Colorism Is The Conversation We Should All Be Having

Her Voice

"When I think of colorism, I think of light-skinned versus dark-skinned and, being that I am a black woman, my thoughts definitely go towards my own community. I think of instances where attractiveness and perceived worthiness go hand-in-hand, just because of the shade of my complexion. I think of lighter-skinned people being automatically held at a higher value simply because they aren't dark-skinned."Sheriden Chanel, managing editor, xoNecole

I find it pretty fascinating (and also a sign) that, as I'm sitting down to pen this, the second episode of the fourth season of Queen Sugar is on. The scene that I'm watching consists of Charley—a biracial woman—reading a passage out of her sister Nova's—a dark-skinned woman's—book.


In it, the topic of colorism comes up. Here's just a part of what Charley read back to Nova that Nova wrote about her:

"My sister. Born to privilege, raised with wealth and half-bathed in whiteness, used her light skin as her shield and her sword. Weapons, in every room she entered, every deal she made…she used her honey skin to keep her safe, all the while keeping her complicit in the continued oppression of Black bodies."

Colorism. In this case, it's not just between a light-skinned and dark-skinned woman, but also between a light-skinned woman who happens to be biracial. Bookmark that, OK? I'll be coming back to it. But first...

The Pop Culture of Colorism

Before going any deeper into this, please forgive me in advance, because colorism is something that deserves to be a docu-series and a five-day seminar and a series of TED Talks and…and…and. Yet here, there are simply not enough inches to give the topic all of the unpacking that it truly deserves; not even close. Still, with headlines like "Scottie Beam Talks Light Skin vs. Dark Skin Colorism, the Humanitarian Crisis in Sudan & More [Video]" "Mathew Knowles Talks Colorism's Role in Beyoncé's Music Career" and (sigh) "Tory Lanez Responds to Claims He Staged Video Allegedly Showing Colorism (UPDATE)" that were published, all in one week, my editor and I agreed that while this can lean towards being a "touchy subject", that doesn't mean that we shouldn't acknowledge it.

And by "acknowledge", I just mean, let Black women know that I/we see you. Light, in between light and dark, and dark-skinned alike. We know that colorism is something that shouldn't be ignored, sugar-coated or skirted around, especially within our own community. We get that although it can be uncomfortable, and even sometimes painful to explore the issues of color, it must be done. It's irresponsible not to. Full stop.


That said, I want to initially approach the traditional definition of the word from this angle. Because I am (mostly) a relationships writer, I think colorism is quite… "bold" is the word that immediately comes to mind when it comes to the dating scene; especially the celebrity dating scene. As a popular YouTube blogger by the name of Paris Milan—who regularly addresses the issue of colorism (along with other beautiful sistahs like Leah Gordone, I Am Eloho and Chrissie, who is the publisher of the magazine Divine Dark Skin)—and I were discussing her feelings about colorism, we took a moment to try and think of famous Black men who were with dark-skinned Black women. We both sat in silence for quite a while. A few came to mind (Idris Elba, Dwyane Wade, Keith Powers), but what we agreed on is that we shouldn't have had to strain our brains to come up with some. "I think there is something to be said for preference," said Paris.

Then after a pause, she continued, "I also believe that it often is a mask for colorism. It's very interesting that a lot of Black men will make sure to say that they love Black women, but we never see them with us. It's like they know that they have to cater to us in some way because we are their audience, but their words don't line up with their actions. In their personal life, women are light, biracial or white."

"To me, when your message doesn't line up with your life, that's when it crosses over into pandering. And there is certainly a lot of that. And, if you don't want to discuss it, you're deflecting."

I agree. Colorism definitely goes beyond relationships, though. Paris and I also discussed how dark-skinned characters like Pam (from Martin) and Maxine (from Living Single) may have made their shows in a lot of ways, but they were also loud and, as Paris put it, "less feminine than many of the other characters". Was that by design? Or even if you fast forward to now, many Black people don't feel like the Blackish spinoff Mixedish is must-see TV because "Blackish is already mixed", and as another Black YouTuber by the name of Masani Musa said, "Biracial people are dominating Black spaces in entertainment".


Then there's music visuals. When's the last time you saw a chocolate (a descriptive that Paris said made her feel "delectable") sistah as the romantic lead? Or even when you look at the pics from the nights when Miss USA, Miss Teen USA and Miss America won their titles, why is it that the two light-skinned women (Cheslie Kryst and Kaliegh Garris who also happen to be biracial) didn't straighten their hair, but Nia Franklin, the dark-skinned winner, did? Was that personal preference or pressure? Colorism is everywhere, y'all. And I do mean everywhere.

The "Lighter" Side of Colorism

Remember how, at the top of this piece, I asked you to "bookmark" the fact that Charley was not only light-skinned but biracial? I think her experience has its own subtle sides of colorism. Tia Mowry-Hardrict released a semi-recent video entitled "Growing Up Multiracial. It's COMPLICATED!" and, last April, actor and activist Jesse Williams (whose mother is white and father is Black) shared with Sway his thoughts on colorism. At the 26:00 mark in the interview, he speaks on the fact that he finds it to be "unnecessary" and "self-imposed complication" to complain about the challenges of being biracial, although he admits that it can be confusing to unpack.

"We live in America," Jesse expounded. "This country's racial politics are so poisonous and clear. Race doesn't exist scientifically, but it exists in real life…lived experience matters. Your personal experience matters and I'm only a product of mine. It feels like I'm almost…gonna sound insensitive, but it's a lot harder to be f—kin' Black. Do you know how easy it is to be biracial and mixed?...I imagine it is a lot more confusing to be dark-skinned. And be told that you're trash, but we also want to worship you and be like you. But we hate you. I've gotten so much in my life because I'm light, because I have light eyes. It's way easier, period."

I wonder. When Jesse speaks of the privileges that he has or how accepted it is that he feels in mainstream society, how much of that is about how "light" he is vs. how much white that is in him? Is there too an issue of colorism as it relates to light-skinned Blacks and biracial individuals? Are they automatically one in the same? Have we forgotten race-related facts like, "Not only does the one-drop rule apply to no other group than American blacks, but apparently the rule is unique in that it is found only in the United States and not in any other nation in the world"?

Do we realize the damage that this rhetoric alone has done?

My godchildren's mom, Rissi Palmer, an artist and activist, is a light-skinned Black woman, would probably not easily pass the South African hair "pencil test" (another byproduct of racism). And yet, she finds it off-the-charts offensive whenever people assume that she must be mixed or when she hears that she has "good hair".

"I'll admit that I have some PTSD from my childhood when it comes to this," shares Rissi. "But I didn't really struggle until I went to a school that had a lot of Black children in it. There is when I was told that I wasn't 'black enough'. Honestly, I think the white kids listened in and caught on to the fact that within my own ethnicity, there were issues with color. Then they started to mimic statements like 'You're not Black Black.' Do I think that dark-skinned Blacks have it much harder? Definitely. But I do think that light-skinned Blacks have been infected by whites and their constant attacks on us as a whole too. At the end of the day, they want us all to not feel like we are good enough. Skin tone and hair texture doesn't matter, so long as we hate ourselves—and each other."



Colorism Divides. However, Talking About It Does Enlighten.

"So many of us are brainwashed by white supremacy and don't even know it," Paris states. "As a result, a lot of us project colorism, without realizing it. But here's how you can know if you've got issues with colorism. If you associate skin tones with someone being better or more attractive. If you use phrases like 'good hair' to describe a person. If you're surprised when someone with a dark complexion excels in a particular field, you have colorism issues, no doubt about it. And you know what? Gone are the days when dark-skinned people are afraid to tackle these topics head-on. We don't have to conform to any kind of standard of beauty or expectation and we're going to spread awareness to let others know that they don't have to either. Black is beautiful. That's a complete sentence."

After I got off of the phone with Paris, I put on a song by a friend of mine named Classik Levine who's an independent artist in Louisville. It's called "DSGWAB" and that stands for Dark Skin Girl with a Body. I remember when it first came out and some light-skinned women were like, "Why does he have to single out dark women?" Meanwhile, I was more like, "Where are your T-shirts, so that I can buy them for some of the chocolate women that I know?" I think I responded that way because my mother is light. My father was chocolate. My complexion is somewhere in between.

My point? We all are Black. We all deserve to be seen, honored and celebrated for being Black. Not one more than the other. Period.

Articles like "The Varying Skin Colors of Africa: Light, Dark, and All in Between" are blaring reminders that our diversity—all of the hues of Blackness—is a part of what makes us…us. Colorism blinds us to this very fact because it's designed to. That makes it a cancer. A disease. Something that works against, not for us, as a people. And yes, we must talk about it. Not deflect. Not duck and dodge. We must hit it straight on. Consistently so. How can we heal if we don't?

"I don't think colorism is talked about enough," shares Sheriden. "In fact, I've heard members of my community say that by talking about things like that, we make ourselves more divisive. I don't think acknowledgement in that regard is inherently divisive, as much as it's bringing awareness to an aspect of the community that might feel undervalued and underserved."

If you don't agree with that, you already know what I'm about to say. You, sis, have a real problem when it comes to colorism; not a little bit, but period. And there ain't nothin' good, healthy, positive or beneficial about that. Not even if you believe that you only have a so-called "one drop" of it in you.

Featured image by Getty Images.

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.


We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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Featured image by Shutterstock

This article is in partnership with Staples.

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