More Musings on Melanin (or lack there of)

26 Aug

Artistic rendering of three black women's faces light and dark

“Depending on the context, an individual may be an oppressor, a member of an oppressed group, or simultaneously oppressor and oppressed.” -Patricia Hill Collins

“The true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations which we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us.” -Audre Lorde

*Mic check*  Is this thing on?  *Dodges balled up brown paper bags*

Hello, all.  First, we’re really grateful for the lively discussion our little polemic has engendered.  We’ve been monitoring the discussion both in the comments section and in Twittropolis, but wanted to let things marinate before we posted again.  (Besides, Moya B. felt ill and Summer had a not so awesome Monday, so we’re just now getting our act together.  Dissertations, after all, cannot write themselves.)  Now that a good few days or so have passed, we’d like to take some time to address some of the more salient points we’ve noticed in the comments section, and also perhaps clarify some things we said in the original post.  We hope this conversation is understood to be just that: a conversation. We are not shutting down light skinned folks for speaking on or about race as it relates to their color; we are asking, however, that these discussions become more nuanced, which, in our estimation, includes pot calling kettle a lighter shade of black.

1.  @Carolyn asked: Light Skin Privilege Checklist? Are you serious?  Yep.  We’re serious.  Admitting privilege is hard but it’s absolutely necessary for liberation. Part of what constitutes race is skin color and phenotype; racism cannot function if you cannot recognize this difference, and subjugate accordingly.  It’s what racial hierarchy is based on.  So, let’s be honest about the color spectrum that exists in between the stark polarities of black and white: one’s proximity to one or the other can play an incredible role in how hard knock one’s life is.  As many have noted in the comments section, we didn’t invent colorism three days ago, and dark skinned black folks are not the only ones who acknowledge this reality.  To argue that light skinned privilege does not exist, that all black people are treated similarly regardless of hue, vehemently denies the validity (and the existence) of all that inspires this age-old skin tone conversation.  Denouncing the existence of light skinned privilege requires one to believe that skin color does not affect how one interprets the racialized world and vice versa.  And that’s just not true.  It’s not.  If you don’t believe us, google it.  Or pay attention to Soledad O’Brien’s entire career.

Plenty of (black) people don’t want to acknowledge the ways that we are privileged above others, and we understand that.  Part of the difficulty of living in a society that constantly espouses punditry that articulates clearly demarcated dichotomous stances is that it leaves no room for gray area, and to occupy such a space is dangerous.  In such circumstances, admitting that one has a certain set of privileges causes others to question whether or not one is at all oppressed.  Admitting that one has privilege, then, often results in having to constantly prove that one is oppressed in other ways.

Furthermore, one of the most humbling experiences is learning to accept the piece of the oppressor within ourselves.  For instance, by virtue of having a non-disabled body in an ableist world, intentionally or not, we are granted certain privileges in our movement through it. We may not have actively done anything to to be granted that privilege, but it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist–or that we don’t benefit from it through no real “merit” of our own.  Yet acknowledging and understanding our privilege is only part of the work.  Are we willing to leverage our privilege for the sake of each other? Huey answered yes.  So did Angela…and Audre. Will you?

2. In her initial comment to our post, wheelchairdancer wrote that her blog was an “attempt to speak to the whiteness of the disability rights world while maintaining [her] ground as a mixed race woman.” Word. The non-disabled black woman feeling like she could step to wheelchairdancer and that she owed her an answer to  a question is a clear example of ableism at work. But part of what wheelchairdancer seems to be claiming is that disability whitens all the time which, if we may go down the troubled road of personal experience to prove this point, is not always true. Moya’s great-grandmother was a chair user, but her disability did not whiten her because she was dark skinned.  In other words, the fact that wheelchairdancer’s racial identity was questioned seems to have less to do with the wheel chair and more to do with her skin tone.  Disability can only “whiten” if one’s skin allows one to be interpreted as such.  It should be noted, that in her comment, wheelchairdancer identifies as mixed-race.  This identity marker alone requires the benefit of light skin.  Mixed-race folks who don’t look mixed-race don’t necessarily benefit by calling themselves that.  What allows one to identify–or even be mistaken–as mixed-race (and therefore not black) is light skin tone.

3. Thanks to both excerpted authors for trying to engage a dialog rather than shut it down, but a brief word on context and why we chose these blogs.  Our quick and dirty understanding of taking something out of context is when the reader, in this case, infers something from the text that was not intended.  So, in a sense, we did take both redclayscholar’s and wheelchairdancer’s words out of context.  All sarcasm aside, neither one of us thought that either one of these personal ruminations on what it means to be light skinned was attempting to forward deliberately a kind of “Woe is light skinned me,” rhetoric.  But that was never our real point.  Our purpose in deconstructing what was conveyed in these narratives was not to hate on a kind of light skinned melancholia.  Rather, we were interested in the kind of blowback, the implications of constructing these narratives in such a way that privilege is obscured.  What does it mean and what are the stakes of telling a story about the trouble one receives from blacks about being light skinned, without disclaimers or acknowledgment that in general being light skinned is a privilege?

As we said in the original piece, we don’t deny the realities of oppression light skinned black people are experiencing. In other words, light skinned black people are oppressed.  But, as the two epigraphs suggest, oppression does not forgo privilege.  Axises of privilege are not independent of each other; they inflect each other–and, if we are all being honest, we know this. This is why we talk about race, class, and gender.  If class didn’t affect blackness, for example, James Evans would have been the 70s version of Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable.  We are asking that we examine race more deeply to see the ways that white supremacy works through each other, intraracially. We must be willing to articulate those differences, that privilege.  If we, as black people, are unwilling to talk about and own the little bit of privilege some of us have amongst each other, how do we expect white heterosexual men to do it?

Besides, light skinned black people aren’t the only black people who are tested about their allegiance to blackness.   Queer people, quirky black girls, black people who play rock music even though we invented it, etc. are perpetually having their blackness questioned.  Our work, if we are committed to blackness, is to proclaim that we, too, are black.  But we need not do that by being appalled by another black person with the audacity to question us.  We also needn’t minimize the aforementioned inflections of blackness–class, gender, sexuality, skin tone–to stake our claims in the muck of monolithic blackness.  We should do the opposite; we should talk about those inflections and nuances of blackness not only as privileges, but rather as that which comprises a richer notion of blackness that has always existed.

4. Yolo made some really fantastic points in his comment, and no one responded to him.  Y’all should read it–again.  (Shout out to Effie and Tasha Fierce for hearing us and to Jah and Crunktastic for holdin’ it down while we got ourselves together)

5.  As many others have said here and in the world (but it feels so good when you rinse and repeat), privilege and oppression are not mutually exclusive. Black people’s reconstructionist visions of 40 acres and a mule silenced the rights of indigenous peoples in their land, just as the Cherokee refusal to recognize their slave descendants silenced another sector of the black community.  If we accept that white supremacy works differently among different racial ethnic groups of color, why do we then imagine that it does not work intraracially? To repeat, part of the way “race” plays out in our community is based on skin color.  SB1070 is about targeting people who look like illegal immigrants, usually of Latino (we know, totally an American construction) origins. As The Daily Show points out, no one is getting riled up about Canadian anchor babies. Irish, Italian and Jewish people have had access to whiteness in large part because of skin tone. Similarly, the hierarchies within other people of color communities speak to these realities as well. As black people who are in relationship with other people of color, we have witnessed the ways in which light is right operates in racial groups other than our own.  It is imperative that we examine this reality amongst ourselves.

6.  Finally, although we’ve spent all of our time here discussing the role oppression has in the construction of black identity, to be clear, we are not arguing that black subjectivity is solely comprised of being denied certain privileges.  That would be a really foolish thing to do, and they would kick us out of grad school if we believed such hogwash about Negroes.

*Drops the mic*

Two jigaboos (tryna find something to do)

P.S. We didn’t invent the privilege checklist. Check out the OG White Privilege Checklist and another one that has engendered a similar amount of venom as folks dispute the co-constitutive nature of privilege and oppression, the Black Male Privilege Checklist. We’d also like to remind everyone that pretty privilege is a long documented phenomenon. For more on it and more great TV time enjoy The Bubble episode of 30 Rock (h/t to @superfree)

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14 Responses to “More Musings on Melanin (or lack there of)”

  1. ashoncrawley August 26, 2010 at 10:41 PM #

    you two are amazing. that is all.

  2. sheridf August 27, 2010 at 12:04 AM #

    As a light-skinned black women who has been working with black youth in the South, many of whom are dark skinned, this discussion is absolutely imperative. I cannot tell you how many times my kids made comments like “if I had your skin color I would be alright,” or “I can’t be outside cause you know I’m gonna get black.” This shit is delicate because if I don’t acknowledge my light skin privilege and I only say “love being black because I do” I am absolutely denying that they are walking through their world getting a very different response to their blackness and for the most part it ain’t good.

    What is lacking from the previous dialogue, “Huey Newton complex” (comments), is a discussion about what black people of many skin tones have to say about what it means to be dark skinned in our community. These kids are not learning that being dark skinned is a problem just from mainstream white America. No they get it from us, all of us, verbally and non-verbally. I think about the choices that Lee Daniels made in casting Paula Patton and Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz in Precious. Totally irresponsible.

    And whether we acknowledge it or not, being lighter allows people to maneuver in ways that my dark skin counterparts, particularly women, cannot. If I am not willing to hear and acknowledge all my privileges then how can I strategically deploy them in ways that help to advance black folks collectively and not just me personally. Also, how can I participate in challenging all black folks to change the damn narrative and challenge the color hierarchy we perpetuate.

    Thanks to Moya and Summer for getting it going…now it is up to us to keep it going.


    • moyazb August 28, 2010 at 1:02 PM #

      Thank you Sheri for telling your truth in this space! So appreciative!

    • tressiemcphd September 3, 2010 at 12:03 AM #

      I have many similar experiences working with younger people.

      All of this reminds me that I owe my mother another verbal show of gratitude for somehow managing to rear me with almost no concept of inferiority because I am deeper brown. I don’t doubt that my lack of an internal filter for colorism issues leads me to believe I did not have many of these experiences that everyone here is speaking of. They surely happened but I just didn’t read them as issues of colorism, maybe? Either way, thank a deity I did not and do not have any internalized narratives about being dark. Now, I have other issues but color ain’t one of ’em.

      However, this conversation reminds me that one of the surest ways to identify privilege is to deny it exists. This began innocently as a function of my aforementioned lack of internalized beliefs about light being right but it has now become, admittedly, a game. When lighter skinned black women (and it is almost exclusively women) make an off-hand comment about their color I don’t respond; no verbal or non-verbal acknowledgment of the comment. I find that more often than not the fact that I don’t respond as their script demands — either by acknowledging how light they are or by becoming defensive and angry — drives them to distraction. They begin to mention it more frequently. The comments become more pointed. The most memorable include comments about how its odd that a man likes me because he doesn’t usually like dark women or how white men like them because while they are black they’re not “black black”, for example.

      If there is no assumption of privilege I wonder why so many people, in my experience, become so agitated when their lightness isn’t validated? Just thoughts I’m having.

      In the end I am always struck by human beings’ inability to recognize that differences need not be hierarchical. The fact is that all phenotypically “black” people have a burden to bear in this culture. The burdens differ but they in no way cancel or mitigate each other, something the original posters have said much more eloquently than I am right now.

  3. mama August 28, 2010 at 1:23 PM #

    can i just say as a dark skinned mama, with a light skinned bi racial child–i am surprised and saddened that folks seem to not get that light skinned is a privilege. i am kind of stunned by this. because whether i haven been in the usa, or mexico, or egypt with my child, i am constantly told that my daughter’s skin is beautiful because it is lighter. and, she will never be able to pass for white. its not about passing. its about lightness.
    my daughter was kicked out of preschool when the teacher/principal found out how dark her mother was.
    my daughter has been told that she is lucky she is not as dark as me. often.
    and she is only three years old.
    could we please get passed the ‘im black too’ ‘its complicated’ ‘i dont care if people think im prettier’ defensive rhetoric and get to the ‘light skin is a privilege that intersects with race, but is not eclipsed by racism, so lets have an honest discussion about how do transform ourselves and our society so that light skin and dark skin girls dont feel defensive about who and what they represent’
    can we have that discussion?
    cause, despite all the exceptions proving the rule, light skin is a privilege that i dont want my daughter to have.
    but she does.
    and i dont.

    • Meg August 30, 2010 at 10:18 AM #

      The fact that you are conscious of this is a good start, and will ultimately rub off in a positive way for your daughter. I’m not saying this as a mother, but as a mixed race daughter of a darker mother. My mom, not being particularly conscious politically, unknowingly helped me see my privilege by constantly reinforcing it through repetitive comments. These ranged from “In the slave days, you would have been able to pass and help free the slaves” to “other girls will be jealous of you because of your skin”. These comments are destructive & although I was able to see my privilege and work to subvert it, it also made me see how my own mother had internalized oppression. It got to the point where I was the one trying to help my mother develop a positive self image by saying things like “No, you aren’t too dark to go out in the sun. Everyone needs sun” etc. Instead, it would have been nice if as a teenage SHE was the one helping ME to navigate my self image. To let me know that I did not have to perform race for anyone, black or white, in order to belong. I was lucky enough to be an activist myself seeking my own answers about where I “fit in” to the rigid check-one-boxes of American defined ethnicity, but having a mother there to openly speak about these matters would have been better. I think the best thing that biracial girl can have is a mother with a strong positive self image herself. That way we can be conscious that although people will treat us differently, we have the right and responsibility to challenge those assumptions about our character in a way that breaks down the wall of privilege.

  4. Tasha Fierce August 28, 2010 at 11:20 PM #

    Thanks for the shout out. Loved this post too. When I finally relaunch my blog I definitely want to join this conversation. The many layers of privilege and lack of privilege that we all experience even as oppressed peoples are exactly why I use the word “kyriarchy” instead of “patriarchy”. That Audre quote is on point, we all have to confront and unpack our privilege if we’re going to change anything about our fundamentally unequal society. As much as it annoys me when other black folks who don’t know me question my blackness, I can’t blame them! I mean, I’m light bright, for real. Nappy headed, but light. Incidentally, if you’re light and you want people to question your blackness less, grow a ‘fro. Ha.

    It’s kind of like femme privilege in the GLBT community. As a female-identifed femme I present as the gender I was assigned and my appearance does not make people question either my gender or my queerness. It’s assumed that I’m straight and cisgendered, and therefore I have a privilege that butch or masculine spectrum queer women do not. I “pass” as straight. Therefore I don’t get “dyke” shouted at me out of car windows.

    Again, great series of posts. I hope other light skinned folks can put their pride aside and really listen to what y’all are saying.

  5. teresz August 29, 2010 at 4:59 PM #

    Enjoyed this follow up post. “Admitting privilege is hard but it’s absolutely necessary for liberation.” True, and if anything simply starts up a dialogue, which this blog did. Liked reading the comments of the first blog. Whether we’re agreeing, disagreeing, with the post or way off the mark, I think it’s important that we’re even having a constructive discussion about privilege amongst races, specifically lighter skinned. Once again good read

  6. moyazb August 31, 2010 at 6:00 PM #

    Was sent this by a friend of mine on the impact of skin color in immigrant communities.

  7. camille September 1, 2010 at 8:24 AM #

    Admitting privilege is a good place to start a discussion. However.
    I am lighter than both my parents. I grew up in a mostly white community with a white stepfather. My mother taught me that because I was black and female I would have it harder than my white classmates. I never became so aware of my color until I went to college. When black people made assumptions about me because of my color I was confused and hurt. I didn’t feel a part of the black community and did not feel welcome when I attempted to become more involved.
    Perhaps my mother did me a disservice by not emphasizing my color as a child but I don’t think so. I have always identified as black because that is how I was raised and who I am. I was never told to get out of the sun and if people made comments about my skin tone in a positive way I never heard it. All I heard was the kids (and adults)who called me n*gger and made comments about my nappy hair.
    So yes, while I do have some privilege as someone who is more light than dark, I think I would easily trade that privilege for acceptance among my darker skinned brothers and sisters instead of the middle I straddle of too white to be black and too black to be white (and I’m not even mixed, just light).

  8. Maura Alia Badji September 2, 2010 at 11:27 PM #

    Wow. If not for Twitter, I’d not have found this discussion.

    So much to take in & respond. I’ve always acknowledged white privledge & light privledge. You get handed “To Be A Slave” @ age 7 and you wake up early. You notice that your cousins are darker than your Black friends, ad this is whispered about @ family gatherings, and you stay awake.

    Usually, at some point in this kind of discussion, I break out The Mixed Race Bill of Rights, mainly for the portion that maps out that mixed-race folk have the right/option to identify with one or both or all of the factors in their heritage, that it may change over time, that the identity one person aligns with in a family may be different from those in the same family.

    Let me stop and say: I acknowledge that such a Bill of Rights is a privledge those who identify as mono-racial do not enjoy.

    My personal situation is further complicated because my son’s father is a very dark West African. I’m multi-racial, but to the average “American” eye, I read white but ethnic–forever mistaken as Arabic, Morracan, Armenian, Greek, East Indian. (It amuses me that they never guess thereal Meditarranean connection: Sicilian.) My son is multi-racial,but reads unmistakably Black. His curly hair will forever be remarked on when not cut low–but no one doubts he’s Black.

    I have learned to use both Black & White people’s assumptions and conclusions to our family’s benefit at times.

    Yet–I, who identify (internally/emotionally/culturally, etc) as Black,find myself saying “Mixed”or “Multi-racial” for several reasons. My Blackness, is forevermore questioned by all. Funny–when I did rock the ‘fro in highschool, my face/culture wasn’t questioned much. I was yellow nigger to some whites, and high yella to my friends & my boyfriend. Both hurt.

    When I dropped the ‘fro in college, and got involved in punk rock—life became infinitely more complicated. Sometimes lonely. No I’m not the Melancholy Octoroon(lol,aside from Laura Love’s cd, do we even really use that term anymore?)

    As an adult, I’ve stopped proving myself to anyone and just go about doing me, being myself. Yet, white idiocy & black social exclusionary practices still hurt. Even online, I’ve been profiled , and given the cyber side-eye more times than I care to fully notice.

    Funny, and ironic–the folks who most fully “get” me are from NOLA. Oh, not totally, but closer than others. Light sister, creole, many shades and features in one family; their frame of reference is maybe more inclusive (?),so it’s less of a big thing.

    Maybe we can also fully talk about the fact that colorism cuts and bleeds everyone.

    Thank you for providing this forum. I haven’t even touched on what my young son deals with—I’ll leave that for another day.

    Peace to all willing to talk it out, and not walk out.

  9. tressiemcphd September 2, 2010 at 11:52 PM #

    Excellent follow-up. As if it is really needed in this day and age (and like anyone bold enough to proclaim this privilege doesn’t exist is really interested in disproving their own declarations) there is some empirical work done on the employment and marriage outcomes of lighter skinned blacks:

    An empirical research on employment and marriage markets indicates whites have a clear preference for lighter skinned blacks:

    See Goldsmith, Hamilton and Darity “Shades of Discrimination” American
    Economic Review May 2006

    Hamilton, Goldsmith, and Darity “Shedding Light on Marriage” Journal of
    Economic Behavior and Organization� 2008 (see our findings from the
    American Community Survey)

  10. MB September 6, 2010 at 1:58 PM #

    Hey all more on skin color here.


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