by J.N.Salters

The Continuing Significance of Skin Tone in “the Black Community”

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“There’s a rapper, I’ve forgotten his name, he just did a video recently and on the call sheet for auditions, he literally stated “no dark-skinned women need apply.” Isn’t that something?” — Bill Duke,Bill Duke airs dirty laundry of skin prejudice in Dark Girls”

“Here was an ugly little girl asking for beauty. A surge of love and understanding swept through him, but was quickly replaced by anger. Anger that he was powerless to help her. Of all the wishes people had brought him — money, love, revenge — this seemed to him the most poignant and the one most deserving of fulfillment. A little black girl who wanted to rise up out of the pit of her blackness and see the world with blue eyes.” — Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye

During a recent dinner with two older black women, the subject of colorism found its way into our conversation, amongst chatter of romance, interracial dating, and graduate school. We openly and casually discussed the difficulties that many darker-skinned black women have finding partners as a result of skin tone hierarchies that continue to inflict “the black community.” I learned that dark-skinned black women, to this day, are still considered less “marriageable” on account of our browner hues, and as a result, we (dark-skinned black women) are less likely to marry and if married, we tend to have spouses of relatively lower socioeconomic status compared with our light-skinned counterparts.

Upon hearing this, I unconsciously harkened back to my freshman year in college when this mahogany-toned “brother” brazenly informed me that he could never date me because I was “too dark,” but he would like to have sex with me. As if his desire to fuck me could possibly compensate for his intra-racial bigotry.

In that moment, I felt like Pecola Breedlove from Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, not actually desiring new eyes, but a new reality. If only I could say that I had never heard such a thing before, that his remarks were few and far between, or that the young man was joking and quickly apologized after realizing his comments were anything but amusing. Unfortunately, I cannot.

I learned at a young age that hatred comes in many shades, even some that resemble your own. Like many dark-skinned women of color, I have sadly grown accustomed to phrases like “you’re pretty for a dark-skinned girl,” rap lyrics exalting “red bones,” and an overall society that privileges light-skinned African Americans — from the media and corporate offices to the criminal justice system and elective office. It is no coincidence that President Barack Obama and the majority of other black elected political elites, as well as most top-selling black female musicians (i.e., Beyoncé, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Alicia Keys, and Mariah Carey) and women featured in music videos are fair-skinned, most with ability to pass abrown paper bag test.”

Often referred to as colorism, or skin tone stratification, this system of discrimination that privileges light skin, Anglo features, and good hair,” is a remnant of slavery, embedded in America’s consciousness since the antebellum period. As black social scientist E. Franklin Frazier notes, in a controversial study of the black bourgeoisie in the 1950s, mulattoes (blacks with white ancestry, often referred to as “biracial” today) have lived a privileged existence when compared with their “pure black” counterparts since chattel slavery. Fair-skinned blacks, or “house Negroes,” were often given additional privileges, such as working indoors and, at times, the opportunity to learn to read and to be emancipated by their white fathers, whereas dark-skinned slaves, or “field Negroes,” often worked in the fields and had more physically demanding tasks. It’s the perfect metaphor for the African experiment here: the toll of slavery and the costs of remaining. It’s all in the hair.”

I opened with a quote from Toni Morrison first novel, The Bluest Eye. Morrison also writes:

“It was their contempt for their own blackness that gave the first insult its teeth. They seemed to have taken all of their smoothly cultivated ignorance, their exquisitely learned self-hatred, their elaborately designed hopelessness and sucked it all up into a fiery cone of scorn that had burned for ages in the hollows of their minds — cooled — and spilled over lips of outrage, consuming whatever was in its path.”

Colorism, whether we want to talk about it or not, is a serious problem in “the black community” — with both ideological and material consequences– that deserves much more discussion and dismantling. “I have begun more and more to conclude that colorism is the most unacknowledged and unaddressed mental-health crisis in communities of color around the world,” author Marita Golden writes in a 2012 essay for The Washington Post.

We speak of the color complex as a problem, as an issue, but it’s negative emotional impact on people of all hues is so serious that it needs to be called what it is — a disease.”

The more attention we bring to this (in)visible system of prejudice and oppression based on the belief that “white is right” and “if you’re black, get back,” the greater our chances of repairing America’s larger “racial project” and promoting a society that can appreciate the beauty and ability of all people, regardless of skin tone. Until then, little black girls will continue to prefer white dolls, “the black community” will remain divided and conquered, and America will continue to capitalize on the insecurities and colonization of African Americans.

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jasmine n. salters is currently a doctoral student at the annenberg school for communication at the university of pennsylvania. she holds a b.a. in creative writing and m.a. in english from the university of pennsylvania.

her research explores the intersection of race, gender, class, and sexuality in rights to privacy, black cultural production, identity politics, sex work, ethnography, law and criminal justice, and visual culture. her current project focuses on black women’s (lack of) citizenship.

jasmine’s academic life and activist life work hand-in-hand. she advocates for human, labor, and civil rights; black women’s rights; and race and gender equality. jasmine uses emancipatory research as a path toward equality and social change. @blkgirlwithapen

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19 thoughts on ““You’re Pretty for a Dark-Skinned Girl”

  1. ‘Upon hearing this, I unconsciously harkened back to my freshman year in college when this mahogany-toned “brother” brazenly informed me that he could never date me because I was “too dark,” but he would like to have sex with me. As if his desire to fuck me could possibly compensate for his intra-racial bigotry.’

    Great work!

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    1. Wow. its actually both interesting and appalling that this intra-racial intolerance and judgement afflicts most of the ethnic groups, for example, Eva Longoria was teased by her fairer sisters and called the “Ugly Dark One”, which led me to deduce that light-skin dark-skin politics is an issue within the Mexican/Hispanic community as well.

      I for one know firsthand that it is toxically rampant within the Indian community and dictates the societal stance both directly (skin lightening creams are so popular that bonafide Bollywood stars appear in those commercials) and often indirectly (with dark skinned South Indian people still seen as “lower class” and not eligible for any sort of social climbing be it thru marriage or business and career opportunity).

      I can say this bcos I’ve literally faced the dark-skin issue my whole life; imagine being of mixed decent with an Irish mother and an Indian and Portuguese father, one wud assume light eyes and definitely pale-skin ala Adriana Lima or sum thing like that. Alas no, i am the same colour as Eva Longoria, Halle Berry or more to the point Raj from Big Bang Theory. And funnily enuf, the only side of the family that noticed/voiced this colour distinction…was my Dad’s indian side. rather incessantly.

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      1. Colourism is absolutely a big thing in Mexican populations as well, and I could guess about the rest of Latin America too. In Mexico less against blacks (only because the black population is fairly small), and more against indigenous populations. The more Spanish you look, the greater chances people will not treat you like shit. All Mexican media presents Eurocentric beauty as the ideal (by having mostly more European-looking ppl as presenters, newscasters, actors, etc), and a VAST majority of poor people are indigenous/brown.
        White supremacy, yay.

        Thank you so much for this article…

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  2. Great article. Colourism can be found in most communities of colour. In certain parts of Asia the preference for fair skin predates, colonialism and European Imperialism but the rise of white supremacy, including the Eurocentric beauty standard has exacerbated the problem. It seems that in so many parts of the world dark skin is regarded as ugly and less desirable. I have read reports that skin bleaching creams are becoming very popular in Sub Saharan Africa. I know that these creams have been popular in India and East Asia for some time but learning that they were gaining popularity in black Africa was a shock to the system. I was really surprised. White supremacy is so damn toxic. I get tired with it all.

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  3. This is fantastic. I am fairly dark-skinned for a mixed race girl, and I’ve struggled a lot with this – it’s horrible to think that compared to many others I’ve had it easy. When I was younger I used to watch a lot of music videos, but vowed to stop as soon as I began to start comparing my complexion to the girls in them. This piece seriously resonates with me – and highlights a very, very important issue in our society that is often overlooked.

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  4. Great piece! I hadn’t considered before that this kind of mindset could be counted as a mental disease. Like all forms of body hatred I think there is a good argument for it being so though. Thanks for the links also. The bluest eye is firmly on my reading list. If only it was available on kindle!

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  5. Loved your writing, all so true and worrying. So much to do to remove social, political creation and reinforcement of colourist attitudes. To live comfortably, smugly self satisfied in such a world without demanding it changes. Without shame of the complacent racism and gender inequality, is to be supportive of a shameful reality. The darkest skinned woman above is magnificently beautiful, but surely everyone can see this.

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  6. This is a brilliantly written, incisive essay. Colorism is unfortunately the result of deeply ingrained and institutionalized racism within society that has been created by forces ultimately outside of the African-American community. Colorism is also international rearing its head in Latin America, the Caribbean, South Africa, etc, wherever brown, black, tan and yellow peoples reside. I’m a mixed-race woman, personally, who despises colorism of all kinds and believes in the beauty of all shades, all backgrounds, all appearances. It’s deeply angered me to see racist individuals make disparaging comments against brown and dark-skinned Black people. They are speaking of my relatives, of the people I care about, and of the people I descend from. Colorism is an insidious force, inextricably linked with sexism, particularly persecuting women of color, and which needs to be ceaselessly challenged and fought. Thank you for making your voice heard!

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  7. Only two words and her treatment by the press and other black folks sprung not only from the lack of code switching in her speech…but from her size and her skin color…two words made flesh.–two words…Rachel Jeantel! Her body an intersection where everyone came and ate the other or reviled it….all bodies matter!

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  8. We need to appreciate that we are all human, breathing, feedingn intellectually, name it, and move forward with uniformity, knowing we can all achieve more.thanks for article, no one is lesser because of colour.

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  9. all black is beautiful dark caramel or light. unite & be one. For together we are strong. divided we will be no more.

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  10. very interesting piece of article here also in #Ethiopia, we kinda hv prejudice for dark skinned ppl, since most of us are light skinned, but it is very wrong of us,and i appreciate for bringing the issue to light, we need to educate among ourselves and fight for injustice, even a harsh comment creates disaster

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  11. I’m particularly grateful for the link to the fascinating essay on hair. Having read The Bluest Eye I have started to understand this subject, but the essay showed me I could have read deeper – into what Morrison hints at with Claudia’s rejection (and gloriously rebellious, but frustrated dismemberment) of white baby dolls and ephemeral hatred of Shirley Temple. Reading here helped me to understand the complexity around Black hair, and that the concept of internalised white supremacy that I’ve drawn on in understanding this issue is a patronising simplification. Many thanks for teaching.

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  12. Well written and thoughtfully done. It is hard to talk about such a painful subject, and I appreciate the care that went into writing this. I purposefully sprinkle pictures of dark and darker hued Black woman all over my blog, because we are all but invisible in our media, mainstream or not. Again, this article is much appreciated, and I hope it inspires much needed change. Colorism kills and wounds the spirit and divides us, who for our very survival, need to be united.

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  13. Well done J.N. Salters. Sad, painfull and true. Rather than perpetuate this nonsense with that #teamlightskin #teamdarkskin bullshit, we need to call them out, when we see Black people perpetuating this legacy of slavery. You CANNOT be a conscious Black person whilst you perpetuate shadism. It disgusts me that even on Black TV channels like BET or Vox Africa we can NEVER see a dark skinned women as a host/VJ/newsreader. Dark skinned men yes, but never women. Don’t tolerate it, don’t perpetuate it. Lets end this Shadism in THIS generation

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