Why We Need to Talk about Light-Skinned Privilege
Jesse Williams’ speech at the BET Awards was an instant classic. It was a quotable, resonating soliloquy that brought attention to many people who have been obscured in past and present movements for black lives, including women, on-the-ground activists, and young people. However, many on Twitter asserted that people were excited about the speech primarily because Williams is a light-skinned, light-eyed black actor. Some tweets claimed that black men of darker skin tones had spoken on these issues in this manner before, and had not received nearly the attention that Williams had received.
That is probably true.
In fact, if we consider the entertainers that are valorized (usually by white media outlets) as symbols of the new movement for black lives—including Amandla Stenberg, Zendaya Coleman, and Beyonce—many of them have light skin and European features. That is not to say that these individuals are not black and have not lived a black experience, as the black American experience is varied and complex. However, it is important that we all confront and acknowledge our own privileges and the systems of power that might give us access over others, who may be looked over, not for a lack of passion and talent, but for dark skin, non-European features, or low incomes.
White supremacy is pervasive. Colorism, or the systemic preference for individuals of color who have a lighter skin tone, is as old as slavery itself and was used to evaluate black people during slavery. It is a stalwart component of structural racism that has permeated the black community ever since the divisive concept of the house slave and the field slave. We are socialized to believe that “light is alright.”
Colorism has driven black American beauty standards for centuries (for example, the “brown paper bag test”) and has also been found to be a determinant of life chances in larger society: individuals with lighter skin tones have a higher socioeconomic status, have shorter prison sentences, are less likely to be punished in school. Colorism has real consequences. Thus, we must address how colorism works in our every day lives, our activism, and our advocacy work.
As for me, I am a light-skinned black woman, with a white sounding name and a white father (my dad is wonderful—but that is not the point. This recognition of privilege is to acknowledge the systemic, and is not a personal indictment of me or my family). I come from a middle class family and I have never experienced not having something I needed or wanted. I have had access to a top-tier education. Sure, I was made fun of as a child. People liked to grab my hair, I get strange looks, and “what are you” questions. But that is not systemic oppression, and these moments do not compare to the racism and sexism I have experienced throughout my life, and the racism that I’m certain shows up tenfold in the lives of those darker than me. I recognize the intersections of class and colorism that have given me significant opportunities and platforms in my life, and always probably will.
Yet I will not stop there. I will use my privilege to spotlight inequity, advocate for black people, and uplift all black women. While the claims that Jesse Williams got the attention he did because of his skin tone are likely true, it is also true that Williams has acknowledged his own privilege before. In an interview with The Guardian he said,
“To some people I might be a celebrity because I’m physically attractive. We are programmed to believe that someone is attractive because they told you that blue eyes are hot. I am not going to participate in that shit,” he says. “I aim to do what I can with what I have. And I have my [looks] – you know, European beauty standards give me access to things.”
What Jesse Williams said was important+necessary
Jesse Williams is light+privileged but still black
See how multiple things can be true ??
— Jasmine Sanders (@JasMoneyRecords) June 27, 2016
Williams can be (and is!) both woke and unfairly valorized due to his light-skin privilege. Still, this is a conversation that needs to be had—and needs to keep happening, especially as we consider who is historically celebrated and uplifted in social movement history. Commemorating and uplifting activists with dark skin, or anyone else ( such as queer folks, women, trans folks) that is often doubly marginalized in both white history and black history, is an important step even as we embrace the truth of Williams’ message.
Photo: BET video Screenshot