Given Gradations

One of the repercussions of oppression I find most fascinating is infighting. All the ways that the few in power provide us–“we” being minorities, marginalized groups, or, generally speaking, the 99%. For the black community, colorism is among the most widespread, and damaging phenomena.

My friend C. is gorgeous, brilliant, highly educated; she’s a black woman in her 30s, who, like many of our demographic, has struggled to find the right man to fulfill the Black Love ideal she was raised to seek. Recently, my friend has broadened her horizons: for the first time, she’s considering partnership with a man of a different race. Perhaps even a white man.

Some in the black community might see C.’s decision as a triumph of white/European beauty ideals, or yet another example of the ongoing assault on the black family. Some may fear the loss of black culture as intermarriage and miscegenation become less taboo. But the truth is, black culture is the bedrock of American culture. Whether or not these elements of our arts and history survive has less to do with who fucks whom, and more to do with whether or not we keep our arts education and traditions alive.

C. potentially finding love outside her race is a triumph of her free thinking and the wide expanse of her heart over her conditioning. The idea that she is only “allowed” to partner with black men is totally backwards and reductionist. C. has no obligation to anyone to “stay in her place;” rather, her obligation is to nurture herself and grow to her full potential. That includes loving herself in all her blackness, and choosing a partner who does the same–regardless of his race.

Another recurring theme in C.’s thinking is one I also obsess over: colorism. Colorism is a concept that I didn’t know existed for a long time. One of the reasons for this is probably because, growing up in my mixed-race family, I sensed my lighter-skinned but wider-hipped, tighter-curled older sister to be the target of more superficial discrimination than I was. Beyond that, our white mother never told us to “stay out of the sun” the way many black girls and women are trained to do, to keep their skin as light (thereby as attractive) as possible.

I also thought myself darker-skinned than I was, probably, for many years. My tan gets pretty deep, and most of the people around me growing up (though far from all) were white, and I was not. Accustomed to thinking in binary, and I recognized myself as the Other.

When I got older, a lot older, I learned that the way I was seen by other black people was very different than I’d assumed. But no… As I write that, I realize it’s not true. I knew many black people treated me differently, because of the way I talked, dressed, because of some of the music I liked. My mom was white, after all, a fact my homeroom teacher sang out loudly and clearly during our very first roll call.

What I didn’t realize for many years was that having whiteness in my gene pool wasn’t a big deal to a lot of black people. Given that the rape of black women was gruesomely widespread during slavery, many black people understand themselves to be of mixed heritage somewhere along the line.

More important to how I was perceived was my skin color. When I dated black American men it came up sometimes, typically in a way that was meant to flatter me. No one I dated long-term was with me for my skin color, but we’d both always know the dynamic was there. We’d sense its ugly pageantry when we went out in public.

Of course, for years I’d known, absorbed from the zeitgeist, the rhyme, childlike even in its cruelty: “If you’re white, you’re alright. If you’re brown, stick around. If you’re black, get back.” You could tell who was light enough, of course, through the similarly infantile “brown paper bag test,” the line dividing appropriate skin color from otherwise. The apocryphal line might designate who among us were good or bad, “house” or “field,” suited for service or manual labor.

Internalizing the nuances of this hierarchy has been extremely detrimental to the black community. Some lighter-skinned people took (and take) the judgment to heart, considering themselves superior and acting accordingly. Some lighter-skinned people “passed” and were able to infiltrate white society unknown; some even owned slaves themselves (Robin Coste Lewis has written staggeringly vulnerable poems on this subject).

To this day, black Americans, especially women, are widely conditioned to hate our own bodies from a very young age. Any physical features not of Native American or European origin should be hidden, transformed, excised. Black women bleach their skin (this phenomenon is even more common with darker= skinned women throughout the developing world). Some use chemical treatments or lye in attempts to straighten and smooth their coarse curls. Until recently, big hips and asses were considered anathema, too: as with weaves and wigs, they were an exotic province white women eyed curiously from afar…

It’s difficult to write about this subject. I find myself having to put the pen down after every few sentences. So much trauma is bound up in this, for so many of us. It hurts to look too closely–like reading the fine print on a contract you’ve already signed.

Examining this sort of thing means not only examining our own privilege, and the ways we’ve benefited from oppressive systems, but also opening ourselves to the pain we’ve sparked in others just by being ourselves.

For years I was deeply puzzled and hurt when a dark-skinned woman I cared for wouldn’t open herself up after my many attempts to befriend her. No matter what I did, I could only get so close.

Finally, a mutual friend of ours decided to put me out of my misery. “It isn’t you,” he said. “She just…has a problem with light-skinned women. She doesn’t really trust them.”

It wasn’t me. I wasn’t the one who’d hurt her. I wasn’t to blame. A cloud passed over the sun. She had decided about me, long ago.

Tell it like it is.

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