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Black Men and the Stain of Colorism

Joshua Adams says brothers need to spend more time examining the color complex

by Joshua Adams, September 16, 2014

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When I was a sophomore in college, watching The Boondocks with friends was a weekly ritual. After enjoying the satirical brilliance of Aaron McGruder, some would stay a longer to talk about a plethora of stuff: girls (mostly), sports, school, politics, etc. One particular Sunday night, my friend mentioned how much he missed Dave Chappelle. Someone yelled out, “Darknessss!” and someone else brought up the “Racial Draft” skit. One tangent lead to another, and we decided to have a “Skinded Draft” as a joke. We split the four of us into #TeamDarkskin and “The Lightskindeds," then drafted Black (or biracial) celebrities, athletes, models, etc. based on complexion, then compared who has the “better” team. There were no medium-skinned people (aka "brown skinned") present, so we made “trades” or said that Team Darkskin would get them in the summer and we’d get them in the winter. We argued over people like President Obama, Lawrence Fishburne, and Denzel Washington.

“Man, y’all would beat us in every sport!” I laughed, while my light-skinned “teammate” caveated with something like “But we would take their girls by singing to 'em! ” He motioned his hand like a phone, saying “Drake…you know what to do."  A darker friend responded “Not if we send Morris Chestnut! Plus we’d win all the fights to get em back. We got Wesley Snipes!” My friend and I responded “That’s not fair! No one can stop Chestnut and Snipes! Didn’t want to do this, but we gotta pull out the big guns…PRINCE!” Someone jokes about how Prince could take your girl while wearing heels and making eye contact with you the whole time, and all of us fell on the couch or the floor, shedding tears, stomachs aching from laughing so hard.

I was never one to take Twitter's #TeamWhateverSkin jokes as Black folk wallowing in self-hate, or creating hurtful binaries. It seemed like clear satire, aimed at revoking the poison of colorism in the Black community. Many of us have and will be the butt of hurtful jokes related to our shade, whether we are pale as paper or blue-black. There are times where people step way over the line, but for the most part, self-deprecation is a very candid, cathartic reclaiming of not just the positive, but the negative experience and histories that make us who we are as Black people.

In my own family, colorism wasn’t much of an issue. On my mother’s side, my great grandmother Lou was as black as oil with blue eyes. My grandma Alice, who was often mistaken for a White woman or a Native American, was fair-skinned with reddish-brown hair. Most of my family on both sides are brown-skinned, and have more chocolate members than fair-skinned. My brother is dark-brown skinned, while my parents and I share a lighter complexion. I have half-Black, half-Mexican cousins. So I’ve always been around and open to variety of shades. But being any kind of Black in America means you can’t be completely shielded from direct or latent colorism.

I can’t recall ever having a concrete shade preference in my attraction towards women, but the “perfect” one for me would look something like Yaya DaCosta (read: the perfect woman for me is Yaya DaCosta). I used to watch the sitcom Girlfriends with my mother, thinking Jill Marie Jones was my future boo. Now I catch reruns and find myself thinking “Yo, how did I miss how bad was Tracee Ellis Ross was?”

But late one night a couple months ago, I caught a rerun of Martin. When the ceremonious back and forth between Pam and Martin ensued, I thought “Wow! It’s crazy to think that this show actually had me thinking that a woman as beautiful as Tichina Arnold was ugly.” I wondered if portrayals like that crept into my psyche, associating darker skinned girls with all the ugly, beastial names Martin called her. Did I like Toni Childs because she was the “anti-Pam”? Scripted comedy or not, folks who look like Gina and I aren’t called these names. But like Pam and Martin, it also made me reflect on how often we hot potato around “you started it” claims across the color spectrum.

In college, I’d see dozens of Black women (light, dark, and in between) tweet how they preferred dark-skinned men to light-skinned men. Some said dark-skinned dudes were more physically attractive. One of them was this Liberian girl who is one of the most gorgeous girls I’ve ever seen. I was jealous, but not necessarily hurt.  But other young women had more problematic reasons for their choice. To them, light-skinned dudes were narcissistic and soft. I wondered to what extent some of these comments may have been deliberate defiance to a world that insists that  that “dark” and “ugly” are synonyms.

Growing up, I would hear the phrase “the darker the berry, the sweeter the juice” from my friends and family all the time. I knew what that phrase means in the context of Black power, self-love, and solidarity. It is often used by darker skin folk, not only to contend that Black is Beautiful, but also a rebuttal to every ugly comment like “you’re attractive for a dark-skinned girl” or “light-skin girls are prettier” (and I have male friends who assert this). But though sun-kissed Black folk can use it as a shield, we have to be careful when it turns into a stray arrow hitting an unintended target. 

In my life, I’ve been told that I'm soft, “yellow”, overly-sensitive, effeminate, a pretty boy, arrogant, feel entitled, and think I’m superior. because of my skin shade. It felt like they were making me pay for a crime someone else committed. I was the punching bag, and I had to just take the blows, because dark-skin people took them all the time. But regardless fair or justifiable intent, punches hurt. I don’t say this to point fingers, just to show the vicious cycle of colorism: one injures the other, the other retaliates, the cycle continues. We both try to finish it, even though neither of us started it.

As a light-skinned person, the pain is augmented by being aware of how in the context of American slavery, lighter skin was the product of a very evil transaction between White slaveholders and enslaved Black women. Colorism in the diaspora is the baby of colonialism, raised in the U.S, the Caribbean, Brazil, and many other places. It affects us both, in different, and unequal ways, mostly at the expense of my darker kin. It affects all of us in direct and subtle ways that we still wrestle with. And for all the jokes and subtle indiginities, there is the connection between complextion and incarceration, employment and educational disparity that often gets ignored.

I am aware of the privileges that come with my complexion. As a man, being called "soft" hurts (though I acknowledge that there is nothing wrong with femininity in the first place), but it isn’t as damning as being called "ugly," so I will always try to acknowledge that oppression is not equally divided. But when I do speak on my struggles with my shade, I’m often met with a rebuttal (from #TeamDarkskin, the Lightskindeds, and everyone in between) about how I shouldn’t complain because I “have it easy." Yet, acknowledging the lens through which light-skinned men are viewed isn’t analogous to me complaining about my bed to someone sleeping on the curb. There is space for us to acknowledge all of our issues and strive toward a place of empathy.

Black people aren't to blame for the cancer of colorism and the European standards of beauty that keep it going.  But I do think we can begin to get some healing going by being open to hearing each other’s feelings and not censoring each other’s experience. We should talk less in binaries, and more in gradients; shades of grey…shades of beige. We can also have great laughs about it too. I have plenty of #TeamLightSkin jokes to go around. And most importantly, black berries will always taste sweet. 

 
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