During the summers in my tween years, I would pile on several layers of SPF and avoid the sun as if Vitamin D was a poison that would inevitably kill me. While my classmates laid out in the sun, desperately trying to bronze their bodies, I found myself trying to do the opposite. Sun damage was not my concern, and skin cancer hadn’t even entered my vocabulary.
I avoided the sun because I knew that as soon as my skin started to darken, I would inevitably be on the receiving end of jokes like “Oh, sorry I couldn’t see you because it’s night time.” Those jokes about my skin were a dime a dozen during my childhood in a predominantly white environment. I grew up constantly dreaming of a different life, a life where we were not the only black family in my town, a life where I could openly talk about my culture without isolating my peers—a life that couldn’t be lived in my small town in New Hampshire. But as I later learned, colorism didn’t just exist in places without people of color. It exists everywhere.
Colorism is the principle that those with lighter, fairer skin are treated with a higher regard than those with darker skin, and it happens both between racial communities and within them. Media outlets have long been accused of using Photoshop to lighten darker-skinned folks in order to make them more appealing to the masses. During Obama’s first run for president, sources audaciously pointed out that our first black president was a light-skinned man, suggesting that he may not have been elected or had the same opportunities to be elected if he were darker-skinned. This discrimination has historical roots—during slavery, lighter-skinned black people often worked in the house, while darker-skinned black people were relegated to work in the fields.
The exact racial makeup of my mother’s side of the family cannot be effectively traced due to slavery. Believe it or not, slave owners didn’t exactly document where their slaves were coming from, and history-erasing of slaves was definitely a thing, too. It is clear that we have substantial Native Indian blood in our family, and on my dad’s side there is Scottish blood that stems from a handsy slave-trader generations ago. My blood has many shades of brown in it—my mother and several of her sisters would be considered “light-skinned” and many of her brothers have darker chocolate skin tones; my father seems to be one of the few medium-skinned folks on his side of the family, with most of the women and men being lighter shades of brown.
Before I understood colorism and even before I fully understood racism, I envied my lighter cousins and the looser curls that flowed so easily down their backs, moving with the wind. I was jealous that they had the same ancestral roots as I did but could have more opportunity than me simply because their skin was several shades lighter than mine.
I may have thought the envy I felt would stop when I moved to New York City. But, though colorism is one of the worst types of discrimination, it in itself does not discriminate. It exists everywhere, in all cultures, and in all races. When I joined a dating site soon after relocating here, I learned that colorism was alive and growing in one of the most diverse cities in the world.
I joined an online dating site because I liked the idea of a digital dating agent working on my romantic life while I was at work. I had never been too shy to make the first move and, since there is nothing to lose with online dating, I wasn’t shy about messaging more boys more often. I had no shame. But then I began reading beyond the funny “what people notice first about you” blurbs. Users could state their racial preferences in a partner, and even though you’d think people would be turned off by someone who said they only wanted to date certain races, most people included this info.
As I scrolled through potential mates, my confidence ebbed tremendously. It was as if I had somehow entered the “No Blacks Allowed” Twilight Zone. As I looked through the long list of acceptable ethnicities on a potential mate’s profile, my heart would sink when my race was left off his list of racial preferences. This was something that I was no stranger to with white men—although I still found it shocking to be in a place as culturally open as NYC and still only want to date someone your own race—but I was shocked to see that black men were not always open to dating black women.
Even when I felt I had passed the racial preference test, there were times where I would get down to the “you should message me if” profile section and see that someone actually went out of their way to specify what TYPE of black girl they would date. Whether it was a simple “no weaves” or “I prefer lighter skin tones” the message was not subtle. I heard it loud and clear.
I was offended, but I had to realize that I didn’t want to date someone who needed to be told that just because they had not found a black female like me attractive before, for whatever reason, didn’t mean they never would. I didn’t want to date someone who could blindly make a declaration of their racial preferences on the Internet or in private. I deleted my account.
But even though I was no longer online dating, the observations I made in that forum stuck. I began to notice colorism in my dating life and at my job. It seemed that colorism was everywhere and it made me incredibly paranoid. When OkCupid sent me a random statistic on why black women are the least dated demographic, I climbed on a soapbox and declared that I was above dating and needed to focus on my career—but really, dating had hurt my feelings.
Once my eyes were open to a world of colorism outside the black community, thanks to online dating, it was incredibly hard not to notice the colorism within my community. Since I opened my eyes to colorism that constantly surrounds me, I’ve learned these five truths. Colorism drives our community apart and reinforces harmful stereotypes about black people that have existed for hundreds of years.
1) Colorism doesn’t just affect people with dark skin.
I once watched a friend of mine sit on a panel during a discussion on colorism; she sat confidently and elegantly while listening to the darker skinned women on the panel glorify white men who dated dark-skinned women and admonish dark men who dated light-skinned women. My friend’s mother is white and her father black. I found myself angry that she would need to defend her skin tone and her place in the black community. The cruel assumption was that for our light-skinned counterparts, life is filled with rainbows, freebies, and a shitload of opportunity.
The idea is that white privilege can be extended to our light-skinned counterparts and that they do not face the same extent of important black issues such as police brutality or less opportunity for professional growth. In reality, light-skinned people face additional prejudices that challenge their authenticity in the black community.
2) Colorism doesn’t only affect women.
Colorism paints light-skinned men as being soft, effeminate, and snooty—an unfounded stereotype that has run rampant on the Internet. The hashtag “LightskinnedNiggasBeLike” on social media full of memes or gifs to poke fun at our light-skinned counterparts and create a distinction between us that is disguised as being humorous.
3) Colorism is not specific to the black community in America.
Think only blacks are suffering from and indulging in colorism? The Huffington Post enlightens us by showing us a recent video on children’s attitudes toward race, which is a take on a study that was originally conducted well over 50 years ago. Just like in the 1940s, when a child was told to choose between a white and a black doll, the child favored the lighter doll each time.
The new study depicted children in the Dominican Republic, where the majority of natives are of African descent. Oddly enough, those darker-skinned kids were still choosing the lighter-skinned dolls as opposed to those that looked just like them. Asians and Indians also deal with colorism, which is evident with the myriad bleaching creams and beauty products heavily available on the market for them.
4) Colorism is not an acceptable form of racism.
For most of us, colorism IS racism. The notion that one skin tone is superior to another connects us directly with the racism that has existed in America and around the world for centuries based on color. In America, we are still battling institutional racism between different races, and it’s hard for some to grasp the notion that the same bigotry exists within our own races, because if you’ve been denied something because of the color of your skin, why then, would you do that to people of your own race?
5) Colorism starts with our media, our institutions, and ourselves.
Colorism affects us in different ways because of our environments and experiences. Ebony magazine discussed an interesting notion that darker women have lost confidence and need to be told they are beautiful to end colorism. For me, colorism isn’t about some people finding me “less conventionally beautiful” because of my skin tone. I usually chalk that up to blindness. For me, colorism starts with our media, accurately portraying dark-skinned women without lightening techniques, addressing the issue by engaging all cultures, and ditching the notion that we all crave to be the fairest of them all.
This post originally appeared on Bustle and has been reprinted with permission.