How the person two shades lighter than you isn’t necessarily better off
Roaming among the rubble of hate, field hand’s hair and master’s face didn’t stop me from meeting a noose. (Video)
I didn’t know I was “light-skinned.”
Or should I say, I’m not light-skinned but people have informed me one way or another of what I am based on what they are. I am, in fact, not lighter than a paper bag. I am not cafe au latte. I’m a rich, reddish brown that’s lighter than most black people, but too dark to be truly considered among the what traditionally was viewed as light-skinned — which for me is damn near white.
All of this though is irrelevant as no matter what you look like, in America, if you’re black you are black. This isn’t Brazil or some other South American country where there are a billion color based delineations to separate the blue black Wesley Snipes-ish brothers and sisters from the Wentworth Miller-Grady Sizemore’s of the world. This is America, where Rev. Jeremiah Wright, an unapologetically black man, is a dead ringer for white man and former Republican Bob Barr. Did Wright get any sort of pass for his negrotude because he was two steps from passing? Or for that matter, does any black person?
There is a color divide in black America that is unpleasant that no one likes to talk about yet it persists. Since we aren’t like other countries where the mixed population was allowed to separate and form their own ethnic group, there is a projected united front regardless if you look black or white. As long as you have some fraction of African blood in your veins, you qualify to be a brother or sister and you qualify to get all the garbage that comes with it.
Unfortunately, despite our outward togetherness, internally there are scores of problems. Problems we’re all well aware of. Issues of mistrust. Of favoritism. Of disputed loyalties. Of house negro versus field negro talk and the like. Some have even gone so far to argue that if Michelle Obama were Halle Berry light she wouldn’t be liked as much by black women (although this theory doesn’t explain the love for White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett, who practically has to produce a birth certificate to prove she is, in fact, a Negro).
The perception is if you are lighter you may have had it easier. I’d argue that everyone has their struggles in a country where the standards of beauty are impossibly European and historically racism touched us all, from the light and Liberal Thurgood Marshall to the dark and conservative Clarence Thomas.
If you’re darker, you have to deal with the overall preference some have for lighter people. You have to deal with disparaging remarks from uncouth family members who thought it would be “good” for your self-esteem to tell you to stay out of the sun. You had to watch endless music videos and films where the love interest was a light-skinned girl with long hair. You’ve had Halle Berry crammed down your throat since the 1990s as the ideal of black beauty. You have to deal with discrimination among your own people because no one hates black people more than other black people. We take our self-hate and project it onto the innocent and condemn them for not being able to live up to some standard we can’t even live up to ourselves.
If you’re lighter, your loyalty is constantly questioned, even if you are “unapologetically black.” You have to prove yourself because it is believed that you, no matter your background, surely must have had it easier. It doesn’t matter if you’re from the Tony suburbs or the rough and tumble inner city. It’s just an assumption that light made right for you, even if in the eyes of most racists you were no different from your darker brethren. You deal with the jealousy and suspicion of those who view your skin tone as a personal affront to their own. You deal with the nonsense of other light-skinned people who have bought the garbage that being light skinned has made them “special.” You deal with the fact that you cannot hide the legacy of slavery in you because it is obvious that you didn’t come from the motherland with hair and eyes like that.
Being what other people saw as light didn’t save me, or anyone else I know who is lighter than me, from racism. I wasn’t liked more by white people because of how I looked. I routinely ran into teachers who tried to engineer my failure by giving me F’s on days I was out sick, hoping I wouldn’t notice until it was too late. Racists, quite honestly, don’t care about color delineations. They hate us all. We, as black people, sabotage ourselves when we get bogged down into arguments over “who has it easier.” I’ve known light skinned people who longed to be dark so their outside could match how they felt inside. I’ve known dark skinned people who longed to be light because of the self-hatred. I’ve had arguments with people who did not believe I could be “fully black” with hair as long as mine. I’ve dated men who have obsessed over my skin tone, one beguiled with me being light because he thought it made us “special” and one who condemned me for being light because he thought it made me a sell-out.
I remember, as a child, I thought I was dark because I was treated just as shabbily as the other black kids at my school. I received no perks. I was teased and harassed. I assumed I MUST be dark because I’d heard that light skinned kids caught breaks, that people thought they were pretty and they were popular. Boys liked them and wanted to date them. I wasn’t popular, no one coveted my looks and if I caught breaks I didn’t know it. I walked around with a target on my back for most of my elementary and junior high years. I couldn’t be like the light-skinned girls that everyone wanted to be like. No one was worshipping at my alter.
Then we moved to the so-called “white” end of the school district and the questions began. What are you? Is your father white? How do you get your hair to do that? You can’t be all black. You can only imagine how confused I was. Then one day, sitting next to a friend I considered very light, we put our arms next to each other to compare and I was lighter than her. My entire world was turned upside down. What was I if I weren’t dark like everyone else? How could I be light? I didn’t FEEL like I was treated any nicer. I had few to no friends. Boys were uninterested in me. What good was being “light” if there was no discernable difference between how I was treated and everyone else?
And that’s when I realized that these color values were manufactured. That light was relative to the person sitting next to you and that most of the “she must have it easier” was an illusion. There wasn’t any “easier,” there was only “different.” I had it different from kids darker than me. No one ever told me to stay out of the sun or joked about my undesirableness for being darker. But people did mock my nose and lips, tease me for my voice, accuse me of not being black enough and lash out in occasional jealous anger over things I couldn’t do anything about, like my hair. I still remember the hate and pain in the voice of one girl who screamed that my hair was going to fall out like hers did from over-perming. That hate wasn’t about me, but her own self-loathing. Since then when I was 13, I’ve met plenty of people who took my existence as a personal affront to their own, coming from a place of insecurity and low self-esteem.
Then there was the racism I couldn’t escape. The constant feeling that I was “Anonymous” from Ralph Ellison’s tome “Invisible Man” and that somewhere there were dozens of envelopes mailed out with my name on them and letters inside that said, “Keep that nigger girl running.” This tape still plays in my head as I run through life, wondering who means me well and who is just there to keep me chasing like a rat in a wheel? Trapped by my own fate of being born black and loathed by some for it. There is no better. There’s only different.
I still don’t know what color I am, other than brown, but I also don’t care anymore. If you think I’m light, fine. If you think I’m not light, that’s fine too. I just know I’m black and that has always been fine with me.