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We Never Talk About Colorism

Colorism, by definition, is prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group. It was something that was extremely prevalent in my life, but I never knew a word for it. It exists in almost every culture and society connected to the Western world. Colorism does not mean “I hate my race” or “I hate where I come from.” White people getting tans is not colorism.

My father is from the island of Jamaica. He is proud and dark-skinned, and he left Jamaica at age 11 with his sisters and brothers to find better opportunities for himself in America. My mother is from the island of Nevis, and she is brown-skinned and proud. I take my pride from my parents but growing up in America has taken its toll on me.

I grew up in an all-black neighborhood and went to middle school with children who were mostly black and Hispanic. This might have been my first introduction to colorism. There was a boy in my grade who was significantly darker skinned, let’s call him Cameron. Cameron and I were from the same island, his family was Jamaican, as mine was. He wasn’t necessarily the nicest person, but the first thing people would almost always use as a rebuttal was his skin color. I remember one of my friends saying he looked like “burnt toast”, and kids making jokes that if we turned off the lights, we would no longer be able to see him. Keep in mind were all black, with some exceptions, but most of the insults came from people who were black. 

It never registered with me that there was a possibility that we would be hurting his feelings, I think I was just lucky it wasn’t me. When you’re a kid, you just want to hurt people as much as you’ve been hurt, but his character was never the first thing to be insulted. I never thought to wonder why nobody ever called me burnt toast, but I moved on and I forgot.

In seventh grade, I decided to join Instagram. It had only come out 1 year or a few months before if I remembered correctly. I had all my other middle school friends on there as well, and my pictures were blurry af with horrific borders, and I’m happy to say that in 2018, I have deleted them all. I remember at some point coming across a meme, before we had appropriately named them so, and it was a picture of a cockroach with the caption “This is what dark-skinned women looked like.” I’m not sure if I didn’t internalize that, but I knew it was wrong for multiple reasons, but none of them included colorism. I saw comments with girls laughing under the post dehumanized and insulted them. I wonder how many dark-skinned younger girls passed that picture and decided they weren’t enough.

In high school, I became really obsessed with the natural hair movement. I significantly damaged my hair with texturizer, a process to permanently change the texture of your hair. I began growing out my hair in high school by wearing nothing but braids. I started watching a lot of YouTube videos and following a lot of natural hair pages. A lot of natural hair pages had women with lighter skin, who were beautiful and had big curly hair. I remember wanting to be like that. There were not a lot of black women on TV with natural hair, but the most noticeable of them all for me was Tracee Ellis Ross from Girlfriends. I thought that if I grew my hair out natural, it would look like hers. A lot of darker skinned women on TV had weaves or straight hair, but I never wanted that. I wanted bigger curly hair that bounced when I walked. I think I was under some wild assumption that all black women were made the same, and that we would all endure the same struggles, including hair. I came to find out that was not the case. I was very upset to figure out that my hair was not in big curls, but in small kinks, that shrank when even the tiniest bit of water hit it. I think it was one of the first times I’ve ever felt shame. 

However, I was somewhat aware that while there were some black women on TV, most of the ones that I saw in TV shows and movies, even on black networks, were light-skinned or biracial. Somewhere in my mind, I correlated having “ugly” kinky hair with darker skin and having big, loose curly hair with being lighter-skinned or mixed. I cringe remembering a time when I told my father that I wanted to marry someone of a different race, so that my children can “nice hair.” I don’t think I’ll ever forget his face of pain.

Even now, many very famous black women are women who are the “acceptable” versions of what black is supposed to be. Beyoncé, Zendaya, Amandla Stenberg, Yara Shahidi, Zoe Saldana, etc. All of these women are light-skinned, some are biracial. When I think of Zendaya, I think of her beautiful skin. When I think of Yara Shahidi, I think of her big curly hair. When I think of Amandla Stenberg, I think of her activism. I think of all these powerful black women who were allowed to voice their opinions and better assimilate into a society that lacks and ignores black Americans.

A counter to this would be to say, “Well Lupita Nyong’o is famous. And what about the main cast of Black Panther? They were all dark-skinned.” Well, you’re not wrong. But Lupita Nyong’o only became famous after playing a slave in “12 Years a Slave.” The cast of Black Panther was chosen because the movie was set in Africa, and they just happened to fit that niche. Have you ever seen Lupita Nyong’o in a romantic comedy? Be a love interest? No? Okay, but you’ve seen Zendaya as Peter Parker’s future love interest, MJ, in “Spider-Man: Homecoming”, you’ve seen Yara Shahidi star in her comedy, “Grownish” on Freeform, and you’ve seen Amandla Stenberg take on a multitude of roles from being Rue in the Hunger Games, to the main protagonist Maddy in the love story “Everything, Everything.” The amount of dark-skinned women who get out of one-dimensional characters is small. Darker skinned women, specifically black women, are seen as more ghetto, louder, and more unattractive, compared to their lighter-skinned counterparts who are seen as “watered-down” versions of that minority.

For every Beyoncé, there is a Kelly Rowland. For every Cardi B, there is an Amara La Negra. For every light-skinned women who is allowed to raise her voice, there is a darker skinned woman who is silenced and belittled. She is called a roach, she is called loud and obnoxious, and she is pushed off to the side. Although it still hard for people like Beyoncé and Zendaya to come up in the world, it is significantly harder for people who are darker, and possess less European features. Everyone struggles, but there some struggles none of us have ever or will ever face.

I remember during my sophomore year of high school, I had a Filipino friend who was telling me a story about how her grandmother had gone to the Philippines and brought her back bleaching cream. My initial thought was “she’s not even dark”, but she and other Filipinos I have met over the years have informed me, that to other Asian cultures they were considered to be too dark, and that people thought they worked outside, because being dark is associated with being poor. I remember meeting someone who had just moved from Jamaica to America and them saying that because they hadn’t gotten darker, people were going to think that their “bleaching”, as in bleaching their skin to become lighter, because bleaching has become so prevalent in many places were darker skinned citizens exist. Skin bleaching is multibillion dollar industry in parts of Africa, and it is estimated that 70% of people in West Africa use bleaching cream. But where did colorism originate?

It is hard for people to imagine that we still feel the effects of slavery till this day. Historically, “brown” or lighter skinned Jamaicans, who were often the mix of white slave-owners and black Jamaicans, had greater access to land and resources, because of their white ancestry. There are studies that say that lighter-skinned Jamaicans are more likely than darker skinned Jamaicans to get a job, which is a significant factor in an impoverished country. In other countries, where much of the citizens are darker skinned, skin bleaching was the result of getting access to Western media, which also came with body image issues. 

Colorism is worldwide, and people are destroying their skin, the skin that they were born with, to accommodate to a society that assumed that they were not enough. But we are enough. We are not ugly, we are not burdens, and we were not meant to be thrown to the side. The world is changing, and darker skinned women will be entering mainstream media, but until then, we cannot forget the repercussions of the past that keep us in chains.

Thank you for attending my Ted Talk.

Name: Brittany Dixon Year: Freshman Major: Biology Hometown: Jamaica, NY
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