Societal The Word 12 minute read

STEP OUT OF THE RING: A Word About Colorism


As the story goes, when my Grandmother on my father’s side would walk into church, the preacher and every deacon would whisper under their breaths: “Amen.”  When she was a late teen, she had the best body in East Texas.  Her body made old men pray for a younger man’s looks; and for younger men to pray for an older man’s confidence.  She was roasted coffee: dark brown, full-bodied and addictive.  My grandfather, Randolph was immediately smitten; and became one of her parishioners.

Randolph was fine in his own right:  the same color as the pecans from the trees surrounding their family home that they’d sell for extra money; wavy hair, and a smile so perfect that one would think that somehow that poor, country boy had received orthodontic work.

They courted, married and had five kids: two boys and three girls –each with very different personalities and each with very different complexions:  ranging from very dark to very light.  Those children later got married to Black spouses, and bore children of various brown hues.  From growing up in this broad rainbow of brown hues, I learned from birth that “Black” could be skin as light as the inside of a nectarine to as dark as the skin on a plum.  “Black” could mean brown, green, gray and blue eyes, or eyes that changed by one’s mood or color worn.  Black could mean thin, straight hair or tuffs of tightly coiled hair that ranged from the color of straw to the color of coal.  Black wasn’t a look, as much as it was a connection.

Wilkins Family: Marjory, David, Sr., David, Jr., John and Cheryl. Ca. 1958

I’m sure my family and I never had a discussion about our differences.  At most, maybe my grandma told me to get my “red-tail” in the bathtub before she beat it.  We were just family.  I don’t ever remember thinking about our differing range of complexions – not even once.

I understand now that I had the luxury of not thinking it – about color.  I am considered “light-skinned.”  As a child, complexion wasn’t anything I was forced to think about: no childhood taunts, no feelings of being less than.  Sadly, we oftentimes don’t realize that something is an issue—until it becomes an issue for us.

It wasn’t until the first week of 7th grade, when Vern Roberson, a skinny girl with a short bob, said that she was going to “kick my ass” because I thought that I was cute due to my light-skin that I realized complexion was an issue in the Black community.  The fight was scheduled to happen after school.  I spent the day on the verge of vomiting and tears; but I knew that I would fight if that’s what I was called to do.  I also knew that Vern would win, so I prepared myself for an ass-kicking the best way I knew how—I prayed (Lord, please don’t let it hurt too much.  Don’t let me embarrass myself too badly.).

 God and a few decent 7th graders intervened and I didn’t get my butt whipped that day, but I did get a knock upside my head about colorism.  Up until then, I thought the world was essentially about Black and White issues: both my parents were heavily involved in the civil rights movement, were very pro-Black, so our discussions at home centered around the power and beauty of Blacknesss.  I thought, because I had spent the last two years in an all-white school being called Nigger, not being invited to birthday parties, feeling alienated, that me and Vern were on the same team; but Willie Lynch and his plan to divide Black people (so we wouldn’t ever successfully revolt against our slave owners) was still in-play.  Vern Roberson taught me with her threat to fight me, that as a Black person, I didn’t just have issues outside of my race, but also within.  She taught me that my light-skin was an issue.  I just was still too young then to understand why.

It’s taken me a lifetime to gain some level of understanding.  I know that I have more to learn and probably will never be able to fully understand something that is not my direct journey (I’ve actually been hesitant to write about colorism, as I assumed I may get attacked by some as not having the right to address an issue that I’m on the privileged side of).  I now understand  that Vern’s threat to kick my ass had nothing to do with me; but everything to do with her—her pain—the pain that this society had inflicted on her because her skin was darker than mine.  The world had told her over-and-over again through lack of attention (by classmates, on TV and in magazines) or negative attention (via insults) that her skin was bad, wrong, less; and mine was good and better.  The social construct made us adversaries, without either person’s consent.


We didn’t start the fight.  The threat to beat my butt didn’t start with Vern, it started 300 years prior with the Willie Lynch doctrines to separate light-skin and dark skin Black people by treating one better than other; by keeping one inside of the house and one on the outside – specifically so one would feel superior and one would feel resentful, specifically to divide us not just physically but mentally, so that we would never become united as a people and revolt.

Why do we Black people keep showing up to and participating in this “fight” between light skin vs. dark skin when we are aware that White people built the ring and created the issues, specifically for their profit and benefit; and that we are the only ones who end up bloodied and bruised?  Why?

We can step out of the ring if we choose to.  WE CAN STEP OUT OF THE RING.

It is fully up to us to free ourselves from our mental enslavement.

We must decide to do it and then commit to do it.  It will take time; but I want to get to the place where I don’t hear parents concerned that the sun is making their child’s neck “too black,” where some of our social organizations don’t still look like they apply the “paper bag test,” and where I no longer hear about girls crying about their skin color.

First, we must admit that colorism is real.

My life is easier because my skin is lighter.  All people are most comfortable with people whom look like them; consequently, I have been welcomed more easily in social and professional situations by White people.  My Black Brothas have been raised in our same society, with the same social construct that favors white and light in magazines, TV and movies, so I’m sure I have gotten more male attention than my darker skin sisters.  One cannot believe in racism and discount colorism at the same time.  All light skin people must stop denying its existence and our privilege.

Nothing hurts worse than having your pain denied.  We hate when people deny the damaging effects of slavery, Jim Crow, and the ongoing destruction of a racist society; why in turn would we do the same to our own?

Admitting that you have had things easier does not erase that things have still been hard or the fact that you have suffered.  All Black people suffer in this racist country.  It also does not mean that you haven’t suffered some pain from being light-skinned; but it is no more ridiculous to discount a darker person’s more difficult journey than it is for a White person who is poor to discount a Black person’s journey citing socio-economics.  Privilege doesn’t’ mean one had it easy; it just means one had it easier.

Second, we must consciously think about how we allow colorism to affect our unconscious thoughts and actions.

We buy certain brands because commercials have convinced us that those brands are better.  Nothing, but the construct that “lighter is better,” has had a larger, more pervasive, long running marketing campaign than the elevation of Whiteness and lightness.  This is true for all people, but is particularly acute for women.  I recognize that we all want to believe that we are making choices at our own free will, merely driven by our preferences.  However, you must realize that your preferences were set and continue to be influenced by constant messages that society has sent you.

If 98% of the videos you watched and 90% of the movies and shows you watched from ages 5- 30 years old had a light-skin girl with long hair as the woman of desire; guess why you think light-skin girls with long hair are the most attractive?  You don’t have a preference; you were taught a preference.  And you can stop, be aware, realize that the Gucci belt actually isn’t better leather and doesn’t hold up your pants any better, that you were manipulated to think Gucci is better; and that you can choose look at a broader selection of belts –see them for their merits – and decide to make a choice consciously and unaffected.

We need to stop blaming the “victims”

 We, Black folks, are the victims.  All complexions of Black people have suffered (some more than others).  We need to stop being angry with each other for a fight we didn’t start. AGAIN, GET OUT OF THE RING.

I understand why Vern Roberson wanted to beat my ass or why some people have attacked me verbally because of my light complexion.  I get it.  I acknowledge the pain.

At the same time, l won’t apologize for my complexion or the privilege that is associated with it. I chose neither.  God did not pull out a book of paint colors like they have at Home Depot and I rebuffed any of the browner tones and opted for this skin color.  I didn’t choose my complexion.  No one does.

Additionally, I won’t be punished for the slave masters crimes.  I’m lighter than both of my parents were.  One can assume that my complexion, just as many lighter-skinned Black people’s complexions are due to years of rape of enslaved Black people by their White masters.  Just as the atrocities of slavery are still evidenced by legacies of emasculation, educational inequality and disenfranchisement; its’ evidenced in our DNA—in our complexions.

I’m also done proving my Blackness.  There evidently is a belief by some that one’s “down-ness” is determined by one’s darkness.  I am a lot things: a woman, business owner, volunteer, writer, hiker, wine lover, HBCU graduate, cousin, basketball fan, Virginian, and the list goes on; but I am Black first.  Being Black shapes every other aspect of my life.  I love my Blackness unapologetically—high yellow and all.

Anger towards each other only continues to serve the Willie Lynch doctrine and those who benefit from it.

We Need To Listen

We’ve got to listen respectfully and empathetically to each other’s stories, pain, and concerns.

We Need to Talk

Just as racism will never cease as long as White people refuse to discuss it and would like to deny its existence; colorism will never cease if we don’t continuously and openly talk about it.  I talk with my friends, which has allowed me to gain a deeper level of empathy and awareness.  I’ll never forget my husband pointing out that he and my son were the darkest people at a large party (of all Black people) we attended.  I hadn’t noticed, but everyone there was extremely light.  I’ve looked at other group pictures with a similar lens, and there is no doubt that in some social circles and instances we self-segregate by color (either consciously or unconsciously).

I talk to my boys openly about colorism- it’s roots and disgusting purpose. I’ve ensured since birth that they were around all representations of Black beauty in their books, art around the house, friends, etc. (skin color, hairstyles, eye color). I want them to also understand stereotypes that may be placed on them (darker male masculinity) and to be aware of their own stereotypes or manufactured preferences.

We Need to Call Each Other On the Ignorant Behavior

 I never understood Black folks using the term “Team Light Skin and “Team Dark Skin”.  Really?! Slave masters split us into teams and you guys are really going to consciously adopt them?

Or when I had dudes tell me that they love a “red-bone.”  I never saw being seen first as a shade of color as a compliment—and I told them such.  I never found a man who didn’t love Black women as a whole—and was too ignorant to hide it — as attractive.

We Need to Be Aware – for future generations

Think about to what you are exposing your kid to, via media, entertainment, personal commentary or social associations.  Kids are teasing each other about color because they’ve been taught colorism.  It’s always been fascinating to me because the majority of Black families are like mine – there are multi-complexions represented.  How does any Black person discriminate against a complexion (that probably does exist or is guaranteed to exist within their own family)?

Erica Campbell’s daughter cries about her dark skin

We, Black folks are just like my family, reflecting every shade in the spectrum.  We don’t have room for the divisiveness—do we?  And we need each other, just like families do.  Bottom line:  I refuse to serve the slave master anymore or to perpetuate his rules.  I’m done with that fight; and only interested in fighting to make us, as a community, closer.  I am stepping out of the ring.

My intention is for Black people to love themselves and each other. It sounds somewhat silly, I guess; but oftentimes my people are overwhelmed with negative images, bad news, and stereotyped characters about us. I’d like to flip that script. I’d like to remind us, as often as I can, how incredible we are. Read more


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