The Pain of Colorism

Question: COLORISM. Your friend who is of mixed heritage is becoming more aware of racism and how it effects her friends and family her Black/African. This is new for her and shes trying to figure where she fits and if there’s a place for her in the movement. She starts by just saying hello to random Bruhs & Sistas on the street or at a party and she’s met with the “what are you” looks or just plain ignored. This discourages her. She has been profiled by cops and bank tellers and has felt racism even with her light skin. How do we explain to her what’s happening with Black folk and Colorism?

My answer: Colorism is a form of prejudice whereby folks make assumptions about psychological experiences that light or dark skinned people have experienced, and then treat them as if those perceptions of skin color did in fact occur.  In other words, we assume that those who are light skinned in African and African American communities were treated better by Whites but we never really know unless we form deep and intimate relationships.  It is simplistic to assume that because a person is dark skin that they felt a certain way, or conversely, because a person has lighter skin that they experienced life a certain way.  Of course, we might make generalizations given our historical knowledge of enslavement but to carry these forward into our current thinking minimizes all of the other ways that people experience life; gender, sexual orientation, class, body size, family history, and occupation.

The pain of being rejected or feeling like one is rejected for something that is uncontrollable like skin color, hair texture, or shape of nostrils is extremely painful.   These experiences can be directly linked to African enslavement, where our skin color served as a marker of being a forced laborer and not an “owner”.  Furthermore, the violence used by Whites toward Africans and African Americans tried to ingrain a belief of black inferiority that continues to be associated with our phenotype.

Because of the proliferation of capitalism, and a capitalistic system that requires assigning people to jobs based on skin color, this phenomenon had a ripple effect across many societies.  There continues to be a fallacious assumption that so called higher intelligence can be connected with White skin.  It is curious to me why the violent nature of how Whites historically enslaved others did not become the association, but instead violence became subsumed under a larger social narrative of White superiority.  Historians do little to examine the violent nature of this enslavement but rather imply a history that attributes social progress, as if Whites were inventors and others were carriers of their dreams.  Nevertheless, these historical elements, routed in White supremacist and racist ideologies, leads to ensure greater wealth to Whites while disadvantaging those who are not perceived as white.  Moreover, these relationships based on power and control are then treated as if these categories of difference are natural, uncontested.  Violence, or the threat of violence is used to maintain these purported “racial” social hierarchies, even though we all know that there is nothing real about the term race, given how much our genetic materials have been mixed. These stereotypes and prejudice whereby we assume that Whites should be on top and people of color should be at the bottom of social hierarchies create tremendous amounts of emotional pain, suffering, and it stymies our ability to create, innovate, and solve world problems.

Colorism exists within  some communities of color but its experience should not be entirely confused with the types of racist treatments given to people of color by those with non-melanin skin color.  I am trying to make a careful distinction between racism and colorism, because while I may dislike or mistreat someone who is lighter than me, I  do not have the structural advantages and power afforded to being White.

Within group experiences are qualitatively different than out group experiences.  In the out group experience, a person of color will always be seen and treated as an outside member.  This is why so many White folks are astounded when they first learn about colorism, because to many of them we are all just Black!  The Within group experience has a different meaning as it relates to trust and how close to the center this person might be within the group.  The question of centrality within a group is different than not ever being considered as part of the group.   I believe that there are degrees of acceptance or placement within groups, and this certainly applies to me as a Black gay man, who at times when I am with cisgender heterosexual Black men, I experience a form of “othering.”  My sense is that they recognize me as a Black man but being placed close to the center of the group, I am not.  I am not saying that this is right but rather pointing out how heteropatriarchy may function among cisgender Black men.

Seeking approval solely based on one’s skin color, or being accepted easily into any group by using one visible metric as skin color might be a bit naive.  Approaching others with such superficiality is likely to encounter distrust.   All of us want to belong to groups we believe share our experiences, but belonging to a community will take more than saying hello to bruthas and sistas.  And it may not be entirely fair to reject others when we reject others based on our skin color assumptions….I hope that makes sense.

Would anyone want to be connected to anyone who would reduce their humanity to being judged by their skin color alone?  Many of us would not, and to do so would mean that we chose others in our life based on rudimentary measures without weighing important qualities such as being trust worthy, loving, kind, respectful, moral, and so forth.

Colorism is real it is a within group phenomenon.  Encountering racism and white supremacy is real and painful.   Although we must resist the urge to measure our existence within the confines of bounded categories that were assigned to us as a means to oppress us.  We must reject the white supremacist ideal that ultimately seeks to constrict our gender, sexual being, our cultural, and the confluence of all of those things that make up who we are.  If your friend wants to be a part of the movement, reflecting on the history of racism, power differentials, and understanding how these impact both within group and outgroup experiences might provide another framework to contextualize their experience.

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