By Briana Whiteside
On January 10, 2014 Oprah’s Life class aired a segment dedicated to colorism among women of color, more specifically, among African American women. They were having the right conversation (colorism plagues large numbers of us), but the discussion may have inadequately treated the complexity of the subject.
As noted on the segment, “Colorism happens when people of color discriminate against one another. It often boils down to the belief that the lighter your skin tone, the prettier you are, smarter you are, more successful you are and the easier you have it.” Agreed. But the show operated under a different guise.
It is not just a light skin, dark skin debate. It should be a conversation about various shades of black. The women on the show who “identified” as light skinned were not, they were LIGHTER THAN. Meaning they were lighter than some of the darker women on the show, but not stereotypically “bright skinned” or “red bones.” While I sympathize with their experience of being lighter toned and having to live with the stigma of being “stuck up” because of it, I do not completely buy the equalized notion that they have it just as hard as darker women.
The general consensus on the show was that we have similar experiences because we are black in America. This is true in some respects; however, being racially or ethnically black is just the icing on the cake. My experiences are not always the experiences of the lighter hued women, just as her experiences are not the ones of darker hued women. Yes, we are black, women, and American, yet, our experiences based on colored tones are not synonymous.
We need to have the conversation that includes attention to the various shades of skin color within African American communities. Recognition should be given to the women who may be the color of the brown paper bag, a shade lighter, slightly darker than that, or darker. There’s a reason we have so many names for black people of different colors—light-brown skin, brown skin, caramel, chocolate, mocha, toffee, dark chocolate, dark-brown skin. Our communities have long understood, at least implicitly, the complexity of color.
We have the proclivity, in some public conversations, to only focus on light and dark, perhaps the way we sometimes only focus on black or white, and assume it stops there. But of course, there’s more to consider. There are those of us who do not identify with either shade and as a result we are left fighting for a spot on the side where we really do not belong.
Briana Whiteside is a graduate student in English at SIUE and a contributing writer for the Cultural Front.