Unpacking Common Excuses for Colorism

Colorism– defined as the discriminatin against people with darker skin tones– has always been a difficult topic to discuss within the Black community. People with lighter skin often deny the existence of any preferential treatment. Meanwhile, many darker-skinned people constantly feel forced to make their experiences with colorism known to help educate others.

The debate over whether light skinned privilege exists (hint: it does) reminds me the most of white peoples’ response to learning about white privilege. When faced with the concept of having inherent privileges for being white, I always hear people list off all the struggles they’ve faced in their lives despite being white. The key to understanding white privilege is acknowledging that you can face challenges as a white person, just not challenges caused by your whiteness. It’s the same for light skinned people within the Black community: they can still face racism, but they do not face additional discrimination based off the darkness of their skin. In short, all Black people face racism, but we don’t all face colorism. 

Today, I wanted to unpack some justifications for colorism. There are many more, but I hear these three most often. Until people are ready to confront their biases, colorism will not disappear.

“colorism isn’t a serious issue in the black community.”

Actually, it is. Light-skinned privilege is about more than a dating preference. It’s not a coincidence that many Black people who have rose to mainstream prominence– such as Barack Obama, Beyonce, and Zendaya– have light skin. In America (and many other cultures around the world) light skin comes with opportunity. Aside from media representation, colorism is also present in America’s justice system, making it more serious of a problem than most people see.

An Instagram post from @darkest.hue highlights a Villanova University study reveals lighter-skinned women receive prison sentences 12% shorter than those given to dark skinned women. This goes to show that colorism has very real implications on the lives of Black women, outside of only impacting dating. Lack of media representation is a seperate– but still serious issue– that I want to discuss alongside the next excuse.

“Dark-Skinned girls are just difficult and bitter.”

It’s nearly undeniable that the social burden of colorism is often put on women instead of men. Dark-skinned men are praised and decently represented in the media, but dark-skinned women do not receive the same treatment. This is where misogyny (or even misogynoir) comes in. 

Most Black people seem to understand why other stereotypes about the Black community are harmful- such as those claiming we’re criminals, uneducated, or lazy. We can recognize that they were created by offensive portrayals in the news and pop culture. However, the stereotypes of dark skinned women being jealous, unfeminine, or unnatractive remain extremely prevalent. Television and movie roles for dark skinned women remain few and far between, and oftentimes they play into preexisting negative stereotypes. 

There was a TED Talk I watched a long time ago, titled “Confessions of a D Girl: Colorism and Global Standards of Beauty.” The woman giving the talk, Chika Okoro, uses her experience of finding out that the casting call for the movie she loved, Straight Outta Compton, put dark-skinned girls on the lowest ladder- the “D” girl. The “A” girls were classified as beautiful, models with light skin and long, natural hair. From levels “A” to “C,” the skin of the girls becomes darker, and the race becomes more specific. Out of all the categories, the only one to explicitly state race was at the “D” girl- African-American girls. The fact that a movie directed by a Black man, sharing the story of Black people, would encourage the depiction of dark-skinned women as “poor” and “in bad shape,” only goes to show how deeply ingrained these notions of beauty are in our community.

The ideas of being difficult and jealous also comes from these media portrayals. It’s time to dismantle the narrative that speaking up about colorism comes from a place of self-hatred and jealousy. Talking about colorism is not meant to divide the Black community- it’s meant to open up the conversation to the experiences of other people. 

“yeah, but why do you care so much about someone’s personal preference?”

Because colorism is more than just personal– it’s institutional. As mentioned earlier, being darker skinned causes harsher treatment in the legal system. All the reasons given for why light-skinned people are more attractive, more intelligent, or less dangerous are imaginary. If people can recognize racist beliefs as ignorant because of how they generalize an entire population, the same should be true for colorist remarks. 

The key feature of colorism that makes it so dangerous is how normalized it is. Numerous dark skinned black men and light-skinned women  have been called out for colorism and they still are praised within the black community. To dismantle colorism, the work needs to stop being forced onto dark-skinned people. It needs to start with the recognition of light skinned privilege.

image from broadsatyale.com