PostRacialist

Light, Bright and Still Black (Unconventional Wisdom)

Belton Family PhotoHow 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?

More after the jump.

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.

———

Agree? Disagree? Respond below! Also, read the rest of the series here or if you want to write your own “Unconventional Wisdom” piece, check out the other topic ideas here.

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55 thoughts on “Light, Bright and Still Black (Unconventional Wisdom)

  1. LittleBear says:

    Light, Bright and Still Black (Unconventional Wisdom)On occasion people write about being a "light skinned" black person or about not being an "African-American". They usually all make the same mistake of confusing the sociological and region specific definition of "race" with it’s genetic counterpart which is better referred to as "breed." The most annoying part is when people who are otherwise extremely observant and intelligent, lose their cool when confronted with the clear contradictions used in their discussion of the subject matter. The latest of this would be the Black Snob.Black Snob posted a piece entitled: Light, Bright and Still Black (Unconventional Wisdom) . It starts badly: 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.Now the first and major contradiction of the post is that if you’ve seen her Twitter icon, she is in fact light skinned. How she looks herself dead in the face and comes away with such a clear contradictory conclusion is not for me to explain. BUt her explanation does clue the reader in to how this tortured thinking manages to surface.The Snob doesn’t give us an age range for the "I didn’t know" declaration but given the relatively brief experience I’ve had with child raising in which the child was quite a bit lighter than both of us (his father is light, his mother is not), at 4 he was very much aware that he was light skinned, and made a point of stating that he wished he was darker. I point this out to really put a lie to the oft repeated notion that kids don’t notice skin color (among other things). They may not make commentary on it, but they do notice these things. And yes, people (and kids) will gladly point out your differences to you if the situation calls for it (teasing etc.) irrespective of color since for every "yella" joke, there are multiple "You-so-black" jokes, the contradiction of which ought to be a study in and of itself. For the life of me I cannot understand the logic of dissing a black person by saying their momma is so black as if a black person’s momma was not supposed to be black. But that’s not the point here. What The Snob sets out in this paragraph is to define "black" as some amorphous thing all of which is relative to "white". Note her references to paper bags, the milky coffee, the "too dark to be" references. They all define "blackness" as a thing relative to whiteness. Ergo she is black because she fails to fall into the category of whiteness.By doing this she simply re-affirms the concept of a white pureness, untainted by blackness, and of a blackness that is a mix of everything. Something that could easily be written by a Grand Wizard of the Klan. Not that she’s Klanish, but the sentiment is almost as old as the country itself: blackness as a "mongrellzed" and "bastardized" and "unrefined" group wholly apart from pure whiteness (of Teutonic, Aryan or Saxon descent). As if to re-enforce her commitment to this white supremacist definition of whiteness The Snob continues: 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?Lets take the initial sentence: All of this though is irrelevant as no matter what you look like, in America, if you’re black you are black.Well in America as oppose to Brazil, which she contrasts, there is the idiotic and thoroughly white supremacist idea of the "One Drop Rule". The entire purpose of the One Drop Rule is to re-enforce the concept of white purity and prior to the passage of the 14th Amendment, to ensure that white peoples bred property (that being the babies the ‘masters" created) were still property, capable of being bought and sold. The One Drop Rule was not created by black folk for their own benefit. It wasn’t created to create some manner of black unity. No it was simply a means of legally enforcing a racial caste system. A system that exist until this very day and remains unchallenged by the very people it has been created to marginalize. Let’s look at the Brazilian system:The Brazilian system was motivated by the ideas as the American one. However because of the vast numbers of Native Americans in that area of the world and the relatively small numbers of whites, that area of the world had to develop a system that included natives and the varied "breeds" you’d come across. Also, Portugal and spain has a history with black folk prior to the slave trade that reflected in varied "kinds" of white people there that are clearly mixed. So it is unsurprising that they would institute a system that placed higher value on those who were higher up the "white scale" and that recognized varying levels of mixture. The motive was still the same: white on top and black on the bottom. except in this case there is a significant incentive to "move up." by "breeding up" as it is put, because it had (and has) a direct relationship to one and one’s children’s ability to move up in society.Mind you, in America the same thing operates, but on an largely unspoken level, an idea that occasionally breaks cover in Hip Hop interviews and songs disrespecting black women and such "sly" references to the innate beauty of light skinned babies. The relatively high premium placed on light skinned African-American women is undeniable. The common wish of African-American women to have girl children with "good hair" (you know, for combing) is well known. So is the common hope that the babies aren’t too dark (whatever that means). But I digress and besides The Snob does cover some of this ground in her piece. This is America, where Rev. Jeremiah Wright, an unapologetically black man, is a dead ringer for white man and former Republican Bob Barr. Well Rev. Wright, isn’t black. No offense intended and he knows it and has commented upon it which has been aired a number of times. But what is more important is that it is entirely possible that Bob Barr isn’t exactly all that "white" either since we do know that every now and then those able to pass, did so, in which case their children would be labelled "white" upon birth. And there are a lot of white families with cases like that. Many simply do not know it. 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.Well actually recent research underscores that which we’ve known for a long time: Light skinned "African-Americans" are assumed to be more intelligent than dark skinned African-Americans. That includes racist, who have always enjoyed pointing out that the brightest "negroes" were mixed, as well as other black people. I won’t even get into the fact that aside from sports, most of the earliest black "firsts" were those who were not so black. Think that an accident and I know a couple of bridges across the East River I’d like to interest you in. Even Good Morning America’s
    latest Doll Experiment showed how early the ideas of negative references to blackness develop in children.But in any case let me get at the heart of the problem with The Snob’s piece: After spending so much time delineating the issue of colorism in African-American communities she still doesn’t get it: I’ve had arguments with people who did not believe I could be "fully black" with hair as long as mine. Well see I’m not going to get into singular phenotypes, but the long relatively straight hair is, generally a dead giveaway that one is mixed. You’ll note I said "relatively straight" not "relatively curly." had I used the latter term then I would have made straight hair "normative". Other dead giveaways are hazel eyes, green eyes and light skin and generally…generally, narrow noses. It’s not hard to tell. Look, the fact is that the vast majority of African-Americans originate from West Africa, from the Ngola region (current Angola) up through Senegal. We know what these people look like. Those are the originals. You wanna know how far off the mark you are, just do a quick comparison (and pay no attention to body shape or height). The fact of the matter is that while all black people are African-American (generally speaking), not all African-Americans are black. African-Americans are in a sense an ethnic group in America which I think directly contradicts the claim made be The Snob. It has a shared history and a general shared sub-culture in America. That is the reason why a Rev. Wright, Adam Clayton Powell, and Thurgood Marshall can be considered "black" as in African-American just the same as Clarence Thomas, even though many of us would prefer to relieve ourselves of him.Unlike the claim made by The Snob, that "lightness" is some random scale, it isn’t. There are clear genetic codings that are responsible for it that are directly tied to ones parentage and lineage. What is random and mutable are the attitudes that The Snob discusses. These attitudes are also my reasoning for being more and more clear about who and what is "black" and "white". Had those things been clear, such thing The Snob experienced would never have happened. Why compare skin color with a white classmate if you both understand and acknowledge that you both share common and recent ancestors? But The Snob doesn’t quite get it. If she had instead of writing: Trapped by my own fate of being born black and loathed by some for it. There is no better. There’s only different.she would have written: Trapped of my own fate of being born mixed and loathed by some for it. There is no better. there’s only different.That 4 year old who wished he was dark? I never fell into telling him he was black. That would have been telling him to lie to himself. Rather I let him know that there was nothing wrong with him. He’s different and that it was OK. We loved him just as much. Hopefully he’ll not be writing a piece like The Snob. Or if he does it won’t get defensive about what people rightfully observe but instead simply state what it is, is what it is. He wont add to the confusion, rather he’ll just tell it like it is. And we’d all be better off.

  2. Calpurnia says:

    iTS A shame were still having this conversation. I don’t like modern media (tv videos etc) because theyre so shallow–where is the Cicely Tyson types? I know that white men tend to marry them more anyway. Another reason other whites tend to favor the lighter skinned girls, it could be their cousins (2/3 of white families today have black/white unions in them)many white men who have half black kids tend to accept them as theirs (because of their name) since it worked with other ethnicities. depending on the ‘phenotype’, as white..I think dark skinned sisters need to stay away from all black constructs anyway.

  3. Robin Love says:

    I decided to google unconventional wisdom and ran across the photo above. I love vintage photos and so clicked on it. I quickly noticed the article written underneath the photo and began reading with curiosity. Wow! What a great read! As I read on I became engrossed in the moment. Engrossed? Where did that come from? Well I was! As I read the experiences of this writer and the many examples laid out I couldn't help but feel a heaviness as well as an irritation. I can't even imagine what this would be like! But what I can do is share my feelings after reading. I have lived my own nightmare and wouldn't wish it on anyone, but I can tell you that this would be annoying at best, and a heartbreak or lving nightmare I wouldn't want to go through! At times I almost felt claustrophobic like crawling out of my skin even thinking of the countless dynamics going on inside of someone having to deal with all this nonsense. We have so many things as human beings to experience, why do we insist on creating such turmoil for ourselves and others? We are surrounded by so much beauty and have been given such an incredible landscape to live in. I am so thankful to be alive during such an exciting time in our country, in our world. I believe we are headed towards a remarkable future where we can all enjoy our lives and celebrate our different experiences. For those still hung up on all this "stuff" I say to you there is another world out there. It is wonderful, it is beautiful, it is free…it is LOVE. Love for ourselves and love for others. It is free from judgment and accepting. It feels good. It feels light and happy and joyful; it feels free. I'm so glad I came across this blog and look forward to reading more from this blogger and others through this blog. Thank you for sharing these experiences and writing such a powerful piece. Thank you for giving me a moments glimpse into someone else's world experience without having to carry the negative baggage and do the hard work to overcome it. As we share one another's burdens we heal and become aware of our connection. As with any hardship, victimization, trauma, abuse, or the like, we can turn it into a positive which sounds to me like the writer has done just that! Bravo!Love & LightNamaste'Robin's HeartP. S. Great photo!

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