50 Shades of Brown: Unpacking Colorism and Misogynoir

Growing up, I remember being told by elders that I would encounter opposition from other black folks because of my appearance. In other words, I was subtly conditioned to believe that being comparatively lighter skinned and perceivably “pretty” would subject me to hostility from darker skinned girls.

We all know the narrative: poor little light skinned girl was picked on in elementary school by a mean posse of darker skinned girls. Sad story, right? That said, none of us are strangers to the fact that darker skinned black children live on the receiving end of bullying too. So as it would seem, colorism is an ugly, two-headed beast. But truth is, the world is unequivocally kinder to lighter skinned black women than it is to darker women.

We’ve passed down stories about field slaves and house slaves. While there was nothing pleasant whatsoever about being enslaved, fairer skinned slaves were afforded more privileges and better treatment than their darker counterparts. Such distinctions have not only pervaded our relations with white people, but also our intracultural attitudes towards each other, post-slavery.

The rise of black social and educational institutions gave way to the brown paper bag test. We, even during overtly and unapologetically violent eras of oppression, granted or denied each other social mobility on the basis of being light enough or too dark. I think all modern black women can point to a moment where they made a conscious decision not to go in the sun for fear of becoming darker, thus squandering their relative privilege.

And while mainstream society has been critical of dark skinned folks of every gender, black women bear the brunt of that criticism. Intraculturally, dark skinned men score masculinity points while dark skinned women routinely have their womanhood undermined. Additionally, dark skinned men are free to have a preference for light skinned women, yet we turn our noses up at the prospect of a light skinned man dating a dark skinned woman. And no matter the perceived attractiveness level of a light skinned woman, she will be seen as being better looking than any dark skinned woman with similar features.

The fact remains, we treat dark skinned women like trash from the moment they enter the world. We write them off as “jealous” and “bitter” without reflecting on how shitty we have been to them, often unconsciously. I’m not the fairest skinned of them all, and teeter on the edge of being perceived as both light and brown skinned depending on the time of year. But I know full well that I wouldn’t be as welcomed into white spaces and wouldn’t have as much favor amongst black folks if I were on the darker end of the spectrum. I would have to work even harder as a black woman to maintain my multifacetedness and credibility.

We are long overdue for unpacking the colorism that has been perpetuated in our communities for generations. We all seem to understand the nature of white privilege. Now let’s wrap our minds around light skinned privilege and stop the cycle of preserving oppressive behaviors towards each other.

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