As a dark brown woman, I never publicly engage in conversations about complexion and colorism (discrimination based on skin color) because they frustrate me so much. Yet I am often asked random questions like:
“Didn’t you love the documentary Dark Girls?” (No.) “Aren’t you sad that Pharell didn’t include a brown girl on his cover?” (No, but his response sucked.) “Doesn’t Lupita finally make you feel beautiful?” (She’s gorgeous but what?)
I just can’t win. Even Enlightened Black Folks often get the topic of colorism wrong. Why? Because they don’t understand what Chimamada Ngozi Adichie calls the “danger of a single story”.
Adichie used the phrase in a TED talk, arguing that we risk fundamentally misunderstanding a person or place when we rely on a single, popular narrative. That idea aptly applies to colorism and the one common story told about it which goes like this:
Black America has a problem: Dark girls have low self esteem because boys don’t find them attractive. To end colorism, men need to tell them that they’re beautiful. The end.
That story is not my story. It is also intellectually lazy, sexist and racist. So to help create a new one, here are five things you need to know:
1. Every dark-skinned woman didn’t at one point hate herself. If you remember nothing else, remember this. I have felt pretty since the womb. My parents said it and, like God and light, so it was. Not once did I wish to be lighter. It just wasn’t a thing for me. I vaguely remember being teased about it once or twice, but it was never a point of vulnerability. What was? My big feet. I was mercilessly teased about them so, like any young person, I had my insecurities. Color wasn’t one. Of course I can’t ignore the battle that many brown women fight when they look in the mirror every day. It makes me ache in the deepest part of my soul. And I appreciate the vulnerability of women like Gabrielle Union, Kelly Rowland and our reigning queen Lupita who have all shared their struggles with their own complexion. But I also want young girls — and the rest of the world — to know that our color isn’t a challenge to overcome; that cursing our skin isn’t some shared right of passage; and that you don’t have to hate yourself to love yourself. Some of us felt fly all along.
2. Ending colorism isn’t about finding a man or wanting to be chosen. This lie conveniently minimizes the impact of a vicious strain of discrimination, just as it did when people claimed that the civil rights movement was simply about wanting to eat lunch next to white people. Recognizing society’s preference for fairer skin and the subsequent negative effect that it has on people of all colors is not a pursuit of vanity. It is a public service.
In fact, many of the concerns that we have about racism and its corrosive effects on society are just as much, if not moreso, about discrimination based on the literal color of ones skin. The impact of that is far greater than a decreased chance of getting picked on OKCupid or cast in a music video and extends into all branches of life — work, school, politics, home and every space in between.
3. Colorism doesn’t just impact women. We think because dark-skinned men are occasionally seen as desirable in popular culture that they don’t experience color-based discrimination. When we address how black children are treated in the classroom, why don’t we discuss how much of that disparate treatment with regards to discipline and tracking comes from teachers of all races targeting darker boys? Even our humor belies our colorism with regards to men. When “lightskinnedness” means sensitive, what does that mean about being dark? How have we tied complexion to outdated notions of masculinity? Let’s talk about it.
4. Colorism isn’t just an African-American problem. I won’t stay on this one long because you can do your homework. Read about the value placed on lighter skin in places like India and China and everywhere else. And then stop spreading the myth of Black people being uniquely pathological about color thanks to Willie Lynch (a theory that has been largely discredited as a hoax by historians).
5. Social media alone won’t solve colorism. As with racism, there are several approaches to ending colorism, many of which are structural and not at all helped by men lecturing women on Twitter, offering unsolicited advice like "Don't dark girls know we'd love y'all if you loved yourselves?" and mind-blowing insight like, "Man, the thirst got y'all dark girls messed up out here w that colorful makeup. Just chill," does nothing to address the root cause of colorism and instead perpetuates the ludicrous notion that some how the whole issue can be solved by more Iyanla: Fix My Life and a good neutral lipstick.
Here’s how you can make more significant change: Constantly and quietly check yourself. Ask why, in your mind, a White woman with tattoos is edgy, a light woman with pink hair is creative but a darker woman with either is ghetto. Evaluate why you lighten your selfies. Notice when you obsessively ooh and ahhh only over light-skinned children or don’t look a dark-skinned man in the eye when speaking to him. Stop ascribing certain behaviors to certain complexions. And when in the position to create opportunities for others, consider if your commitment to diversity is at all visible to the naked eye. That’s a great start.
When we let these truths expand the story that’s told about colorism, our ability to understand and fight it grows. And that’s a win for us all.
Erica Williams Simon is a social impact strategist, cultural commentator and World Economic Forum Global Shaper. She can be found online at ericawilliams.com and on Twitter @ericawilliamsdc