As light-skinned people, it’s our job to make space for those silenced most by colorism
We know from histories of racism and oppression that acknowledgement without action is not enough.
By michal “mj” jones
A few years ago, I invited a group of scholar-activists to present a panel on intergenerational movement building and breaking barriers between elder and younger organizers. The conversation went well, I thought, and we gave the floor over to the attendees to share their stories. Afterwards, an older woman with a deep complexion came up to me, loving yet troubled, and thanked me: “I so appreciate you, darling… but where all the dark-skinned sistas at?”
I nodded and agreed with the lack of representation, running through the excuses in my mind—well, so and so wasn’t available, I’m trying my best here! Unable to hide the heat rising in my yellow cheeks, I ended the conversation with a meager acknowledgement that “I would do better in the future.”
But in that moment, to this elder, it did not matter what efforts I had or had not made. What was seen was something that is all-too familiar in media, movement, and everyday spaces: the overrepresentation of light-skint Black folks speaking on Black issues.
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Colorism in the Black community is perhaps spoken about more than it used to be in mainstream media, with documentaries like Dark Girls and more celebrities speaking out. But often it is spoken about it in the same way folks talk about white privilege: “it’s no one’s fault, but we still have to acknowledge it.”
Yet, we know from histories of racism and oppression that acknowledgement without action is not enough.
A few weeks ago, when prompted in an interview, actress Amandla Stenberg spoke about their decision to step away from Black Panther after auditioning, stating, “I recognize 100 percent that there are spaces I should not take up.”
Stenberg, who is biracial, saw that the majority of the cast were dark-skinned actors and actresses and removed themselves from the running. While some folks on my timeline questioned their reasoning for talking about that decision—what, you want an ally cookie?—I think Amandla’s actions are important and needed in our activist and organizing communities, in addition to media representation.
Stenberg not only acknowledged the issue of colorism and their own privilege, they stepped out of a potential role so that a dark-skinned actress could be uplifted in their place. Light-skinned folks cannot get rid of our privilege, but we can take such actions to shift dynamics that consistently advantage us.
Media serves as only one reflection of the deep-seated issue of colorism, which I define as internalized racism and white supremacy that benefits people with light skin and oppresses folks with dark skin. Colorism shows up in who is cast and who is not, who is paid and who is not, who is successful and who is not, etc.
Not only have light-skinned actors and performers been in the spotlight (which, albeit for Black people is already tiny) the majority of the time throughout history, but some light-skinned folks have even protested any shift that includes, or centers, dark-skinned representation. (See: light-skinned folks complaining about Black Panther).
As organizers and activists, light-skint folks need to be cognizant of how we are taking up space and representation. That applies to this piece as well. What does it mean for me to submit this piece to an all-Black publication? To me, it supports a larger effort to gather fellow light-skinned folks and call for the reflection and accountability that dark-skinned folks been demanding, but I know that it is also complicated.
In all-Black spaces especially, what are we doing to be sure dark-skinned folks are not just present but prioritized? What opportunities do we have for dark-skinned people to be in leadership roles without tokenization? How are our actions in relationship and community building impacted by the beliefs we have internalized about dark-skinned Black folks? What would it look like for us to exclude ourselves from certain spaces?
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I don’t have the answers needed to end colorism in our communities, but questioning what spaces we do and do not get to own is important if we are committed to Black life and liberation.
There are plenty of messy things that keep us light-skinned folks from keeping our privilege in check, and I know this because I have (and still do) struggle with them.
The first is that we mistake other Black people checking our privilege as oppressive or offensive—in a similar way that white folks do.
Folks who know me well have heard me talk about my experience passing as biracial despite my two Black parents, and having my light complexion picked on by other kids. But I can’t compare those experiences to a system wide oppression because they aren’t, even if they hurt or I didn’t understand them.
Colorism in my childhood was being called “yelluh” or “interesting” or “white,” while my older brother was called a monkey. As an adult, it is me being seen as safe or non-threatening and my dark-skinned friends as dangerous, angry, or aggressive—in white, non-white, and Black spaces.
When light-skinned folks take offense to being called on our shit, we’re putting emotional labor on dark-skinned fam who are already silenced on a regular basis or excluded entirely from the table. Our guilt or discomfort is ours to deal with.
Another reason that light-skinned people fail to share space is that sometimes we feel “not Black enough,” and like we have to overcompensate and prove our Blackness. And in some ways, we do have something to prove.
I know that there are several situations, including interactions with law enforcement, that I got out of due to my skin tone and class. I know that a tagline for white people who tried to get in my pants has been, “I like that you’re not too Black.” So again, it’s not oppressive or even personal when we’re asked to have some self reflection or move out of the way—it’s political and transformational.
Challenging our own privilege and internalized oppression as light-skinned folks means recognizing the full complexity and beauty of Blackness—the points where our struggles are connected and where they are not.
As I’ve stated, what I’m talking about here isn’t new. Folks with darker skin tones have been talking about this shit for a long time, it’s past due time for all of us to be better listeners.
michal “mj” jones is a Black, queer, non-binary writer and poet living in Oakland, CA. mj is deeply committed to liberation struggles, youth empowerment, intergenerational movement building, and anti-oppressive education. read more of their work or contact them here.