Over on Twitter yesterday, I came across a series of unfortunate tweets from a black woman who is of a fair complexion that seemed to deny the existence of colorism. She very quickly got some nasty blowback and went on to say that she never denied it existed, only that she had never experienced it, and has in fact suffered for her tone, having been ostracized from darker-skinned circles because of her color.
A quick note on why I’m not naming her or addressing her directly: I didn’t engage with her on Twitter because she was being called names and very clearly took a Block and Roll stance. When coupled with the I Am Right And You Are Wrong stance, a virtual fortress is formed that I have neither the time nor the inclination to penetrate. Name-calling is a hideous, undeserved response to a disagreement and while I don’t judge anyone’s personal response to being attacked, I also know that an invitation to debate sensibly will likely go ignored or be met with anger at such a time. I have no desire to attack or “drag” this woman and not all “subtweets” are shady. Sometimes one wants to express a thought that was sparked by another’s comment, which is not the same as addressing them directly. If one finds that insulting, that is one’s prerogative. Aaaaaaaaaaand, we’re walking.
The unfortunate thing is that this questioning of whether colorism exists is a frequent argument. Despite evidence of the systemic racism that birthed colorism by continuing the overall preference for lighter skin. Despite the facts of the paper bag and pencil tests. The argument generally goes something like this: Light Privilege? The hell you say! I’ve never benefited a day in my life from this so-called privilege; in fact, I’ve suffered more because of it. Okay, personal experience cannot be denied, but there is an air of denial inherent in such scoffing. Referring to a thing as “so-called” (to use my own example) denies the legitimacy of the thing itself.
To deny that a privilege exists just because you don’t feel that you can point to examples of it in action from your life is foolish for two reasons: one person’s personal experience cannot negate a systemic ill, and a fact of privilege in this context is that those who benefit from it may not even be aware of it. The P-word has been bandied about so frequently of late that to some, it now carries a connotation of bountiful blessings. That is not what privilege always looks like; in fact it usually doesn’t. Sure, we may look at a wealthy person with many cars and a private jet and call them “privileged,” but that is different from White Privilege as it relates to racism and Light Privilege as it relates to colorism.
Often, these privileges manifest themselves as what you don’t see or hear around you, not luxury cars in the driveway or prizes awarded for your complexion. If you are not racially profiled or falsely arrested or deemed less beautiful you might not even be aware of it until it is pointed out to you by someone who is. That’s privilege. It doesn’t mean your life is better overall or that you are not also oppressed in other ways.
Look at who news networks “trust” to deliver our news, and the actors, particularly female, that Hollywood deems beautiful enough to cast in romantic leading roles. Now, if one is fairer and reading this or hearing any discussion of colorism through the lens of their personal experiential injury, I understand that they might feel blame or accusation but that is neither my intention nor a foregone conclusion. Only the ignorant and/or malicious would seek to blame societal ills on the person potentially benefiting from them unless that person is flagrantly exploiting the ills. But media representations of lighter black people and erasure of darker tones infect our brains on a level that is far removed from your personal experience in the schoolyard. So we have to wade through the ignorant and the malicious and remember that we come in all skin tones and the conversation ought to focus on deconstructing the comparative standards by which our people were historically valued and judged and bought and sold. We can’t do that if we ignore them.
I have a white-passing friend who has a terrible complex about his appearance. By Anglo/Caucasian beauty standards he’s gorgeous, but he doesn’t fit in with his family or community, so he feels ugly. His darker brothers clowned him from birth. Growing up, he was an oddity at his mostly black school and kids called him every kind of cracker and he carries deep discomfort into adulthood. I would never discount his experience or brush it off by saying “Oh well, you benefit from Light Privilege so nevermind your feelings!” Both things are possible. He doesn’t experience racist microaggressions like darker skinned people, but he experiences internal racial conflict in ways that they will never know. One is systemic and one is personal, and they are both real.
Things that he has described to me, about not being welcomed into black spaces and other insults, were echoed in later tweets from the woman I mentioned earlier, after she had calmed down a bit and shared more from a personal perspective. These twisted ideas about race are so deeply embedded in our culture that we draw lines between us, not even pausing to notice the parallel between the lines drawn on plantations and at slave auctions. Whichever “side” you are on, colorism is despicable and hurtful. But personal history does not negate societal history just because someone doesn’t feel the two line up in an easily defined way.
Aggressively rejecting your privilege is a form of privilege itself, because having the luxury to even question the existence of a proven societal ill is . . . privilege. I wish that sister peace. I wish for us all to make progress, together, which means acknowledging some uncomfortable stuff along the way. And then moving forward.