Hating on Your Own Kind: The Many Shades of Colorism
The Roots of Colorism
We all know about racism, when a member of one race feels that they are superior to another race, and therefore acts with prejudice toward members of that race. But have you ever thought about colorism, when people of the same race treat each other differently based on their skin tones? Dark skin has been considered a stigma among many racial groups, especially African-Americans. The tension between lighter-skinned blacks and darker-skinned blacks dates far back into slavery, when darker-skinned blacks were made to work in the fields and lighter-skinned blacks worked in the house. Today, colorism subconsciously impacts people's lives, friendships, and relationships. It shows up in many different forms, including music, where terms like "redbone" and "yellowbone" are often used to describe attractive black women with light skin. It also shows up in the choices people make about who they date. We decided to look at the issue of colorism in the black community to see how it affects girls.
Colorism in Music
I'm driving to work with my dad, listening to the radio, when the song Every Girl by Young Money comes on. We both start singing along. The very first words out of Li'l Wayne's mouth are, "I like a long-haired, thick redbone." When I first heard the song, I didn't pay much attention to the meaning and I never thought of it as colorism. Hip hop and rap artists are always talking about light-skinned women versus dark-skinned women, and saying that lighter-skinned women are better looking. They always talk about how they would rather be with a light-skinned woman with long hair and pretty eyes rather than a dark-skinned woman. In the song Boyfriend, Girlfriend by C-Side and Keyshia Cole, they say "love a...redbone with long hair." Another song, She Got It by 2 Pistols, includes the line, "five foot five, hazel eyes, redbone." I could go on for days with a list of songs that talk about "redbones" and "yellow-bones" with long hair and pretty eyes. Because hip hop and rap music is so popular, the things that are being said have a major influence on people and what they consider beautiful.
Even if an artist isn't saying it, the music videos speak for themselves. How many times have you seen a dark-skinned woman as the main girl in a video? On her blog http://hellomissjean.blogspot.com, Claudia Jean, who has cast women for music videos, says, "It's hard looking beautiful brown girls in the face knowing that the director gave me specific instructions not to cast any of 'them.' I even recall going to an R&B/hip-hop conference where the complexion subject was brought up, and the video director on the panel, who was darker than Akon, stated how dark skin models 'are not dimes' and the artists do not want them in their videos." Most times, when a dark-skinned woman is in a video, she is not the main girl. The videos for Best I Ever Had by Drake, Rockin' That Thing by The Dream, and Suffocate by J Holiday all feature mostly light-skinned women. Sherri Furtado, age 17, tells Teen Voices that she thinks of "Where's Waldo?" when she watches videos and tries to find a darker-skinned woman.
The problem isn't just the lyrics and the music videos. The problem is that young women listen to the music and watch these videos, and internalize what they see. They try to portray the images that these rappers are creating. These women are trying to fit the rappers' and the media's standard of beauty. Young women should be able to feel beautiful no matter what their skin tone, but hip hop and rap artists make it difficult when they deliver the message that only light-skinned women are beautiful.
Color Me Interested
By Amara, 17
What is it about a boy that you find attractive? In most cases it's his style, his swagger, or the way he presents himself. Maybe it's his outgoing personality or unique sense of humor that catches your eye. But do you subconsciously select guys based on their skin tone? Think about it: Does the shade of someone's skin factor into your decision to date them? What is at the root of your preference in who you choose to date?
In an open Facebook forum, Teen Voices asked these questions to a group of girls aged 16 to 24 whose skin tones range from light to dark. Many of the darker-skinned girls confessed that when they were younger they were uncomfortable with their skin color. They didn't feel beautiful and felt even less pretty when all the boys had crushes on their lighter-skinned friends. Even worse, they had their eyes on lighter-skinned boys with braided hair and lighter eyes.
Finding the beauty in oneself and appreciation of one's skin color has been a long and difficult process for many of the girls as they grow up. Several felt as though their beauty changed depending on the setting; at home, they were considered beautiful no matter how dark their skin was, but out in the real world, boys thought they were ugly because they are not light-skinned. Miriam Piquant, 17 says, "I didn't understand, because at home I felt beautiful, but as I stepped out of my home, it was a different story." Colorism also affected the lighter-skinned girls we interviewed; many of the light-skinned girls felt that darker-skinned girls automatically dislike them because of their lighter complexions. Berdine Melia, 17, says, "They thought because I was light- skinned I had it easier than them."
These same girls also said that as they have grown up, they have become more confident and comfortable with their tone, growing to love the beauty of brown skin. They also say that they became more interested in darker-skinned boys in their neighborhoods "“ the ones with darker, chiseled faces like R&B singer Tyrese. Along with embracing their own skin color, many of the girls grew to associate different characteristics with boys' skin tones. A majority of the girls say that when they see a darker-skinned man, they think of him as being stronger.
Cassandra Desrosiers, 17, says, "To me, there's something about a dark-skinned brother -- a certain strength and masculinity -- that a light-skinned brother doesn't seem to have."
Colorism within the black community is a problem that should be talked about. The fact that girls feel less beautiful because of how dark their skin is as well as men in our society believing that dark skin is ugly; sets our country back many years. Jamila Capitman, 22, says, "Much like an anorexic who cannot see how skinny she is, we cannot see how beautiful we are. We look in the mirror and instead of appreciating our individual look, we evaluate it against a standard of beauty that is based on looking as white as possible."
Women around the world need to learn how to love themselves just the way they are. Love their place of origin, love their skin, love their hair, and love everything that makes them them. If we treat our race and skin tone with pride, as a whole we can break out of this self-hating cycle.
Books About Colorism
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
The Lighter the Berry: Race, Color, and Gender in the Lives of African-American and Mexican Women by Margaret Hunter
Don't Play In the Sun by Marita Golden
The Color Complex: The Politics of Skin Color Among African Americans by Kathy Russell and Midge Wilson
The Blacker the Berry by Wallace Thurman
Artwork by teen contributor Gracie Gralike
This article originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2010 print issue of Teen Voices. Get your copy now and help us change the world for girls through media!
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