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My Truth: 4 Things I Wish My Parents Would Have Taught Me About Colorism

Posted on 0 5 m read

Feature Image: @ravenelysetv
Article By: Samantha Matthews

When I was about eight years old, I remember my father telling me this little rhyme that he regularly heard when he was around my age:

If you’re white, you’re all right.

If you’re brown, you can hang around,

But if you’re black, you’d better get back.

When I first heard this rhyme from my father I didn’t understand the middle line at all. To me, all black people, though we were called “blacks,” were actually some varied shade of brown, and back then I thought that there were no true “black” people, so my entire race should be able to “hang around” (ah, the naivety of youth!) anywhere we wanted to.  So, of course, it took me many years to understand what this little rhyme was about.  Now that I’m grown, I understand that the middle line of the rhyme shows the still-prevailing idea that lighter-skinned black people are accepted in society far more than darker-skinned blacks, and the term to best describe this would be colorism.

In the 1983 publication Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, acclaimed black feminist author Alice Walker describes colorism as “prejudiced or preferential treatment of people based solely on their color.”  Not only is colorism prevalent in society at large, but it also seems to be the most prevalent in communities of color, and yet colorism is an issue that the Black community often seems shy to address. 

However, as significant of issue racism is, colorism also desperately needs to be addressed, as it is a severe plague that can cause our communities to weaken and destroy themselves from the inside out. To be able to combat colorism, let’s examine four things that the black community needs to know about colorism:

1. Colorism Stems From Slavery

When our black ancestors were slaves in America, the slave masters wanted to try to divide the Black race so we could never band together and revolt against them.  So the slave masters decided to assign work according to the color of their slaves’ skin.  The darker-skinned slaves were made to work outdoors tending crops in the hot sun, while the lighter-skinned slaves worked in the house, and there is where the color division began.  The dark-skinned slaves started to resent their lighter brothers and sisters who were able to escape hard labor, and many of the light-skinned slaves looked down on darker slaves because being lighter rewarded in preferential treatment. 

The black community needs to know the origins of colorism; many blacks who discriminate due to skin color do not know the racist history of this practice and how it was used as a weapon to keep black people from uniting. Unfortunately, the colorism weapon is proving just as sharp today as it was 200 years ago. If black communities regularly taught the history of colorism, it is likely that many will understand that skin color discrimination is continuing a practice created solely to divide and weaken our communities.

2. Colorism Often Starts at Home

Even though Black people are now free, the slavery mindset of colorism seems to be alive and well in our own homes.  The leaders of black communities should find the colorism problem very alarming and speak out against it. Many parents give preferential treatment to fairer-skinned children, while often making deprecating comments about their children’s darker skin tones.  This toxic behavior is a huge danger as it can promote a spirit of inequality within our community.  Lighter-skinned young people could grow up feeling an undeserved sense of superiority over others, while darker-skinned youngsters could grow up hating their appearance.

This can, in extreme cases,  lead them to consider unhealthy practices like skin bleaching, which has unfortunately become very common with some of our brothers and sisters in many African countries.  Black communities need to realize the evils of discriminating against our brothers and sisters’ skin color. After all, it was our great MLK who envisioned a world where people would be judged due to the content of their character, and not the color of their skin, and by discriminating within our community, we are disrespecting Dr. King’s legacy.

3. Black People of All Shades Experience Negativity From Colorism

Though it may seem that colorism negatively affects our darker-complexioned brothers and sisters the most, light-skinned people also face negative repercussions of colorism.  For example, lighter-skinned black men are regularly stereotyped as overly sensitive and soft, and light-skinned women are often stereotyped as arrogant and self-centered.  As a light-skinned woman myself, I can’t remember how many times I have been approached by men, and if I refused their advances, I was called a “stuck-up yellow-bone,” or told something like, “you light-skinned bitches always think you’re too good for everybody.”

Other people have assumed that I must have a more comfortable life just because of my skin tone alone, and these types of assumptions can be quite detrimental to the community.  It is essential for the black community to explore the negative repercussions that all black people experience with colorism, and if we want to eliminate it, our community has to become fully aware how every single member of our community is negatively affected by it.

4. Colorism Will Soon Become a Bigger Issue Than Racism

As the world is becoming more globalized and people from every nation of the world are living in America, children born from interracial unions are growing more and more common.  One of the terms for many of these mixed-race children is “racially ambiguous,” meaning that it is nearly impossible to put them in one racial box or another simply from appearances alone (Mariah Carey, Meghan Markle, Tiger Woods comes to mind).  People now have the option to put “mixed-race” down on census forms and job interviews, making it much harder to discriminate by race alone.

However, it is still very possible to discriminate by skin color, and as it is becoming harder and harder to label people in one specific racial box, skin color alone is going to take center stage as to how people are judged and treated in society at large.  This reason is also the main reason why colorism must be eliminated in the black community. As it will be all but impossible for any community to survive and thrive with the same problem attacking the community from both the inside and the outside. However, the black community will not be in the position to properly combat colorism until our communities become properly educated about colorism and all of its ugly heads.  

Colorism is a serious issue that has been a poison in communities of color for years. This poison will continue to kill our communities from within unless it is adequately understood and addressed.  Black people must educate themselves about the history of this discriminatory practice, and understand how colorism often starts at home. They also must learn how colorism hurts every single person in communities of color, and we must train ourselves to live in a society where colorism is becoming more and more prevalent. We as a community must come together and speak out when we see colorism in our communities and keep promoting messages within our community that all shades of blackness are equally beautiful and should be equally celebrated.

Do you think Colorism is a big issue? Share your thoughts in the comments below!


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