Oct 5th, 2018, 01:57 PM

My Acceptable Blackness

By Michelah Desnai
How much does my melanin offend you?


People of color face battles everyday that are neither seen nor understood. Everyday in the black community, black peoples' worth and ability is equated with the amount of melanin in their skin. Image Credit: Shutterstock/Gorbash Varvara

On a Friday night in the suburbs of Virginia, I am kneeling next to my television set turning the dial trying to find something to watch while eating my TV dinner and drinking Arizona tea. As my older cousins run through the house half dressed, looking for the perfect outfit, I suddenly notice that my eldest cousin goes into the bathroom one shade of brown and comes out another. When they finally leave, I go into the bathroom and shuffle through the mess trying to figure out what could have made my cousin darker. In the rubble I find a small container of sparkly bronzer. I lock myself in the bathroom and try the product out for myself. When I walk out of the bathroom, I run into my grandmother, who pauses and looks at me and says, “I’m not in the mood for one of your shows tonight, Michelah.” My reputation for dramatics saves me from a long lecture if my grandmother had otherwise found out that I was questioning my complexion.  

In January 2018, the popular Youtube show Black Chat London released an episode called "I prefer my lighties" where black men and women discuss the issues of colorism. The show's main proposition was that being lighter skinned means being closer to white which is something that is considered more desirable. In the episode, it seemed that the black women were burdened with the task of explaining the issues of colorism to the black men. In the episode, which featured no light skinned women, the discussion was centered on how darker hued people feel about the presence of lighter skinned women in their community. 

Camille Davis is a lighter skinned black woman attending the University of Paris studying Global Communications. Image Credit: Michelah Desnai 

The term "colorism" was coined by Alice Walker, as “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color.” Kimberly Jade Norwood published an article in the Washington Global Studies Law Review called, “If You is White, You's Alright ' Stories About Colorism in America." The article discusses Norwood's experience with colorism in other countries and America. Norwood explains that colorism has plagued the African American Community in America since the 1600s. Many white Americans are not aware of the issue because, historically, it was a concept that didn't and doesn't plague the white community at all. The basis of colorism derives from slavery, where sexual unions between the enslaved and their owners created lighter skinned black people. The lighter skinned black slaves were preferred by the white community and mulattoes became a buffer class between the black and white community. The lighter skinned slaves were also awarded more "glamorous" jobs, such as working in the house, which allowed the lighter skinned slaves to feel closer to power and on a higher pedestal while the darker skinned slaves felt powerless. This type of powerless power struggle created tensions within the black community that can still be seen today. 

The idea that light skinned black Americans lead better lives simply because they have less melanin is a very skewed way of thinking. In the 'Slave Narratives', the edited collection of first-person accounts of slavery, Charity Anderson, a house slave, recalls her experience in Mobile, Alabama. Charity is described as a "Mulatto Darky" in the narrative and she explains that her job in the house was mostly taking care of the children and their clothing. She also recalled that she had a good master but relates seeing other slave owners allow dogs to tear their field slave apart. Like Charity, lighter skinned slaves were allowed to do less gruesome and tedious jobs but the jobs they were given made them more susceptible to other types of abuse. Being closer to slave owners made them more likely to be used for sex comfort. Also, the pressure of being around whiteness created a second type of captivity and also a false sense of superiority. Having to continually hide who you were, dressed in European clothes, and being right under the master's eye put the lighter skinned slaves in a different type of slavery. This was increased by the separation and the animosity shown towards them by others on the plantation as well as the rest of slave community. This type of societal arc put light skinned people in a limbo within their race: a limbo that still exists in the black community today. 

Adrienne Cuffley is a darker skinned black woman in her first of graduate school at the American University of Paris. Image Credit: Michelah Desnai  

In today’s society being light skinned is seen as a privilege; it has even become a way to characterize individuals and their actions. #teamdarkskinned #teamlightskinned has in many ways become a part of the culture. From Twitter hashtags to Youtube videos exploring which team is more desirable, the topic is far from taboo. In the rapper Drake's song "Child's Play," the lyrics say  "They say I'm actin light skinned I can't take you anywhere" implying that light skinned people have the ability to act freely because they are not under as much scrutiny as darker skinned black people. Many people believe that light skinned people have what’s called “light skinned privilege,” which means that their lives are easier because they are acceptably black. Their light skin doesn't create the same reactions that darker skin tones provoke. These ideas are true; there is a type of privilege that comes along with being light skinned. 

I personally have been awarded certain privileges in life because of my light skin. I believe being light skinned has allowed me to get as far as I have in life without as much resistance as a darker skinned person would have received. At the same time I also feel that my skin tone has created a separation between me and the black community. It allows people to assume that I would automatically fall into the white community and find acceptance there. However, I do not feel that is where I and many other light skinned people belong; it leaves us in identity limbo. 

In the Youtube episode of Black Chat, a darker skinned black man looks into the camera and says, "Light skinned women are very ignorant." This man was able to generalize a whole group of people with a less melanin in their skin, based on community beliefs. Sometimes I feel there is a certain shame that comes along with having light skin. No, I wasn't called “burnt roach,” or monkey when I was bullied; I was called yellow and half breed. Though my bullying didn't involve the same insults as a darker skinned woman, it was in many ways traumatic. The types of bullying I endured didn’t make me accept my blackness but it perhaps it went someway to helping me accept myself. It made me create a space for myself, because I felt there wasn’t one. In many ways, I identified with those house slaves standing on the wall putting on a face that would evoke the right reactions. Around whiteness, I felt myself embracing complete blackness in order for them to see me as black instead of minimizing my blackness in order to accept me. In the black crowd, I found myself trying to minimize myself around darker women in order for them to be able to shine. When they were picked for something instead of me, I told myself I didn’t deserve it. 

Being acceptably black has its benefits, but there is a struggle here that many people will never know about. I'm not writing this article to elicit sympathy for light skinned women. I want to raise awareness for a struggle that is too often over-looked. Light skinned women have a black experience that is unique from the dark skinned black experience. Though society sees us differently, the struggle is the same. Privilege always comes with sacrifice and freedom exists despite the absence of acceptance. Light skinned black women should be accepted for who they are and their struggles within the black community must be recognised.