The past three Wednesdays of January have proved tumultuous, oscillatory, traumatic, and in one day – hopeful. As part of the Black diaspora in America, the events that transpired (the Capitol insurrection, the necessary call for impeachment, and the Inauguration) remind us of the bitter duality that we face each day. From joy and sorrow, anger and peace, distrust and love, grief and hope, there has not been a time when these multiplicitous feelings have not existed in both individuals and the collective. We experience this conflation of emotions, feelings, and realities both because of our identity as Black people and because we reside in this “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” state (bell hooks).
Through this oscillation of multiple realities, how do we process advancements, erasure, phenotypical Blackness, anti-Blackness, and misogynoir within our community? Why do we have to talk about colorism, and why now? Are we more comfortable with certain phenotypical forms of Blackness? Are we ready to confront this long-overdue conversation amongst us?
By focusing on colorism as one of the many significant subsets of both an anti-Black and White supremacist nation, addressing the conversational discomfort around skin shade will only allow for the abundant living we are promised in John 10:10 to occur within our community.
Colorism causes suffering and undue conflict for both individuals and our communities as a whole. To internalize colorist and anti-Blackness is to internalize White supremacist ideals. In part three of Alice Walker’s “In Search of Our Mothers Gardens,” she notes that “colorism, like colonialism, sexism, and racism, impedes us.”
On Strides, Advancements, and Its Complications
So, if colorism remains unaddressed, what are we to make of the strides and advancements that we see around us from our sisters and brothers in the mainstream arena? Perhaps such occurrences enable rejoicing, for the moment, and reflection, over the residual impact. For example, we rejoice in the profound moment that previously Senator Kamala Harris is now the first woman, African-American, and South-Asian to hold the position as Vice President of the United States.
Yet, we also reflect on whether strongly applicable and viable VP nominees for President Biden, like politician Stacey Abrams, could make it with her visibly darker-skin, natural hair texture, and larger frame. We rejoice in the profound moment of electing former President Obama to office, yet also reflect on whether a dark-skinned Black man of non-biracial descent could have permeated that White space. It’s hard to refute that colorism does not exist. But White-passing and racially ambiguous Black-identifying individuals break the White-supremacist enforced ceiling far more than frequently than their darker-complexed Black counterparts.
At times inadvertently or through calculation, the advancements that we visualize as a collective play a role in the erasure and silencing of particularly darker-skinned Black people in private and public places. To witness the pick between VP Harris and politician Abrams insinuates that desirability politics still play a massive role in ascension to power for young Black children and grown Black adults watching. Meaning, that if we were honest, colorism still informs the way that we internalize hair texture, body size, and physical features.
On Phenotypical Blackness and Its Complications
With race as the system of identity and power that categorizes people based on their ancestry and phenotype, the phenotype serves as the set of observable characteristics. Violence occurs when Black people who are White-passing or who possess lighter-skin privilege attempt to serve as the voice for all without considering how they transcend and maneuver in spaces darker-skinned Black people cannot.
Colorism is a symptom of the White supremacist racial/ethnic caste system. Though genetically and racially we are the same, based on our phenotype our external experiences are sometimes systematically determined. In her 1982 profound work, “In Search of Our Mothers Gardens,” Alice Walker coined the term colorism as “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color.”
On Proximity and Misogynoir
How is colorism eradicated? Unfortunately, proximity is insufficient in the eradication of colorist actions. Just like a non-Black person’s proximity to a Black person does not exempt them from being racist, or a man’s (or male-identifying) proximity to a woman does not exempt them from being sexist, so it is the same for colorism. We have a present need to be actively anti-colorist. And anti-colorist work is not a passive work, but one that must be intentionally addressed head on. Dr. Trellie Jeffers explores this in her groundbreaking work “The Black Black Woman and the Black Middle Class” (The Black Scholar)
What is a people that excludes the womb source of its own genetic heritage? For certainly a very Afro-American (and Afro-descent, personal note added) is descended from a black black woman. What then can be the destiny of a people that pampers and cherishes the blood of the white slaveholder who maimed and degraded their female ancestor? What then can be the end of a class that pretends to honor Blackness while secretly despising working-class black-skinned women whose faces reveal no traces of white blood?
The fact of the matter is, darker-skinned women experiencing misogynoir as part of the existing colorist society is real. Reports expose that darker-skinned women are less likely to be married than lighter-skinned women. Darker-skinned girls are three-times more likely to be suspended from grade school than their peers, and darker-skinned women have longer prison sentences than their lighter-skinned counterparts.
On Self-Reflection, Naming and Engage, and Communal Responsibility
Because a divided house cannot stand (Matthew 12:25), we, in Black communities around the world, need to have honest and upfront dialogue to recognize colorism in our communities. To address the privilege of looking white-passing, fair-skinned, or even the in-between of fair and dark. Centering our dark-skinned Black sisters and brothers’ voices and experiences is vital in order for the salve to be placed in and over our communities. There must be a personal and collective reflection of our experiences. We must assess if our actions are rooted knowingly or unknowingly in anti-Blackness/colorism. And we must be willing to be vulnerable in these conversations in order to move forward.
The process of decolonizing our minds and actions may challenge the very identities we find comfort in. However, suppose we were serious about removing colorism and the internalized white supremacist held within many of our communities? If so, then we must wrestle with the uncomfortable, address the conflict of both realities, and listen intently with the goal of developing actions that heal and incorporate our darker-skinned Black family members.