Living In Color

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In the early 20th century, some African-American social institutions would only let in those who were lighter than a paper bag. FIONA BRANSGROVE/GRAPHICS CENTER

“If I was your color, people would like me better.”

When this was said to me nonchalantly by a classmate during high school, I was speechless — a rare occurrence for me as I’m known to be speech-full.

Growing up in both upstate New York and Palo Alto, California, where I was usually one of few black students, the possibility of colorism never occurred to me. My logic was that there were not enough black people around me to split us up by skin color. Outside of my annoyance of people asking me what race I am or people being convinced that I was mixed-race, it had never occurred to me that I could have been advantaged due to my complexion.

That ignorance in itself is a form of privilege. The reason why I didn’t notice colorism was because I was not negatively impacted by it. However, it is common for kids with dark skin to be aware of it even if they don’t have the proper words.

My mother has recently told me stories about this issue. As a child, her aunt would make it clear that she didn’t like my mother because she was darker. She was forced to be aware of how her skin color would force her to be treated differently.

To this day, skin-bleaching is common in her home country of Jamaica and in many other majority-black countries. I talk with my cousins and my brother’s friends who are in elementary school and feel insecure about their skin tone, yet I never thought about colorism until I reached my later years of high school.

All black women, no matter their color, have to deal with the angry black women stereotype — being viewed as aggressive in situations that their white counterparts would not be. All black women, no matter their color, have to deal with being desexualized.

But these stereotypes are intensified by colorism. If you look at popular black “it girls” — Beyoncé, Rihanna, Zendaya — they’re on the lighter end of the spectrum. (Lupita Nyong’o is one of the few actresses who is dark-skinned, and media experts have acknowledged the significance of her presence among others in Hollywood.) In a 2018 speech at Essence’s Black Women in Hollywood luncheon, Nyong’o talks about a letter she received from a girl who was about to buy skin-whitening cream before she saw Nyong’o on the stage.

The fact that a woman was willing to whiten her skin shows just how deep colorism runs. But Nyong’o’s impact shows how important it is to have prominent dark-skinned actresses.

Combatting colorism helps everyone because it is a way to reject Eurocentric beauty standards that are pervasive even today. In my opinion, colorism exists because the more white-adjacent one is, the more privileges one gets, and colorism is part of the deeper issue of people of color having to go by the standards of a white-dominated society. Combatting colorism helps everyone.

Black History Month is about celebrating black people of all backgrounds and all colors, while also being a time of reflection. I hope that, this month in particular, we all work to make sure we uplift all members of the community.

Ebony Azumah is a senior and the president of the Black Student Union.

Colorism is a menace that is sometimes difficult to identify.

In my life, it has been easy to tell if someone has an issue with me for being black or perhaps even a woman. However, it is a different nuance altogether to be targeted for the darkness of my skin tone, as it’s hard to figure out if it’s racism or colorism.

The stereotypes of colorism were born in colonialism and slavery, where it was believed that the lighter the skin tone, the closer you were to whiteness, and therefore cleanliness and godliness. This birthed the stereotype of the mean, angry, darker-skinned woman, versus the lighter, gentler, more swallowable version of the black woman. Growing up in a mixed family, my skin tone was irrelevant as it was established early on that there were many types of people in the world.

It wasn’t until high school that I began to notice that people viewed dark-skinned women different than lighter-skinned women.

When I was a senior in high school, I was in a relationship with another black person, whose skin tone didn’t differ much from mine. I was sitting, having lunch with some other girls, when we got to talking about families.

I was surprised when one of the girls commented, “You know what I just thought, Ebony? If you and your boyfriend were to have kids, they would be so dark.”

She said this with a look of worry on her face, as if she was giving me a warning, implying that I should keep this in mind if I’m going to have a black partner.

Negative comments about my skin were common in grade school.

I went to predominantly white schools and saw very few girls who looked like me in the media. I grew up thinking that black women with lighter skin, looser curls or lighter eyes were more attractive. Comments like, “you shouldn’t wear bright colors,” or “this makeup doesn’t come in your color,” reinforced that as well. I continued to war with this sense of inadequacy throughout my time in high school.

However, coming to college and surrounding myself with women and mentors who looked like me, allowed me the support system I needed to begin coming toward self acceptance. Through a great deal of introspection, I eventually confronted my insecurities that were rooted in Eurocentric beauty standards. However, I soon learned that personality traits were also attributed to my skin.

The stereotype that dark-skinned black women are bad-tempered or “angry” used to be something I thought would never be applied to me. However, as I’ve gone through this university and various positions of leadership, I feel that I’ve become very conscious of how my skin can affect how I am perceived.

I must be hyper-aware of my tone and how I express negative emotions. If I try to hold someone accountable, it can be seen as an attack. My emotions can be dramatized or diminished.

I’ve learned to remain steadfast in who I am and how I am going to perceive myself and my beauty. The community that I’ve created for myself within USF helps to remind me everyday that I am beautiful outwardly.

But most importantly, I am beautiful inwardly.

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