Some people mistakenly assume that colorism is an issue for dark skinned people, but it’s actually an issue for all people. The prevalence of that misconception is part of the reason colorism persists. In order for our communities to really heal from this issue, we must acknowledge the ways that colorism affects light skinned girls and women.
Having a light skinned sister, it’s easy for me (and her) to see both sides of this issue and how no one goes untouched by colorism. For others, however, it may not be as clear.
I single out females because color intersects with gender in ways that are more complex than one post can handle. Also, the continued power imbalance between male and female, often means that colorism affects women and men differently.
Although this post has been in my writing cue for a while, I decided to write it now because of Oprah’s Lifeclass with Iyanla Vanzant on colorism in the African American community. In the taping that I watched streaming live online a few days ago, many light skinned audience members insisted that they did not have it better than their dark skinned peers.
I’d also been thinking about this side of colorism because I follow Dr. Yaba Blay, and her new book One Drop came out the last weekend in November.
Although historical research provides evidence that there is some privilege associated with lighter skin, I acknowledge that colorism can negatively impact light skinned people as well. In this post, I’m explaining six of those negative affects as reported by light skinned women and girls themselves.
1. Having your race or ethnicity questioned
Many light skinned people have complained that others often ask them, “What are you?” This questioning may not result in any form of actual oppression in the traditional sense, but it’s reported as a kind of psychological burden.
Having people ask what you are is one thing, but in many cases, like my sister’s, people sometimes refuse to believe your answer. This can lead to pent-up anger and resentment for light skinned girls and women that affects other personal interactions.
Many light skinned blacks have felt the need to prove their blackness, both to blacks and non-blacks.
2. Feelings of guilt or embarrassment
The first time I heard about this feeling from a light skinned black person was in an interview that I did with my light skinned sister. She said she felt embarrassed by the perception that she must be stuck-up or snobby because of her light skin. I think this feeling was strong for her because she had two darker siblings, which probably made her hyper aware of the differences in how people could be treated due to skin color.
Similarly, on Oprah’s Lifeclass, a lighter skinned woman who had darker skinned friends admitted to feeling guilty about getting much more male attention than her friends.
In her article “Colored Existence: Racial Identity Formation in Light-Skin Blacks,” Julie L. Cunningham writes that “Many light-skin Blacks are painfully aware of the privilege of moving more freely through the dominant culture. The price of this freedom is survivor guilt.” Various historic and contemporary circumstances, “leave most light-skin Blacks aware of and embarrassed by their ‘privilege.'”
Not all light skinned blacks think of themselves as privileged, but for those who do, it’s an unwanted source of guilt and embarrassment even though they’re not responsible for the unfair treatment.
3. Being perceived as stuck-up or conceited
According to my sister, several women in Oprah’s Lifecalss audience, and others, it’s painful when people accuse you of being stuck-up when you’re not.
Statements like, “She thinks she’s all that” or “You think you’re too good” are common, and they’re often founded solely on prejudgments and stereotypes.
The fact that these comments are made about you by individuals who have had very limited interaction with you can be a source of confusion and hurt.
4. Retaliation from darker skinned blacks
Some dark skinned women have misdirected anger and resentment toward lighter skinned women. As a result, several women and girls have reported bullying and even getting into physical fights over skin color.
As Angela Davis says in her autobiography:
“It hurt to see us folding in on ourselves, using ourselves as whipping posts because we did not yet know how to struggle against the real cause of our misery.”
I know firsthand that many dark skinned girls have been deeply hurt by colorism. However, it’s wrong to retaliate against light skinned girls who’ve come to represent the pain rather than confronting the actual source of pain.
Let me be clear, though. Not all dark skinned people react to colorism in this way. This is not a generalization about dark skinned girls, but merely an acknowledgement that this kind of thing has happened.
5. Feelings of alienation
All of the above issues lead to the general feeling of alienation. Cunningham writes, “The longing to be accepted, the sting of rejection: these may be the most pervasive and emotionally challenging components of the current light-skin Black experience.”
Light skinned girls and women sometimes feel like they don’t belong to any racial group of people. Considering how significant racial identity still is in societies all around the world, feeling like you can’t identify with any group ends up presenting a significant problem for people.
For some fair skinned blacks, it’s often quite clear to them that they won’t be fully accepted by whites, yet they report never feeling fully accepted by other blacks either.
6. False sense of what makes you worthy, attractive, etc.
This is an often overlooked, negative affect of colorism on light skinned girls. It’s most relevant to girls who do believe light skin is better and who gladly accept any undue favoritism.
While everyone should love their skin color, it becomes a problem when girls believe that their lighter skin makes them more beautiful or more worthy than people with darker skin.
It’s an unfortunate attitude to have because their light skin ranks higher than their work ethic, personal achievements, relationships, health, or personality in defining who they are.
This post is merely a general summary of what light and dark skinned people have frequently said. Obviously, no two stories will be identical.
Nothing on this blog should take the place of actually getting to know individuals and learning their unique stories for yourself.