When you grow up in a relatively small town in suburban New Jersey, being the only person of color in your class, you’d understand why I had no idea that other members of my race consider me “light-skinned.” Where I grew up, there was no such thing.
You were either black, white, Spanish or Indian. No one paid much attention to the shade of your skin or where your blackness/whiteness originated –- at least not in my circle. You only cared about what you saw. Sure, some racism and stereotyping existed, but there was no in-depth analysis or scrutiny about the shade of your skin.
In some ways that method was great. It erased the turmoil experienced by many other African-Americans and allowed everyone to just be accepted for who they were. On the other hand, my peers and I were ill-prepared for the real world. We grew up a bunch of colorblind individuals who believed in treating everyone equally regardless of historical implications and racial indifferences. We were ignorant.
For as long as I could remember, I was always the only brown-skinned girl in class and the only one at a friend’s birthday party. For the most part, I was OK with that. Aside from the random kids who asked if I celebrated Kwanza or why my kinky hair looked different from the straight-haired Caucasian girl, or the assumption that I was an expert on slavery in class, I was fine.
For a majority of my life, nearly all of my friends were white. Other than my obvious darker complexion, I fit in just fine with the other kids. No one ever questioned why I was so light in comparison to my parents during my younger years. And no one ever attributed my “likability,” pleasant disposition or achievements to my skin tone.
So imagine my surprise when a black girl in college accused me of thinking I was better than everyone else because I was light- skinned. I was dumbfounded, not only because that type of thought had never crossed my mind, but also because I never considered myself light-skinned. I’d only ever identified as black, brown or African-American.
Being the very naïve 18-year-old that I was, I asked her, “What are you talking about?”
She said, “Don’t play dumb with me. You know exactly what I’m talking about. With the way guys keep falling all over you and professors like you because you are light, you think you are better than people like me.”
As a simple-minded girl, my answer was, “But I’m not light-skinned.”
To which she replied, “Well, what do you think you are then?”
“A black woman.”
If it matters to anyone, she was indeed of darker complexion than me (and beautiful, by the way). As I started associating with more people who looked like I did during my college years, conversations like this persisted. I was frequently called “light-skinned bitch,” “light bright,” “practically white” and “red-bone” by other African-Americans.
I was baffled that I was receiving such treatment from people of my own race. Being singled out all the time actually made me wonder why I longed to have friends of the same race for so long.
For a brief moment in time, I began to question everything I had and accomplished, wondering if it ever had anything to do with my appearance. Did my Caucasian professors act pleasantly around me because I wasn’t automatically stereotyped as a “ghetto hoodrat” because of my skin tone and did I really earn all of those As on my tests? Was my religious application of sunblock before heading outside about my subconscious fear of getting “too dark” or was it really because I was attuned to the realities of skin cancer?
Of course, the mean messages I got on Facebook’s “honesty box” from my peers didn’t help. I even second-guessed my relationship with my boyfriend. After all, he did mention he always had a thing for girls who “looked like me.” It seemed to give merit to that honesty box message that said, “You know he’s only with you because you are light. It’s not gonna last.” (I showed them considering I married him two months ago!)
And then there were those messages saying the only reason why people see me as pretty is because I have so-called “good hair” or that I was fortunate enough to find make-up that easily matched my skin because I was light. Both of those claims were untrue, but it didn’t stop me from believing it for a short while, questioning if anything about my existence had any merit.
And then it dawned it me: Regardless of my skin tone and no matter how much people may call me naïve or colorblind (which I admit I was in the past, but no longer am), I still refuse to label myself light-skinned. Not because I’m ashamed and not because I’m trying to prove a point, but because I refuse to become part of a society that further scrutinizes a race, and assigns arbitrary labels to the people of that race.
It’s about time that the African American community acts like a community and recognizes we are all beautiful regardless of the shade of our complexion. So yes, my skin may be lighter than some, but I am not light-skinned. I am a black woman. Will that ever be enough?