On Sunday evening this past week, CNN aired a special hosted by Soledad O'Brien called Who Is Black in America? On Colorism and Racial Identity. I usually keep my TV tuned into CNN most of the time and just happened to catch the special. It was an odd coincidence that earlier that same day, I was having a discussion with my Mom about this same pressing issue. My mother gets tired of hearing me talk about it, but when I was younger I was bullied and rejected by a number of black girls in my neighborhood and in school.
Before I tell you my personal story, let's take a moment and define the term Colorism.
Colorism refers to a form of prejudice or discrimination in which human beings are treated differently based on the social meanings attached to skin color. (Wikipedia)
In the Black community it is a form of intra-racism in which dark skinned blacks contend with light skinned blacks over a myriad of issues the one most important being the shades of our skin color. Colorism stems all the way back from the era of slavery when dark skinned blacks were treated differently than light skinned blacks. Many field slaves were darker skinned and many house slaves were lighter skinned and that was the birth of the divide between us as one race. That disparity grew much wider throughout the years when light skinned blacks would pass as white and become opportunists in their approach to enrolling in colleges and universities as well as applying for places of employment. The rates of pay given to lighter skinned blacks was more compared to darker skinned blacks.
Fast forward to 2012, the CNN special discussed the same exact disparities and major inequalities between African Americans. I will be very honest, this show brought to the forefront a lot of issues that I was not aware was still happening in America. There was one girl by the name of Becca who was a lightskinned black that was actually passing for White by checking her race as White on her college applications. That stunned me that in 2012 there are still light skinned blacks passing for white. Why? I know racism still exists and I know that colorism also exists. I believe strongly that race relations have moved in a better direction now than it has 20 or 30 years ago. I also believe that the racial gap has closed more as well and I'm not just saying this because we have a Black President, but because empirical data and studies suggests that there are more interracial marriages and relationships growing more and more each year. There are also more Black-owned businesses and Black entrepreneurs now than in year's past. Again this is not to say that racism is exempt or non-existent, but you cannot argue with the fact that things are still much better than they were several decades ago. However, is it really necessary to pass in 2012? Why is this still happening?
Stories like the Trayvon Martin case and several young Black men and women being unjustifiably killed or raped because of the color of their skin strikes me to the core and not only reminds me that the ugliness of racism still exists, but tells me that there is so much more work to do. We have got to stop dividing ourselves and we need to work diligently to uplift, encourage, and support one another more now than ever.
I will tell you my own personal story of colorism, which is not conformed to the traditional and historical mindset of colorism among African Americans. I am a light skinned Black female. As a child, I grew up in a diverse city filled with people of all nationalities and I am grateful for that. My exposure to several different cultures as a child, is what has allowed me to be the well-rounded, down-to-earth, and eccentric individual I am today. In my experience however, I was not discriminated against dark skinned girls, I was hated and loathed by light skinned girls.
Bizarre right? But it's absolutely true.
I can recall at least five light skinned girls who bullied me and belittled me in junior high and high school. The most bizarre part about it, these girls were either my same complexion or lighter. I started to develop my own complex and even discriminatory feelings towards light skinned girls. I thought all of them hated me. As a result, I wanted to be dark skinned and most of my girlfriends were darker skinned girls. Sometimes I felt rejected by a few dark skinned girls who thought I was stuck up or prudish, but I wanted to be their friend. There was a year in high school where I felt completely rejected by both light and dark skinned girls. When I tried to befriend white girls they also turned me away. I truly became an outcast and felt dejected and hopeless.
However, things picked back up when I enrolled in my first year of college. I attended an HBCU in Norfolk, VA and was introduced to a large circle of intelligent, authentic, positive Black women who was in touch with their racial identity and embraced all cultures. My antagonistic feelings towards light skinned girls melted away and I became close friends with many of them. Attending an African American college also helped me stand firm in my own racial identity and love me for me, no matter what the patterns of the world dictated to my external environment. In high school I was never introduced to great Black filmmakers like Oscar Michaeux or empowering Black politicians like Shirley Chisholm.
Now that I am in my thirties and college is now just a fond memory, I realize that I am still on a journey to learn more and more each day about my Blackness and my culture. I believe being Black has become quite progressive and for me I define my Blackness not necessarily by the color of my skin, but my eclectic tastes in other cultures including my own. I like anime and sushi (from Asia), I like listening to Sting & The Police (from Europe), and I like having my hair braided (from Africa).
Soledad O'Brien asked the pressing question, what makes someone Black?
I am multifaceted with my cultural tastes and interests of several cultures including my own and for me, that's what makes me Black.