Paper Bags: My Experience with Colorism

col·or·ism

ˈkələrˌizəm/

noun

  1. prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group.
  2. “colorism within the black community has been a serious emotional and psychological battle”

Yellow. It was, as a child, my trigger word and all the kids on the block knew it. I remember fights that left my knuckles bloody. I remember getting hit in the face with a wiffle bat (far more painful than you would think). There are also the fights that I don’t remember because I was in such a rage. Particularly the story where after being spat upon my mother’s best friend tried to stop me from fighting. I picked up all 200 plus pounds of her, sat her on the hood of my father’s car, and told her “don’t move.” I was twelve.

Growing up, the idea that being light-skinned was somehow advantageous would have been laughable to me. There was no perceivable upside to my being lighter (and blonder) than any other black kid on my block. Nor was there any advantage when I got bussed to a mostly white Catholic school where I was bullied by the children and blamed for my torment by the school’s staff.

As I grew older, especially as my proximity to whiteness grew (I didn’t make my first real white friend until I was in my mid-twenties) I began to understand what lightness brought me. There were conversations and stories that my darker friends had that I just couldn’t relate to. I caught cabs in Manhattan (even if they wouldn’t take me to the Bronx). I generally feared police in the abstract. I grew up in the same police district as Amadu Diallo so I understood enough, but my personal interactions with police were generally non-eventful. I’ll never forget speeding down Pelham Parkway in my girlfriend’s car, music blasting. I looked to my left and there was an officer driving alongside me. “Take it easy buddy”, he yelled at me. I took my foot off the accelerator and he sped on. I have plenty of friends darker than I who have received far worse treatment for lesser infractions.

Can I put any of this exclusively on my skin color? Probably not, but it’s a safe bet that it didn’t hurt.

Colorism’s roots lie deep in the heart of American history as explained in an article on racism.org:

In America, skin color is an important signifier of beauty and social status. African-Americans’ preference for light complexions and European features dates back to the antebellum era when skin color determined an enslaved person’s work assignments. Dark-skinned slaves worked in the fields, while light-complexioned slaves worked in the slave owner’s home.

The construct of race, and by extension, colorism, have been long proven to make no discernable difference between people. Despite what white supremacists and hoteps would have you believe, we are all the same once you get past skin-deep. But being human is to crave status. More so, to be black in America is to covet status as a means of survival.

I was taught about the minefield of race early on. Both in regard to the greatness of being black and the trepidation that blackness was often enveloped in. Pictures of famous black men and women hung on our walls. Inventors, writers, and activists alike. All of them at my eye level. These pictures were solely for my benefit. One of my fondest memories as a child is the night my father pulled out a record of Malcolm X speeches and had me sit down and listen. The authority that Malcolm made what, as a child, were impossibly bold statements, the unapologetic tone was both liberating and scary. Because in that moment I understood that there was a cost, or more accurately, a fight that Black folks were engaged in for the sake of existing. Even with an environment as positively black as my home, looking back, colorism was prevalent in my home, especially with my mother.

My mother (and father for that matter) is also a fair skinned. One of seven children, my mother was among the lightest. The fairest of them all, my aunt Dale, is jokingly referred to as the milk man’s daughter. While colorism affects all people of color, there is a distinct and present impact on women of color as explained by Kimberly N Foster.

While my mother, by no means, had an easy life. Her’s is a story I will tell someday but growing up poor and being a high school dropout generall isn’t the platform for a smooth existence. It can be argued however that her life was easier for being light-skinned. Taking it a step further, I believe my mother’s skin was a weapon she never fully understood that she was wielding and in some ways was unknowingly teaching me how to wield. I, however, largely worked to distance myself from my fair skin.


Felix von Luschan Skin Color Chart

For the most part, I have gravitated towards women darker than me. The reasoning is very simple. I am of a complexion where most people of color are darker than me so to that end some of the decision was already made for me. On a personal level, for a long time I resided in a space where I felt my blackness needed to be validated, darker women ended up being a subconscious way of doing so. To be clear, this isn’t a matter of not genuinely loving Black women or using them for some ulterior motive. There was, however, a personal validation. Conversely, I believe that at least some of the women I have dated, as part of their attraction to me, viewed me as a form of social currency. I was an athlete, a poet, allegedly attractive and light-skinned. Again, I say this, not to invalidate the sincerity of the women who liked/loved me but I believe I filled a void for them as well. Also, to be fair, my dating experience is fairly limited having married relatively young and only being single again over the last year or two.

I have come a long way from the blackout rage of my youth. I can joke about my complexion with my friends, though I limit the jokes to self-deprecation. I have never felt comfortable with “you’re so black” jokes. There is something hateful and loathsome about dark-skinned jokes to me. I look at my light-skinned son and his dark-skinned best friend who have yet to learn the politics of race. They have yet to question their identities or even understand that their identity, in many ways, will be thrust upon them. For me, all I can do is hope to mitigate the anger and make my son aware of the simultaneously relevant and irrelevant meaning of his skin.

Time will tell.

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