Growing up with Black family and friends, shade was something we talked about a lot. Luckily for me, colorism didn’t affect me as blatantly as other Black people. Part of it was my light-skinned privilege, but also because I grew up in a family with off-whites, the beigest of beiges, caramels, molasses, and soots. I don’t think anyone in my family has kids all the same color as each other. My crushes were usually on brown-skin sisters, but my preferences have relaxed over time. My parents are light-brown-skinned. My older brother is much darker than me, and if you ask either one of us, we’d say the other one is the more attractive one (though in high school, he went with the Prom Queen…twice).
Skin color was also a conduit for positive and negative experiences. It could get you compliments, or be an open invitation for vitriol. As a light-skindid, being called soft, spoiled, feminine, pretty boy, etc. was common. Sometimes I Kanye-shrugged it off. Other times, it made me feel inadequate. But I understood I was on the privilege side of the spectrum. Being called soft because of my shade is bad, but being called ugly because of it is worse. And I never had anyone tell me “you’re cute for a light-skinned guy”.
Ironically, one phrase brought out the sensitivity in me. People darker than me (and lighter than me) said “the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice” a lot. I understand the deep psychological and sociological places that comes from, but it probably doesn’t need any more justification than “Black is Beautiful”. But it wasn’t always said in a Black solidarity, self-love, appreciate all shades type of way. It was a defense against the world or a light-skin Black person saying they were ugly because of their skin. And I didn’t have to be the offender to be the target for their revenge. If I was the only light-skin person in the room, I became the scapegoat.
The struggles between shades aren’t equal, and that’s a fact. It would be condescending to suggest that it is. But sometimes I think when a lighter skin person mentions how that saying affected them when used as revenge, and darker skin people rebut it with “but we suffer more” type reactions, it’s understandably defensive, but still dismissive.
The history of Colorism that came out of slavery has affected darker skin people more, but let’s be cognizant of historical forces that made some Black folk less than chocolate. There is an extremely strong chance that if you can trace your ancestry to or through slavery (not straight from Africa by free will to pursue “The American Dream”) and aren’t as black as midnight, somewhere in your family tree, a white man raped (through coercion, because he “owned” her, or through force because he wouldn’t be punished for it) your ancestor. Not to divulge too much of my own sensitive family history, but at an earlier point, my Louisiana roots were black coffee, no sugar, no cream. Fastforward to me, someone who was very fair-skinned at birth.
What do you think happened in between? (Hint: it was not inter-racial love)
In the times of slavery, highlighting skin color to a mulatto or a “house nigga”, whether the intent was justified retaliation or envy, would have cut deeply, essentially making fun of their mothers for being victims, drawing attention to the evil that literally created them, and the fact they aren’t “black enough”. Some would have grinned and bared it, others would have fired back. I bring this up not to finger-point or to censor, but to hope we become more aware of how what we say is taken, regardless of intent. “The Berries” is a sturdy shield, but it also can be swung like a sword. When used in that way, you may be punishing someone for a crime they did not commit. And caveating with “but we suffered more” may increase bitterness, not diminish it.
Colorism is very much a cycle of offenses and retaliations. Slavery started it, not us.
Sometimes I think it’s better to just listen and understand, and not “well my situation is worse” it away. And that doesn’t apply to just colorism. The same could be said for sexism, racism, classism, religion, heterosexism, etc. But it can also be applied to simply anyone who is not you. It’s like if I tell a woman, my friend, my wife, my mother, my father, my kids, my frat brother(s), a rich person, a poor person, a white person, a Jew, a Muslim, a homosexual my struggles (or vice versa), and one side is compelled to dispute hows they have it worse, we’ll be going back and forth, accomplishing nothing but locating wounds we can poke at.
Now there are (in the philosophical words of Meek Mills) levels to this shit. Everyone has problems. That is a tragic, but unifying equalizer. But not all problems are equal, neither are all privileges. Don’t complain to a person sleeping in the mud that your couch is uncomfortable. Don’t complain to the starving that someone forgot to put ketchup on your burger. If a light-skin person tells you that their struggles based on their skin color are worse, politely set them straight. If someone lighter than me, whiter than me, richer than me, a Jew telling me the Holocaust was as bad or badder than slavery, or any other person who denies their privilege (or construes their privilege as a “struggle”) or dismisses history, I will respectfully, but vehemently let them know what’s really good.
At the same time, I would assume someone darker than me, poorer than me, gayer than me, womaner than me, etc. will let me have it if I try to say my struggle is more intense. Solidarity is built by acknowledging gradients of privilege, not just joining hands about oppression. We aren’t oppressed in the same way and never will be. Acceptance comes from knowing who we are, what benefits us, what hurts us, exchanging this information, and getting away from baton passing in the Oppression Olympics.
But if someone is simply opening up to you to tell you they struggle with something too, whether it’s skin color, sexuality, religion, or any other facet of their identity, they aren’t trying to diminish your experience, they are just telling you theirs and asking for empathy. We are all fighting in wars not written on our skin.
We Out Here,