorism creates an additional set of complicated issues on top of the typical challenges of rearing children.

5. Colorism often means that people are infatuated with stereotypes, fetishes, or ideals rather than truly being in love with a unique individual.

This was at the heart of my response to the theology student in Atlanta. Essentially, people might become infatuated with someone’s skin tone rather than falling in love with the person. If skin color is just as or more important than other qualities, then there’s a problem. Skin color can and does change. There’s also always someone lighter or darker who more exactly matches the idealized skin tone in a partner’s mind. Therefore, couples should be careful not to enter into relationships primarily because of skin color.

The other aspect of this, which I spoke to a friend about, is that many people choose partners of a certain skin color because they believe in reductive and misleading stereotypes about skin color. Dark skinned guys are more manly. Light skinned women are classier. Or whatever. First, these stereotypes are essentially racist and steeped in centuries of white supremacist rhetoric and practices. Second, stereotypes of any kind are a really shallow foundation for a relationship. Is it possible to have a healthy relationship when one or both partners is infatuated with a stereotype instead of an individual with his or her own personality and unique set of characteristics?

Ways to Address Colorism in Relationships

My comment to the Atlanta theologian was that couples should deal with their personal insecurities and learn to appreciate, respect, and love each other as unique individuals. Here’s a more concrete list of steps that couples can take to address colorism, if and when it’s a problem in their relationship.

  • The first step to healing is awareness and acceptance. Take time to reflect and have a dialogue with your partner to determine if colorism is a source of any troubles. Sometimes all it takes is recognizing when and where colorism exists to start seeing improvements, but it requires confronting the issue, courageously.
  • Work on building individual self-esteem. There are many ways to go about this. Some simple things you can do everyday starting now include collecting and surrounding yourself with positive affirmations and reading self-help books like Ten Days to Self-Esteem.
  • For further development of personal self-esteem, try counseling or therapy. Sometimes we need a neutral person to talk to and help us gain some objectivity about ourselves and our circumstances.
  • Focus on the uniqueness and individuality of your partner. Maybe you realize you placed much more importance on your partner’s physical features than anything else, or that you’d gotten caught up in myths and stereotypes about skin color. It’s never too late to let those things go and develop a deeper appreciation for your partner beyond skin color and stereotypes.
  • Try couples therapy. In addition to working on each of yourselves, seeking help from a professional as a couple could be very effective.

Of course these suggestions work best when both partners really want the relationship to work and to last. And, again, relationship problems are usually too complicated to trace back to colorism as the single cause. But perhaps by acknowledging the ways colorism may be affecting a relationship, couples can work to resolve some of their troubles.

Because We Understand Ourselves

“We can continue to respect and love many of these writers, and treasure what they wrote because we understand America; but we must be wary of their depictions of black women because we understand ourselves.”

—Alice Walker

#Lighten Up: Visual Essay by Artist Ronald Wimberly

Artist Ronald Wimberly was working on assignment for Marvel (X-Men) when an editor asked him to lighten the skin color of a biracial female character. That experience inspired Wimberly to create a visual essay titled “#Lighten Up.”

The best word I can think of to describe the piece is smart. Wimberly clearly knows his craft, but he also understands his craft in relationship to the politics and history of color, ethnicity, and race.

I’m particularly impressed with the rhetorical use of web-based color codes (such as #ffffff or #000000 which are the online color codes for white and black) and with the allusion to art history. Using these various artistic and rhetorical techniques, Wimberly takes a complicated subject and renders it with clarity and simplicity without sacrificing nuance.

See the entire piece here.

Colorism on Film: Yellow Fever by Ng’endo Mukii

Yellow Fever is an international award winning film by Ng’endo Mukii. This short film (less than 7 minutes) is a mixed media work of art. I think the film is unique in that it really zooms in (sometimes literally) on the unsettling emotional and psychological experience of internalized white supremacy.

 

Yellow Fever: FULL from Ng’endo Mukii on Vimeo.