While skimming through my Instagram timeline recently, I came across a photo of actor Michael Ealy with some very colorful captions: “We outta style ‘til these b*tches want a cute baby,” it read with the hashtag “#TeamLightSkin.” The photoshopped image – obviously intended for humor – had been floating around on Black Instagram, along with an army of other similar pictures of Hollywood men with hashtags of allegiance to either #TeamLightSkin or #TeamDarkSkin. While I admit some were actually pretty clever, as a member of #TeamDarkSkin, I couldn’t help but feel slightly offended by most of the photographs, which hit pretty below the belt. One in particular was a picture of Simba and Mufasa from Disney’s The Lion King, where Simba asks, “Dad, what’s ugly?” and Mufasa responds, “I don’t know son, we’re lightskin.”
Of course, the war on skin color is nothing new to the African-American community. Blacks have long struggled with the complexities of skin color since being shipped to this country with shackles in tow. African-American kitchen table talk often finds its way to self-loathing validation of Blacks who are “fair skin” with “good hair.” More recently, the OWN Network aired a special docu-series called Dark Girls, which explored the psychological and social damages of colorism among Black women. But usually when colorism is the subject at hand, Black men are almost exclusively left out of the equation – unless, of course, we’re talking about our implicit reinforcement of White beauty as it relates to women (i.e., the guy who only dates light skin girls).
Somewhere in the midst of all the social discourse on hair relaxers and bleaching of the skin, men of color get lost in the shuffle. Men, however, are not just active participants in the devaluing of African-American beauty, but also clear victims of colorism. The only difference between the two sexes is that Black men seem to exhibit their insecurities in more aggressive, nuanced ways. Rather than teaching a generation of boys to hate their natural hair (which one could argue is done by encouraging us to wear very low haircuts), they’re being taught to emasculate one another and adopt certain attitudes based on degrees of masculinity. We see it everyday in entertainment, where a litany of jokes center around light skin brothers being “soft” (poor Drake) and dark skin brothers being “in for the season.” But no matter how much we try to mask it with hyper masculinity, Black men show understated vibrations of the same generational curse.
Some of the things that I read on Instagram unraveled old feelings that I forgot even existed. As a brother with darker complexion, it personally took me many years to love the skin I’m in. I remember experiencing very severe insecurities about my dark skin during my preteens. I often felt unattractive and wished I were a more caramel complexion. One time my skin was badly burned from playing in the pool while under the sun for too long, which made my skin even darker than before. At some point I remember using some form of bleaching cream, which I used regularly in hopes of lightening my skin. While it didn’t last long, nor was I successful, I still cringe at the very thought of me going to such lengths to change my physical appearance. My insecurity carried me well into high school, where I often felt like the ugly duckling in a circle of friends who were all light skin. One of them I would often call “high-yellow” – in a non-endearing kind of way – which was probably my own little way of trying to validate my own skin that I so often struggled to embrace.
But I never knew that what I was going through was even an issue and I surely didn’t think to talk to anyone about it. Thankfully, the older I got the more I began to accept my chocolate complexion, which can be attributed to the validation of many family and friends who often told me how handsome I was, even when I didn’t necessarily believe it myself. However, I never truly recognized how deeply impacted I was by my skin color. In fact, I’m not even particularly sure of its origin. I was never teased for having dark skin nor did my parents reinforce a proclivity for lighter skin.
Thinking back on my own struggle with dark skin, I wonder just how many other men are silently carrying that same weight of insecurity, no matter how concealed and subtle it may be. Sure, Black men may throw a few jabs at one another here and there, but the mere existence of these so-called jokes suggests there are deep-rooted issues that still linger.
Colorism isn’t unique to the constructs of femininity and beauty, and it certainly doesn’t just exist in a woman’s world. While it’s apparent that Black women undergo far more complex vulnerabilities, we far too often delegate women as the sole bearers of the effects of colorism, and that could not be more far from the true. Unfortunately, the macho hegemonistic environment we create for us Black men prevents us from properly expressing our true feelings, leaving many of us in silence – which is just as deadly. Though I’m now a proud member of “#TeamDarkSkin,” and I love a good joke just as much as the next guy, I’ll probably think twice before I cosign another light skin joke.
Gerren Keith Gaynor is a freelance writer in New York City and a graduate of Morehouse College and Columbia University Journalism School. He’s also a movie and television writer for XXLmag.com. Read more of his work on his blog, MrGerrenalist.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MrGerrenalist.