How Light Skinned Girls Perpetuate Colorism
Updated: Mar 21, 2021
Sisterhood is something many Black women strive for. But despite our best efforts, we all fall short from time to time. Sometimes we intentionally choose words we know will cut. Other times the disregard, disrespect is less sinister and due to years of consuming Eurocentric beauty standards, internalized racism, and seeking male validation.
Recently, I spoke with Dr. Sarah Webb about colorism and the way many of us subconsciously perpetuate it within the community and especially against dark skinned Black women.
You can check listen to or read our conversation below.
NoSugarNoCream: There are Black people who are really open to having the conversation about colorism. And then there are other Black people who don't want to talk about it. It's a source of shame. They want to pretend like it doesn't happen. They feel like we need to keep that in house. So what influenced you to start speaking out about it?
Dr. Sarah Webb: The ultimate influence was my students when I was teaching high school from 2010 to 2012. I heard them making colorist statements. And that's when I realized that it was still a thing, that it hadn't just disappeared magically on its own after my generation. I was like, ;'Oh, really? Young ones are still perpetuating and still internalizing this?'
And then right around that time, too Dark Girls, the documentary, was coming out. I felt compelled to speak out because I saw how colorism still impacted my students. But then I also felt free enough to speak out because there was this national conversation happening because of the film.
NSNC: Did you have any personal experiences with colorism growing up?
Dr. Sarah Webb: I did. I'm pretty sure they started before I was even consciously aware of them. When I was five--I don't remember the story but my mom remembers it.
She told me how we were visiting relatives and some extended aunts were talking about my lighter skinned sister and how she's gonna break some hearts one day and we have to keep an eye out for her. She's so cute. Just praising and going on and on about my sister. And my mom heard me say, ‘Well, that's because she's light skinned.’ And I was five.
I don't consciously remember that experience, but it's so illustrative of the fact that it was something I had been observing and feeling for a long time. In order to be able to articulate that at five, that says a lot about how much I had already seen.
[Experiences with colorism] started before I was even consciously aware of them.
More overt things growing up, in middle school, I had the typical bullies. Guys saying, ‘You're too Black.’ ‘You're still black.’ Girls too.
Fortunately, all of the negative experiences happened outside the home. My family environment was cool.
NSNC: I reached out to you because I saw the quote you shared about how light skinned women help perpetuate the system of colorism. And I was like, ‘Whoa!’ We have to talk about that.
You said in the statement that you believe that most Black men are colorist. What have you seen or experienced that made you feel comfortable saying that publicly?
Dr. Sarah Webb: I think the real answer, full transparency, is just the research. There are people who've done quantifiable research, like surveying Black men on college campuses.
I don't know if you are familiar with the Harvard Implicit Bias test. They started out with a Black/White implicit bias test. But over the years, they have implicit bias tests based on age, all features of identity. And they have one for colorism and similar to every other category that they test for, the majority of American people period have a pro light bias regardless of their race,
There are various research studies on marriage statistics and how light skinned women were more than twice as likely to be married in their younger years. And I think that speaks to that statement being valid.
NSNC: When you say that light skinned women are complicit in colorism, what does that mean?
Dr. Sarah Webb: There are many light skinned women who don’t acknowledge their privilege. Which is a form of complicity. Ignoring the problem allows it to persist. But then there are also light skinned women who go so far as to relish in their privilege. And because they know that a lot of dark skinned men would prefer lighter skinned women they go along with that, and they sort of play up the light skinned girl role. They’re competitive in the dating market or the marriage market and even their source of self confidence comes from knowing they're more accepted throughout much of society.
With that, a lot of light skinned women perpetuate this narrative of the ugly Black girl.
Biracial women who are lighter skinned, for example will say, ‘It’s always the ugly Black B-i-t-c-h-e-s who…’ You know?
Dr. Sarah Webb: So even beyond them accepting advances from colorist men, they themselves often say hurtful things to Black girls of various shades.
There are also light skinned women who go so far as to relish in their privilege.
NSNC: Why is it that darker skinned men are not victimized by colorism in the same way that women are?
Dr. Sarah Webb: That's a big one. It's a very important aspect of understanding colorism.
I did a short series where I interviewed men about colorism. They all happened to be Black men but they were various shades of color. In that interview series, I brought up the Biggie Smalls lyric, “Black and ugly as ever, however I stay Coogied down...” Basically saying, society might deem me as ugly but I can still make money and get women.
I think that patriarchy and male privilege allowed men to move through society despite how they're viewed in terms of their attractiveness. So they seek upward mobility as men who are perceived as unattractive because they have other things they can lean on like their success, like their talent, like their money, like their sexual prowess.
Because the marriage market, in a patriarchal society, always favors or privileges the male in terms of relationships. They’re positioned to be the ones who choose, regardless of what they look like physically.
NSNC: For the women who are actually interested in helping to begin to dismantle colorism or the colorist ideologies that we hold on to, what are some things that they can be actively doing in terms of dating?
Dr. Sarah Webb: I think it's important to use your voice and speak up. If you are being approached by a man who exposes his internalized racism, if you want to be an ally and if you’re serious about dismantling colorism, you would move on. You would not accept their advances. I'm not gonna say you need to take the time to educate them or school them because they don't deserve that emotional labor from you. If you feel up to the challenge, you might say some educated comments about why we shouldn't think that way. But also, violence against women is real. Sometimes the best thing to do is just walk away and not confront them on their bias because that could escalate.
And then if you're in a relationship with someone and you realize that they have a colorist bias-- obviously, I'm not going to tell you to end the relationship because that's super, super personal. But I definitely think if it's a healthy relationship where you feel you can express yourself, then bring up those conversations.
And for light skinned womenm, in particular, I always say that it shouldn't be flattering to you for someone to fetishize your skin tone. The totality of your humanity, your beauty and your worth should not boil down to something as superficial as complexion, or hair texture or your eye color.
Any man putting those attributes on a pedestal has their own work to do in terms of loving you for your humanity, for all of who you are.
If you’re serious about dismantling colorism, you would move on.
NSNC: I wanted to ask you about featurism too. It goes beyond just the actual skin color. We have issues with traditionally African features being demonized as well.
Dr. Sarah Webb: it's definitely featurism. A lot of the research on colorism actually includes featurism. I remember one study in particular that always stood out to be about shooting simulations where it wasn't just about the person's skin tone. It was also their facial features and how Afrocentric the features were, the hair, the nose, the size of someone’s lips, if they were more quickly identified as Black, they were more likely in the simulation to be shot. And I’m sorry to be using a violent example.
But also for beauty standards though, aside from that kind of real world example, I think we see, in the industry nose jobs, people wanting to pinch babies’ noses with clothes pins. It happens across the diaspora too. The popularity of colored eye contacts, although I don’t see that as much these days, it was a thing for a while.
Even when I was teaching high school, some of the darker skinned Black boys, in particular, were really ashamed of their lips, having really big lips and they'd hold them in for pictures.
And then, you know, you could probably have a whole other interview just on the hair piece.
NSNC: You mentioned colorism really is internalized racism. And a lot of times you'll hear people, men mostly, say things like it’s preference.
Dr. Sarah Webb: Oh yeah
NSNC: What do you say to that? Because that argument comes up quite a bit.
Dr. Sarah Webb: So there are so many different ways that people respond that are really good responses. My response is that yeah, absolutely. It is your preference, but our preferences-- everyone's preferences-- are conditioned according to the society we live in. And we can have preferences that are racist preferences. We can have preferences that are sexist preferences, and we can certainly have preferences that are colorist.
I point to the fact that if you talk to someone who you would label as a racist. They would not perceive themselves as a racist. They would say, ‘I just prefer to work with other white people.’ They would say ‘I just prefer to have white neighbors.’
To the racist people, it feels like preference. They don’t see themselves as being terrible people. So it's quite possible to be a colorist and perceive it as just a preference.
It shouldn't be flattering to you for someone to fetishize your skin tone.
NSNC: Do you find or do you hear that people are less likely to to take the word of someone who is darker complected speaking about colorism versus someone who is lighter complected?
Dr. Sarah Webb: I've definitely seen that. Now, I can't point to research studies on that--well, it depends on what you consider research. We know that research shows people assume lighter skinned people are more intelligent, that they are more competent, more trustworthy. They think, as a darker skinned person you’re probably not as well educated, for example. So in that regard, it’s possible that some of those biases might be influencing people's perceptions of, ‘I'm definitely going to listen more. Pay attention, more for if a light skinned woman is speaking.’
It’s the bias that she has to inherently be more intelligent than the dark skinned women that we're going to perceive as ghetto or uneducated just by virtue of her skin tone. But in terms of, the more specific context of speaking about colorism, I also have seen where people give more benefit of the doubt to lighter skinned women, particularly when lighter skinned women talk about being told they're not Black enough.
A lot of people of all races, white people, other Black people seem to be very empathetic with that story line. Whereas dark skinned women talking about their experience of colorism, we're often perceived as having ulterior motives. As possibly just being bitter or lashing out or trying to retaliate against light skinned women.
I have a lighter skinned sister who also does a lot of work on colorism and we presented at a few conferences together. And I kind of got that vibe in the room. Like a lot of questions directed to her or people misattributing something I said to her. So it’s a level of bias.
It's quite possible to be a colorist and perceive it as just a preference
NSNC: What would you say to darker skinned women as they try to navigate this? I mean, how do you escape it? What do you do to heal yourself from this type of stuff? Because it's coming from outside of the community, it's inside of the community. It's in the dating pool. It's on television. What do you do to escape this?
Dr. Sarah Webb: I think it's interesting the way that you phrased the question, to escape it, because in many ways it feels inescapable. Because, like you said, it's so pervasive. One tangible thing that I do is I have cut back a lot on content. I mean, it's such a blessing that we're in a generation that has the ability to be selective of the TV shows we watch.
My mom, my grandparents having to just kind of settle for whatever was on cable or TV that night. But with Netflix, Hulu and YouTube series, we have the ability to pick and choose and curate the media that we consume, which is helpful. Although I would say it's frustrating because when I am going through the streaming platforms and looking for TV shows or movies with like a dark skinned Black woman lead- not a dark skinned Black woman who is somewhere in the cast, who will appear at some point in the movie. But where she is the lead, it's difficult. It's really scarce, even in 2020. But I think it's a start. I just stopped watching TV shows. I might really be into it and then, something colorist will happen. And I'll just stop watching it.
And for me, it protects me from being triggered. Because I know I don't need to expose myself to that.
Another thing, in terms of an approach to life in general--not necessarily one specific action, but a mindset that I've come to adopt-- is having to learn to be in a state of perpetual forgiveness.
Forgiveness is about you and not about the other person and they say that holding a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. So I kind of had this thought where I had to preemptively or proactively forgive society, forgive the culture for the colorism that it hasn’t even been perpetuated yet. Because I know tomorrow, next year, maybe five years from now, there will still be colorism in the world. So I’m sending out my forgiveness ahead of time.
I don't know if that makes sense to anybody, but I send out my forgiveness ahead of time so that I can be in a better place emotionally for myself. Those are two of the things that have really helped just in terms of my own coping. And, of course, speaking up, telling your story, finding those one or two people who get it, holding on to them for dear life, when you don’t have to prove that it’s a thing. Having those kinds of conversations can be very, very triggering and taxing. When you find folks where they already come to the table knowing what colorism is, knowing why is the problem, those are the people you want to get closer to.
I’m sending out my forgiveness ahead of time.
NSNC: Is there anything that you would say to very young Black girls? Your strategy comes from a lot of maturity, a lot of spiritual growth, I'm assuming. And young Black girls don't have that maturity yet but they're still living with the triggers. They're still living in this world. So what would you say for them?
Dr. Sarah Webb: The third thing about paying attention to who you have relationships with is key. So not sticking around the girls who are colorist, even if they're dark skinned girls who say colorist things, right? Distance yourself from these people. I know it's a tricky thing to end friendships. I'm not saying stop talking to people, but limit your time around colorist folks, be very, very protective of your inner circle. And only let in people who affirm you and say positive things, only let in people who show you that they also love themselves. Don't befriend bullies, even if they’re bullying somebody because they have a physical handicap or because of their size. Anyone who bullies for any reason is not the vibe tribe that you need.
If you're of the age to be making decisions about friendships and the circles you run in, that's important. I also think that for young adults, middle school age, there are a lot of books coming out that you can read at various reading levels with dark skinned Black girl characters where they're explicitly talking about colorism. One of the most famous ones is The Skin I'm In by Sharon G. Flake. There’s a new one out called Genesis Begins Again by Alicia Williams.
And then another thing I'll say for young people of any age, whether they be 6 or 16 is to find a creative outlet. I used to draw and write a lot, writing poetry in particular, having a journal drawing in it and writing poems about my anger, writing down my sadness, writing about my hurt.
You can also control your consumption to some degree.If you have access to YouTube as a young person listen to some Lauryn Hill. Listen to some India Arie music videos, Jamila Woods, “Holy,” which talks about self love. Even if you're relatively young, you can still find music and role models.
Only let in people who show you that they also love themselves.
NSNC: Lastly, I saw you wrote something about the notion that ‘we’re all Black.’ I even have a product like this on my website and it features different skin tones and at the bottom it says All Black. But you raised a really good point about that being problematic if the conversation stops there.
Dr. Sarah Webb: Yes. The we’re All Black, I’ve often equated it to All Lives Matter. It’s technically true that all lives matter. In an ideal world, that would be the fact, we can accept it and move on. And the same with colorism. In an ideal world, we could just leave it at that. Look at all these beautiful colors, these beautiful hair textures, all these beautiful facial features.
But what that statement alone obscures, ignores, and in some cases outright denies is the fact that there’s social inequality. There’s economic inequality, legal inequality that is a direct result of colorism.
And not just the systemic inequality but the psychological trauma. You can say that all shades are beautiful but where’s the evidence of that on my tv screen? Where’s the evidence of that in my magazine?
That misrepresentation--because when dark skinned women have been featured, it’s been in a very unflattering light. If we’re featured at all, we have to just cross our fingers that it’s a decent portrayal of us.
Leaving it at all shades are beautiful, we have work to do in order for that to be manifested in our everyday reality.
Dr. Sarah L. Webb is an Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois Springfield. As a writer, her poems and essays have been published in literary magazines, anthologies, and blogs including Teaching Tolerance, For Harriet, and Blavity. She speaks, leads workshops, and provides public programming about colorism. Learn more about her work at ColorismHealing.org.