Classifying the “other” is sadly an American tradition. It’s the ugly truth that has shaped our country to date. From the infancy of our country to today’s world, we dice society based on everything from our wealth to our religious affiliation. For women of color, skin tone takes a front-and-center role. Let’s look at five truths that black women are forced to face.
1. Does “Black” Truly Define Me?
For centuries skin tone has defined both how we see ourselves and the way we classify others. It has shaped the way we define beauty and is in no way isolated to any one culture. This thinking has manifested and attached itself onto the psyche of people of color everywhere. As a black woman in the United States, I fully understand the ramifications of this thinking. Even in the midst of writing this article I chuckle at the word “Black.” There are so many shades of Black or African American that “black” does not even correctly describe what I, or the next person of color, really represents.
Living in a country that still asks job applicants to identify their ethnicity tells me that America will always be classified by color versus its inherent Americanism. Black men and women will always be exactly that: Black. Regardless of the shade, any trace of black blood will default the person to being black. Sounds a little like the Jim Crow laws that divided America with rules like the “one-drop rule” that defined a person as “black” if they had even a single drop of “black blood.” If you look at a mixed race man or woman who is half European and half Asian, you don’t just say he or she is one or the other, you say mixed race. However, no one ever says President Obama is the first mixed race president — they always say he is the first “black” president. We have such a wide variety of shades, due to the mixture of our ancestors and their slave owners’ blood. You cannot make an assumption of a persons ethnicity, based on skin color alone. After all, that “black” person you are talking to could be half Korean, French, Spanish, etc for all you know. I have no problem ever acknowledging that I am black. But I feel that is for me to define, not others.
2. The Skin Tone Battle for Black Women Highlights The Brutal Realities of Slavery
In the times of slavery, slaves were divided based on skin color alone. The light skinned or bi-racial slaves were given preferential treatment simply because they appeared less like the dark skinned slaves and more like the fair skinned slave owners. Now, here we are in 2015, and the debate about skin tone is still more prevalent than ever. We see it everywhere. Countless studies show social discrepancies on the basis of skin tone alone — darker-skinned black women are likely to serve a longer jail sentence than light-skinned black women (study) and, with that said, lighter-skinned blacks are several times more likely to be seen as more intelligent than dark-skinned black people (study).
Now, think about how many times you have watched music videos and seen nothing but women who appear to be light skinned or multiracial in the forefront of the video. Better yet, how about the number of times the “villain” in a movie or TV show has darker skin than the “hero”? Imagery is a very powerful thing especially to young influential minds. What does that say to a young girl who is dark skinned when she sees no one who looks like her deemed as beautiful, strong or powerful. What does it mean when every popular black female she sees is trying to lighten their skin tone? We do, however, have a lot more diversity in Black Hollywood now. Shout out to leading women such as Lupita Nyong’o and Viola Davis!
3. Black Women Just Can’t Seem to Win
I can’t help reflecting back on all the ugly comments I have heard in my lifetime from family members and co-workers. I’ve even heard stories of friends whose family members made offensive comments about “being dark.” They’d talk about how they didn’t want their child bringing home a dark skinned man. I’ve even heard someone say, “I’m gonna marry a White man or someone Hispanic so my kids won’t be dark.” And, unfortunately, this self-hate doesn’t stop at skin tone.
The argument transcends to “good hair” (fine or silky textured) vs. “bad hair” (kinky or wooly). So what if I don’t have perfectly straight hair? Shout out to the ladies, like Zendaya who proudly rock their natural hair. I’ve also known people who were told by other black people that they aren’t “black enough” or they were just “trying to be black.” All because their skin was a few shades lighter. Apparently some of us have adopted the theory that the blacker you are in skin tone the blacker you are inside. If I recall, we’ve had quite a few black figures and leaders in history who were “light” skinned. Huey Newton, Malcolm X, and Angela Davis – to name a few. Their work and contributions were not accomplished based on their skin tone alone.
In advertising we now see women of all colors and shades featured to promote products. But what about the “dark” side of advertising? The bleaching creams, vaginal whitening creams, etc? What about all the products specifically created to target specific ethnic groups? If you search for bleaching creams and skin lightening products online, you’ll find the majority of ads aren’t promoting the use of bleaching creams to even out skin tone or reduce the appearance of dark spots, but more for changing one’s skin tone completely. In other words, “erase your identity with a dab of cream daily.” As I do my own bleaching creams search, I see many before-and-after ads mainly featuring black women. But as I keep scrolling, I see Indian women, Asian women, and Hispanic women. But why? All of these women’s before pictures were already beautiful. The more I scroll through bleaching cream ads, the more I am saddened by the images and words that I read. “Better complexion,” “perfect,” “from ebony to ivory.” I even find images of Beyoncé and Rihanna next to some of the ad captions, attempting to suggest that you can look like them by using this product.
My frustration, however, doesn’t stop there. It goes far deeper than that. Even women who are proud of their chocolate dark skin are unwelcome by the media-driven world we live in. Take a look at these pictures of Lupita Nyong’o. Right when we appear to be making progress as a society, we fall back. In this Vanity “Fair-skinned” spread, it is clear that photoshop was used to lighten Lupita’s skin tone. As though Hollywood doesn’t already have enough of a diversity problem, why not try to make the little diversity that does exist look white too?
I am lucky to know individuals who are totally in love with what they see in the mirror. I have a good friend who is Indian from Fiji. I love how she finds the most positive things about her beautiful tanned skin. I remember one time when we were at work looking at makeup and clothing in a magazine she said, “ Oh! We can wear these colors, because our skin tone looks good with everything.” Her confident comments would always tickle me with enthusiasm. They confirmed that she knew how pretty she really was. I know her family, I’ve sat with her and her husband many times, I’ve played with her children, and I’ve never gotten the impression that any of them accepted any ugly lie or label to describe who they were and how they should look.
I have a lot of cousins of all shades. I have two cousins in particular who are sisters, and I think they are the most beautiful girls I’ve seen with the prettiest chocolate brown skin. They probably may never know how much I wish I had skin like theirs. It just looks so flawless. I know that they were taught to love themselves and because of this they can be in a room full of white faces and not appear out of place. They are not ashamed of the skin they are in. And it is that very confidence that makes people gravitate to them no matter where they go. I have seen men of other races swarm over to them like bees to a flower without either of them vying for any attention.
Change Begins With YOU!
The concern about skin tone is not just unique to black women. I once heard an Indian co-worker despairingly say in the California summer, “I’m getting dark!” I looked at her like she was crazy. Compared to me, she was clearly olive toned. But she did not see what I saw because her upbringing taught her that the darker her skin, the less desirable she was. All of these negative thoughts and comments associated with the word “dark” blew my mind. Wow! Why do so many cultures hate that part of themselves?
This begs a few difficult questions: Do we keep blaming others for where we are today? Or do we start transforming the way we think right in our own homes? Change lies in our hands. Take a stand! Tell that elder to stop ridiculing your cousin who has relatively darker skin than others in the family. Teach children that beauty isn’t just skin deep. Stop comparing skin tones. Who cares if your skin is lighter or darker than the person standing next to you? Change can only happen once you can truthfully look in the mirror and love that Deep Chocolate, Cinnamon, Mocha, or Caramel complexion.
Accept that you are uniquely and wonderfully made and everything about you is as well. Your color will not determine your success, wealth, or happiness unless you let it. Only you can determine those things.
To all women out there, I say this: Love every part of yourself from the inside out. You are beautiful. Don’t forget it.