I’m trying to understand why I identify myself as just black when I am mixed. This writing is just me trying to unfold my blackness and navigating my racial identity. This is also a discourse on colorism and its relationship to black culture, racial identity, and racism.
Growing up in the suburbs in a diverse but segregated town, your experiences as a black person is interesting, to say the least. My mother is mixed white and black, and my father is black and Native American. In school, I would always proudly tell the people who asked, all of what I know to be my ethnic background. One reason was because I knew being part white was something that was liked by my white and black peers.
One day in high-school I was hanging out with Allison (name changed for anonymity), and her mother called to see where she was at. She had told her “I’m hanging out with Lakota”, her mother then said “Lakota?, you’re hanging out with a black person?”, and she said “No mom, she’s half white”. In that moment, I remember being uncomfortable, but I was happy that I had a little bit of this *whiteness* because now I could hang out with her without her getting in trouble by her mom.
I had several of these same experiences from elementary school to high school ,with my white friends parents not wanting me around because I was black, and I naively thought that this little bit of whiteness that I had would be enough for their approval.
I also knew that outside of just white people, my black male peers loved the idea of a mixed girl. Sometimes before they asked me my name, they asked ” what are you?”. I can’t say that back then I didn’t love the attention that my racially ambiguous features gave me. I felt like being ‘mixed’ gave me this higher status, opposed to being just being black. I hate that I am writing this, but this is the truth. I knew that I had a privileges because I was light skin. I knew that I didn’t have to deal with any jokes about being too dark, or having “nappy hair”. All I had to do was make sure I stayed out of the sun in the summer time and I would be free from bullying and torment.
Every day on the bus in elementary school they would make fun of this one kid who was dark skin, every single day; He would laugh back, and make jokes, but I couldn’t imagine how he felt when he went home. I knew the feeling of wanting to peel your skin, I knew the feeling of wanting to wash the tan off, and I knew that nothing hurt worst then your own people cutting you.
I didn’t know the term colorism until college, but already felt its plague. Colorism runs so deep in my community, and I know that because it ran so deep through me. Sometimes I think people don’t understand the strength of its grip and it’s complexity. The way a new born baby would be born and you would hear “check the ears”. A signifier in the black community of how dark a baby would be. How terrible. And I know some would ask how colorism has affected me as a ‘light skin’ woman, and would try to measure its affect in comparison to a dark skin woman; I know that my experience is just a drop in the bucket.
Colorism by definition is complexion dominated but detailed with other attributes such as hair length, hair texture, eye color, body type, etc. Colorism is about proximity to whiteness. The closer your features are to Eurocentric beauty standards, the more ‘attractive’ you are. This mentality has permeated so deeply into the way that we think about beauty, class, and value- that it is a pathological overburden among our community. The most recent example that I can think of is when I was at the Dominicans and this girl walks in and asks how much it would cost for a wash and set. They asked her to remove her scarf, and then began fondling with her hair. I was cringing in my chair just watching. The owner charged her $40 (for what should have been $25) because her hair texture was coarse, and tightly coiled. Dominican hair salons have also been known to put chemical relaxers into their conditioner without the knowledge of their clients- pushing the standard of beauty to one that is anti-black. I as a woman with a looser curl pattern, have never experienced something like that. Being light skin you have to understand the privileges you have because of your skin tone and/or hair texture. Saying “we’re all black” is silencing, is dismissive, and invalidates the experience of dark skin people who suffer under colorism. As a light skin person it is important to call out colorism and to be honest about your privilege. We have a responsibility to our community to dismantle these falsified stereotypes in the capacity in which we can. For example, we hear a lot of black men say that they prefer light skin women over dark skin women. This *preference* is rooted in colorism, racism, and white supremacy and should be called out as so. The trend to be with someone who is ‘foreign’, is not a new thing, it just has a new name, and black men 99% of the time are not talking about ‘foreign’ they’re talking about anything other than just black. If you know that your partner would not be with you if you were dark skin, you need to cancel them. This fetishization is what led me to the creation of this blog. I am exhausted of men asking me “what are you?“. As genuine as the question can be, it always comes off as just a ploy to feed their own fantasy of exoticism. If I am being ‘pedestalled’ or ‘chosen’ for my light-skin, it is not at all endearing, it is insulting.
Being light skin, and your race not being a thing that can be read easily, it is a tiring thing. People constantly wanting to know ‘what you are’, telling you what you ‘look like’ , disputing your identity, and doubting what you say you are. I hate this idea that I am somehow ‘less black’ because I am more privileged- whether it be because of skin tone or social class. I think that is something that I struggle with – trying to find the language to articulate how weighing it is for my own kind to constantly ridicule or diminish my blackness because they still view light-skin as ‘less black’.
I know that my privilege as a light skin woman has afforded me more opportunities because white people can somehow identify better with those whose skin approximates their own. It is seen historically, that light-skin slaves who were ‘almost white’, pushed the abolitionist movement because white people could sympathize with them. Being ‘light skin’ was evidence of rape and sexual abuse that slaves had to endure. I think that I identify as black because of this reason. The white in my family, like it is in most black families, does not come from love, but from rape. There is nothing ‘cool’ or exotic about that.
The “one drop rule” has definitely played a part in the way that I identify. I remember watching movies like Queen and understanding the way that blackness/whiteness is interpreted in this country. The one drop rule was the way in which this country forcibly made ‘mixed’ or ‘mulatto’ people identify with only black- and to group them with their ‘subordinate’ race regardless of their genetic makeup. The way the one drop rule shows up for me is in generations of women in my family who went by this rule, not because it was the law, but because they didn’t want to be white- and they didn’t have a choice anyway. No one in my family identifies as part white, even though it may be in our blood. In writing this, I feel a deep pain in realizing that my grandmother could not and would not identify with whiteness, and in a way couldn’t identify with blackness either. To live your whole life as ‘other’, and to never know your lineage on either end, and to not feel fully connected or even welcomed by both races, has to make you feel a deep sense of incompleteness.
“Ironically, when a black American sister (or anyone for that matter) puts me, or other ethnic women of this society in the same category with the socially dominant White American Woman on the basis of lighter-than-black skin color, she is in fact denying my history, my culture, my identity, my very being, my pain and my struggle.”- Mirtha Quintanales
We learn that we have ‘bad hair’ from the first time we remember getting our hair done. I remember crying every time my mom tried to put a comb through my hair. I vividly remember one day in elementary school looking at this white girls hair and thinking, ” why couldn’t I just have their hair?”, and I asked my mom that question when I got home, and she looked at me crazy and said “you don’t want their hair”. LMAO. Still funny. But I still couldn’t help but see the connection between me needing to get my hair permed before school started, and white people hair. I mean if my hair is good the way it is, why am I suffering getting perms all the time? This is what I mean by colorism being about proximity to whiteness, or Eurocentric standards. Growing up as a black child you already know what ‘good hair’ is, and what colorism is. The whispers of it being too thick and too coarse. As child you experience things that you feel are wrong, but can’t understand why it is. There were so many emotions I had around being black that I didn’t have words for. I don’t believe that I was some ‘enlightened’ or ‘consciously aware’ child, more than the average black child, my experiences, my feelings, and my thoughts are shared ones. I first realized this when I was watching the ‘doll test’ experiment where black and white children were asked to choose between two dolls. One doll was white, and one doll was black. In this experiment they had to choose which doll was the pretty one, and which doll was the smartest one. Both children almost always chose the white doll as the pretty and smart one despite the dolls being identical in features, only different in skin tone. This experiment attests to my story of how colorism afflicts the mind of young children at such an early age- with no clear answer of why they believe the white doll to be smarter and prettier. There is something in our culture that is anti-black, and it is rampant and undeniable; and at its worst it is shaping the minds of our children to hate themselves- and love their white oppressor.
I see my own people not as oppressors, but as accomplices to oppression by our unwittingly passing on to our children and our friends the oppressors ideologies. I know that I spent that most of my time as an adolescent hating my skin tone, and I know that I projected that same self hatred onto my own peers. I cannot discount the role that I’ve played as an accomplice to oppression; I can only acknowledge and hold myself responsible for the way that I’ve used my words to uphold racist and colorist creed, unknowingly or knowingly.
” I write because I am scared of writing but I’m more scared of not writing.”
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