“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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