When combatting colorism in dating practices becomes overcompensating for guilt
My aggressive advocacy of Black men sometimes feels like a desperate attempt at establishing myself as the dark-skinned woman most assign me
By Kui Mwai
Whether my friends and I are out on the town, or at home relaxing with copious glasses of wine, we talk about it all. I adore our dynamic. We are of all colors and backgrounds but are united in our respect and love for each other. We’ve managed to create a safe space for each other to reveal intimate struggles and hard truths.
Being 20-something women, the conversation will almost always steer towards the topic of sex and love. While our experiences with sexual relationships look different, we all find ourselves in the same limbo of having no idea what we’re doing.
So we consult each other, compare notes in an attempt to find commonality and camaraderie in the struggle. We share who’s caught our attention, our conversations with potential new suitors, and the type of man we’d love to meet. In the course of thousands of these giggle-filled discussions, I’ve observed a trend in the kinds of men they gravitate towards. It’s your Chris Hemsworths, Theo Jameses, Michael Ealys. It’s predominantly men that fall in a color range that seems to stop at cappuccino.
When we have conversations about our preferences, I find myself choking down my annoyance and confusion. I slowly nod as they talk about what their “type” is and try to hide my anger behind tightly pursed lips. My self inflicted suffocation, however, isn’t always successful, and my true feelings reveal themselves in the form of not-so-playful jabs calling out their aversion to darker-skinned men.
Their affinities for lighter skinned men, no matter what the true motivation, inspires a personal response that has instilled a problematic habit in me. I feel the intense need to make sure I always take Black men seriously, to see them in all the ways society fails to. My obligation to Black men inspires a sort of narrow-mindedness once I’m in a relationship with them. I tend to try to save and mother them, while overlooking red flags and problematic behavior.
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We live in a world that limits Black men in violent ways. Stereotypes that in 2019 we might like to call archaic still permeate in American air. Inspired by white supremacy, the hierarchy of lighter-skinned Black people over dark-skinned Black people remains entrenched in society. Beauty standards were built on a white supremacist agenda, giving those with lighter skin praise and a platform. That toxic norm bled into the Black community, in the form of colorism.
The conversations I’ve heard about this atrocious colorist dynamics usually just pertain to women. The rise of models Duckie Thot and Anok Yai have shown the forging of a new path for dark skin women to see themselves in magazines and on T.V. Of course, representation is only a step in the right direction, and not the end of the walk. We need to continue to have conversations both within and outside of the Black community about the realities of how darker-skinned people are treated, to reveal and heal its influences. But I feel as though, as a country, we are even more behind in figuring out how to translate that advocacy to dark-skinned men.
My relationship with colorism is confusing. I’ve felt both of the privilege of being “light-skinned” and the invisibility of being “darker-skinned,” depending on the context. My family is Kenyan, and most, including my immediate family, live in Nairobi. Whenever I’m there, I’m aggressively deemed “light-skinned,” and my beauty is solely defined by the “lightness” of my skin. In the U.S., however, I’m mostly considered “dark-skinned.” I’ve heard others categorize me in this way and adopted that perception of myself. I identify more with the experience of being what the U.S. deems a “dark-skinned” girl than I would with women who are considered light skinned here. But my international influences complicate that identification, and I find myself floating somewhere in the middle. That confusion inspires guilt.
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Triggered by the preferences of my friends, and their unfortunate similarities to those of the world, I feel guilty for the contradicting ways the world understands my Blackness. Do I get the right the feel invisible? Do I get the right to feel privileged? Do I get to be both light and dark-skinned? The guilt then ushers in aggression. While this aggression manifests in all parts of my life, it’s extremely apparent in my intimate romantic relationships.
My aggressive advocacy of Black men, to the point of even compromising my mental wellness, sometimes feels like a desperate attempt at establishing myself as the dark-skinned woman most assign me to be, as a means of officially rebuking my Kenyan “light-skinned” status.
Checking my own triggers and confusion and how they inspire my personal decisions is the first step in my personal healing. The same is true for the community. The first step is checking our bias, the role we play in perpetuating a standard that wasn’t even established by us. And then the journey continues. I’m not sure what the next step in fighting colorism is, but I do see through my personal process that conversations about the complexities of colorism in the Black community—including both the “light” and the “dark” skinned perspective—are invaluable. Those conversations open the door for continuing to redefine, understand and love blackness.
Kui Mwai is a freelance writer based out of DC. Her passion is using the written word to offer authenticity, humor, and truth to the issues that face the communities she is apart of- the black community, the international community, the feminist community. She prides herself on using her third culture perspective to offer compelling and fresh commentary on a myriad of social topics, from women’s issues in sub-Saharan African to black culture in America.