Colorism: The Light Skin Paradox
Article by Fatoumanta B. Diallo
I recently watched some excerpts from “Light Girls”, a documentary on the Oprah Winfrey Network about the colorism that exists among African-Americans in the United States. This time, though, it was presented from the perspective of light skinned women and girls who face criticism and discrimination from members of the Black community. I must say that I found this piece extremely interesting because I am used to hearing more about the negative judgments dark skin girls deal with, like being told that they are not as beautiful as their light skinned sisters.
Through the history of slavery in the U.S. and colonialism in Africa, we all understand how this concept of colorism came about. It is the phenomenon that makes people all over the world damage their skin and risk their health in order to have a lighter complexion, in order to be considered beautiful. From the millions of bleaching and lightening products sold over the counter to the portrayal of black people, and especially women, in the media (e.g black celebrities with artificially lightened skin or photoshopped magazine covers that make black celebrities appear fairer-skinned), everything points in the direction of lighter skin being more appealing. But I don’t want this article to be about the reasons behind people bleaching their skin. We already know why people do it. Rather, I would like to focus on the fact that as black people, lighter skinned folks also face judgement and rejection because of their skin tone! How does that happen when society seems to think that light skin is more attractive?
For me, this paradox is a particularly touchy subject, because I am considered a light skinned person. Growing up I hated the fact that some black kids would say that I am not really black because my skin is light brown. It made me feel like I was not black enough and I always wanted to overcompensate for my “lack of blackness”. I remember when I was younger and the summer came around, I would consciously stay under the sun for as long as possible so that I would get darker. One year, during a summer trip to Barcelona, I learned my lesson and managed to get extremely painful sunburns all over my body!
Even as an adult I still get called names because of my complexion. “Yellow girl” seems to be the most popular one. What does “yellow girl” even mean? As a child, this was a derogatory name for Chinese people. It’s also the color of babies that have jaundice! So, needless to say, I have never liked being called that. In Cote D’Ivoire, the popular term is “Red girl”. Go figure! Others I’ve met have questioned my “blackness”, saying that I am not really black due to my ethnicity (I am part of the Fulbe/Peulh tribe and, according to them, Fulani people are mixed). But who isn’t? Every culture and group has been mixed at some point in history. And don’t all human beings originate from the African continent anyway?
The bottom line is that name calling and creating stupid hierarchies between people of different skin complexions is pointless because at the end of the day, to non-black people, light/brown/dark skinned people are all the SAME! And so are their struggles. That’s what matters. In America, people go a step further by qualifying bi-racial children as Black. Never mind about their non-black sides!
I want people to think about the following: how would you feel if someone kept calling you a name besides the one you were given? I mean, there is nothing wrong with said name, but it’s not yours. It’s not who you are and I think we’d all agree that it’s annoying and hurtful to be called something you’re not. Simple concept, right? Now apply that analogy to the case of colorism. See how calling a black person “white”, “yellow”, “red” or some other name (derogatory or otherwise) can be damaging? Let’s not shame people based on their appearance. We can’t choose the way we’re born so why make people feel bad and self-conscious about their appearance? It is important for us to learn to love ourselves for who we are, only then will we be able to love and appreciate others for who they are.
I just want people to call me what I actually am: a Black girl. And I am pretty sure that most people in similar situations want the same.
À bas le colorisme!