peep this: in case you thought we were post-racial

There really isn’t much to say, as the video speaks for itself. Colorism in the black community is as much a symptom of racism as is white privilege; both stem from a belief that the whiter, the better. While we can applaud that more black faces are being heralded as beautiful, the truth is that lighter skinned black women with longer, less nappy hair is considered to be more beautiful than darker-skinned black women with shorter and nappier hair.

If you don’t believe me, watch the video again.

The question becomes: what do we do about it? Do light-skinned black folks have some affirmative duty, like we call on white folks, to call attention to their privilege in order to denounce it? I don’t know if I “qualify” as light-skinned (that sounds so ridiculous); at various points in my life people have said yes, and others have said no. But I’ve experienced some of what these kids are talking about in the video. I remember a boy saying that he liked my knees because they weren’t dark!

Whatever my classification, I’m pretty sure, according to my sources, that my children are considered light-skinned. And they have less nappy hair (although you wouldn’t know if the way they carry on.) And I already see the privilege that is conferred on them because of it. I’ve heard the comments about their “good grade of hair” and how “beautiful” they are; I don’t remember anyone saying I was beautiful as a child. And while I can’t really stop what other people say, I’m trying hard to make sure they don’t internalize the messages; I try to have every shade of black represented in their books and toys, and talk about how gorgeous all the colors of black are. Both of their grandfathers are darker-skinned, but it doesn’t help that we aren’t particularly close to those sides of the family.

Yet on the other hand, I want to be able to tell my daughter that she’s beautiful. I want to be able to do her hair in her ponytails and say, Little A, your hair is so pretty. I hope that she understands that I am making an individual judgment about her, and that my hair being loc’d reinforces that black hair in its many configurations can be beautiful. But I also don’t want her to grow up with a complex about the whole light-skinned thing either, just like I’m sure white folks don’t want their kids to grow up with a complex about being white.

Ya feel me?

16 thoughts on “peep this: in case you thought we were post-racial

  1. Okay; I got a few minutes into the video, but couldn’t take anymore. The kids aren’t making any sense, and they’re trying to be funny (but they’re not), and people off camera are egging them on. I actually think that in a more controlled environment, with a thoughtful questioner, we would get more insightful commentary. I would also guess that in retrospect, several of these kids probably regret what they said, and would admit that they don’t feel the way they said they did on camera. There are also strains of classism running through the short segment I did watch. The usefulness of the video, notwithstanding, it is nevertheless obvious that both within and outside of the black community, lighter skin is privileged. No surprise there.

    About your daughter, though–it can’t be the case that to teach her that all skin colors and hair types are beautiful, that you have to completely ignore her beauty. There’s nothing wrong with telling her she has beautiful hair; that it’s soft to the touch, or makes pretty spirals, or whatever. I tell my daughter her hair is beautiful all the time–because it is. It seems to me that the more critical issue is whether she observes you affirm the beauty of other hair types, or other skin tones. If she has a friend with kinkier hair, and you compliment that friend on her pretty pigtails, then surely your daughter will get the message that there is beauty in both her hair type, and her friend’s. If your home has images that affirm beauty all along the spectrum, that is what counts.

    And, as we all know, affirmatively talking about these issues in age-appropriate language is also helpful. It speaks volumes to her if you push back on people who talk about her good “grade” of hair in front of her; and we all know you have no problem pushing back on people! LOL! The reality is that she’ll be the beneficiary of privilege because of her hair and skin color. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t affirm her beauty as her mother, especially if you’re prepared to affirm the beauty in others as well.

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    1. You think many of them would say they don’t really believe what they say? Perhaps true, but what I think is still interesting is the impact it likely has within a school, or population of young people. I have no doubt that the culture of the school is accurately portrayed; peer pressure is a bitch.

      I actually think the first girl is really interesting, when she says that she’s darkskinned, but not black; just like the Cape Verdans that say they are not black. It highlights how race is less a fixed identity but more an identity that is mixed up in social ecology and steeped with social meaning. Same thing with color – being lighter obviously isn’t “prettier” by any objective standard, but the social meaning associated with whiteness is what makes it so. I thought the part (you may not have gotten to it) where the girls were talking about how a dark skinned girl had to always “have it together” to overcome her darkness also implicated whiteness, in that perhaps by signalling higher social status in her clothing, or always having her hair and nails done, she could somehow compensate for the stigma of her blackness. I encourage to watch the rest – they don’t always make sense, but they say a lot of things that I think many adults feel and think that we won’t say as bluntly and unfiltered.

      On my daughter – one thing I forgot to write about is the fact that we don’t live around a lot of black people, which lessens my opportunities to talk about the beauty of other black people. I have to do it in very intentional ways, through books mostly. I suppose it makes my discussions of race and prejudice very concrete – she won’t think I’m just saying every little girl is beautiful – I’m always referencing how beautiful her brown skin is – but it’s hard when you don’t have real people to talk about. Even amongst our few black friends – and I wonder what this means, or says – we don’t have many dark-skinned friends. Hmmm.

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      1. That first girl seemed the least credible of all. I’m not saying these kids are not bluntly saying what a lot of us have operating in the background of our minds, or that they’re not illustrating interesting things about this concept we’ve made up called “race,” but it is also seemed to clear to me that they were playing up for the camera. That first girl, in particular, really thought she was being funny; it was clear to me that she was acting up for her friend, or whoever was off camera. The crack about toshibas and macs? really? Same thing with the 2nd guy, who talked so negatively about dark-skinned girls, but then said that Cape Verdans were backward for not wanting to be with other black people. huh? I just couldn’t finish it; it wasn’t interesting, or fun, or instructive. It was just teenagers acting stupid about race in the ways that teenagers often do act about everything, but don’t when the context is more serious. But hey, that’s just my opinion…

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      2. This reminds me a little bit of the doll tests that are done with young children, the meaning that is taken from it, and the meaning the tests actually have. Watching the tests depress me, although I am reminded that they don’t actually mean that the children have internalized negative beliefs about black inferiority, and that it only means that children are smart enough to have picked up on the meaning that the rest of the world has placed on blackness, and black stigma. I am also reminded that to automatically conclude from the tests that all young black children believe themselves to be inferior is to buy into cultural deficit models of black people that are not justified.

        I had the same thoughts about this video. They tell us that the kids know what to say if the point is to illustrate negative bias about dark-skinned people, although I am left feeling that they don’t really believe it. When I watched “A Girl Like Me,” those girls were being earnest as they talked about their perceptions of colorism. This kids are not being earnest; they’re being entertaining. One of the guys is describing an absolute caricature when he’s talking about crust around the lips and crazy weaves. The first girl is actually trying to portray herself as something of a snob, and is saying whatever she needs to to get that portrayal right; you get the sense that if the videographer asked her to talk about the inferiority of disabled people, she’d come up with just as many outrageously offensive things to say.

        Young people have amazing insights to offer when they’re encouraged to in the right way. I don’t know about this video, and I admit I didn’t watch all of it, but I just got the sense that the kids were caught up in acting up, and weren’t actually being all that thoughtful. So, while I think this is an important issue, and that privilege from skin color is real, I don’t think this is the right video to illustrate the problem. And I’m catching myself before I wade into despair about the state of black youth and their internalized beliefs about their inferiority.

        Sorry for the 2nd post; the site wouldn’t let me edit my previous post.

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  2. It almost seems that level of skin color is now associated with socio-economic status? “Light-skinned is cocky” Is that a belief where they see light-skin as having more options economically and socially or do they believe light-skinned people think too much of themselves? If you are dark-skinned you have to be cute, dress nice, and have white teeth??? Again socio-economic, you have to be able to afford nice clothes, hair apptmts., and dental visits to ensure this outcome. What is amazing to me is that in such a diverse situation, like public school, these kids are so close-minded towards other people in their own race and other races in general. Forgive the homeschooler, but I thought the point to compulsory public education was to ensure education and socialization of people with different racial, social, and economic backgrounds, and this diverse atmosphere would foster bonds. That is clearly not what is happening.
    I was reading a book Disintegration by Eugene Robinson.. here’s a book review
    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/02/books/review/Arsenault-t.html
    His book touches on these emerging issues of how the black community is not what it used to be. These kids play this out. Cape Verdans who are black, but do not associate with “African American” people. Upper and lower middle class black people who know very few if any black people from the impoverished urban areas. From the video, these kids see that some people seem to have more than others and have more advantages, and they want to associate with those people. His assertion is that african american adults have done the same.

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  3. So if you do not live, go to school, worship or work in an impoverished area, how would you make friends in those areas? I wonder this myself because I visited family in urban areas as child, but don’t really have contact with those family members any more, so i’m worried my daughter will not have close relationships with people who are not in our socioeconomic circle – based on geography. The schools in my area are somewhat diverse, given there are low income housing opportunities, but when I attended these schools, I was STILL the only black kid in class because there were only a handful of black kids in the honors classes. I think people tend gravitate towards others that share their same background and values.

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  4. @ORJ: I don’t disagree with you, that teenagers are acting silly, but the real question is: how often are young people encouraged to be serious about these issues?? I went to an urban public school where these issues were salient, and no one ever talked to us about colorism in a serious manner. How kids talk amongst themselves about these issues is relevant. Just like how kids talk amongst themselves about sex, I do think we have to take this seriously. Peer pressure to conform to a certain way of thinking is extremely dangerous; what peers think about a subject is much more influential than what adults think. And if no one is encouraging these kids to think about these issues in a more constructive way, then how do we know that these views do not represent what they really believe, or will come to believe without a countervailing force? And we know that adults hold very contradictory views on race and color – why can we not believe tht teenagers, although they express it in crude ways, to hold the same beliefs?

    @hsn: my advisor is doing some work that shows that simple integration – putting different kids in a school together – is not real integration. kids must be engaged in classes and activities together for actual integration to take place.

    @jessica: i agree with you, although I’d push back a bit when you say that people gravitate toward others that share the same values. people across socioeconomic classes tend to share values. we all want our kids to succeed in life. we all want our kids to get a good education. we all want to live in safety. But we may not all have the same resources to achieve those goals. As a society, we’ve justified class stratification by saying that poorer people have different values that us – they don’t care about education being the main one. But that’s just not true. Tracking poorer kids in lower tracks has little to do with values, and a lot to do less preparation, lower expectations, and the like, which are directly related to class status, not values.

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    1. We’re having 2 different conversations. To the extent that we’re talking about problematic beliefs about color, I agree with you–yes, there’s a problem. And teenagers–like adults–are not given enough opportunities to explore, examine, and address those beliefs.

      But I’m also talking about what we use to inform our conversations about these issues, and outside of this blog, to inform policy on these issues. Take Brown, for instance. If we understood it then to be what it was really about–young black children did not internalize feelings of inferiority regarding being black; rather, they were reflecting what they’d observed about societal feelings regarding being black–it might have changed the outcome of the opinion. After all, internalized feelings of inferiority were a major justification for the outcome. There’s a lot of debate about whether Brown was a good decision. For those that think integration was ultimately problematic, a better understanding of what those doll tests meant would have been important.

      Similarly, I’m questioning the use of this video as a departure point for our conversation regarding colorism (is that a word?) and the privilege of having lighter skin. I think this is an important issue; I don’t think this is a good video to inform or shape our conversation about the issue.

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      1. I do suppose, however, there is something to be gathered from the very way in which the kids are acting up…

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  5. I don’t get why you are so opposed to the video if you can agree that the things they are saying are actual issues. Perhaps their delivery sucks, but is it really that hard to look past that? I mean, we don’t have to, I’m just sayin’ 🙂

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    1. LOL. It’s not just delivery. The video implicates certain issues, but doesn’t accurately present those issues. People have visceral reactions to what they’re saying, and I think that which is provoking those reactions should be more accurate. If you interviewed those students, and they all said “naw, I don’t believe that; I mean, I know lighter skin is considered better and stuff, but I don’t really hate black skin like that; I just got carried away for the camera,” would you still feel so strongly that this video tells us something instructive? That’s how I feel about the video; like the kids are acting, but not actually telling us something that can usefully shape our reaction. I’m not opposed to the video; I just don’t think it’s real. And so yes, I have a problem with people watching the video and concluding “this is terrible; our black teenagers are a hot mess, with low self-esteem, too ignorant to know that they’re putting themselves down; poor wretched black folks.” I’m not jumping on the cultural-deficit model here just yet…

      Maybe everybody else thinks they’re being genuine, but it just seems like a bad joke gone viral to me…

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      1. I would see the video differently if it was as you say it was, I suppose then we disagree on whether it is as you say it is. I think there is a lot of “truth” in their words, despite the fact that they are trying to also be funny. It reminds me of Chris Rock’s work and his distinction between black people and “niggas,” and his movie “Good Hair.” People often use humor to express their true feelings. And if I remember in that movie, there were girls that talked about how natural hair was not professional etc. Yes, they were more poised in their ignorance, but ignorant nevertheless. Again, it seems to be mostly about delivery of the same message.

        And considering that I’ve heard real people say these things and express these sentiments, considering that what they are saying do not strike me as surprising, I think the video is instructive, especially for those who think these views are no longer prevalent. It would also be somewhat disingenuous – and completely uninteresting – for there to be a video that had people saying – “yeah I know that there is colorism, but I don’t believe it myself.” SOMEONE believes it for it to continue, and we know that actual people do believe it.

        I also don’t think this shows a cultural deficit model. It doesn’t say anything about how black culture is inferior to white culture, which is how I’ve always understood the cultural deficit theory. It’s *simply* a video about colorism, not meant to say anything about “poor wretched black folks,” but to highlight a issue that is very salient in the black community. And I think it is sad that black people embrace colorism. No, we may not want other folks looking at this and shaking their heads at us, but we can’t act like our kids aren’t thinking this way.

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      2. I see it differently, but do agree with you that this is an issue in our society, and in the black community, and that there’s no use in pretending it’s not.

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  6. LaToya, really great post. Ok, maybe it wasn’t the most credible video, but it was honest and regardless…your writing was right on! The thoughts you’ve expressed here and those in the videos are really a reflection of society. Society does prefer light skin…we can see it in the advertisements, on the news and by the color of the faces in power. Great, great post! I’m going to search your blog for more topics like this. BTW, found you through My Brown Baby.

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