Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Derail ain't just a train to Egypt.... Er... or something.

I am so sick of us light-skinned black folks refusing to acknowledge our privilege.  I am sick of us light-skinned black folks derailing every discussion of how colorism bestows social advantages upon lighter skinned folks  with "Black People always tell me I'm not Black enough! Dark skinned folks have always bullied me cuz I'm light! How is that privilege??"

Here's how:  Light-skinned privilege ain't about how The Darkies treat you. It's about how Whitey does!

When anti-racist folks discuss colorism and the reality of light skinned privilege, we are talking about the relative social advantages lighter skinned minorities and individuals have over darker skinned ones in the white supremacist superstructure (ie. society).  Individual experiences of discrimination and prejudice from members of one's own community are indeed painful, damaging, alienating and deserving of censure.  But they are NOT the result of a wider system of dark-skinned superiority, rather they are a reaction to the larger oppression of White Supremacy and its ranking of  bodies.  Quite frankly, the lighter your skin, the more valuable you are/your body is in a given white supremacist framework.  The closer your phenotype to caucasian, the more privilege you are bestowed (by the same White Supremacist framework). This means you have relative amounts of privilege whether you feel you use it or not.  And it means if you have not been bestowed light skinned privilege, you are wide open for dark skinned punishment.   

This is not to say that these privileges are absolute or universally applied.  Lightness of skin is relative.  You may find yourself considered light skinned in one social context and dark in another.  But the point is that it's ultimately the conventions of White Supremacy that determine your status.  

Again this does  not mean that you don't ALSO experience racism or that the agents of White Supremacy do not draw a bright line of dermarcation between you and themselves.  But the social advantages of having fairer skin at the mainstream level are practically indisputable.

Now let's get personal.  I am pretty widely considered fair-skinned for an African-American in most social contexts.  While I have recognizably african features ("typical" sub-saharan hair, nose, and lips) for the most part, my skin fairness sets me apart from most other african-americans with similar features.  Because of this I grew up hearing from other african-americans in my community how "pretty" my skin was, how "lucky" I was to be light-skinned, and constantly being asked what I was "mixed" with.  

I found it creepy and fetishizing (although it took me well into my adulthood to learn what fetishizing meant). I found it uncomfortable and alienating for people who were otherwise my social and racial peers to be so congratulatory and protective over me, based on something I had absolutely nothing to do with, was merely born with.

I also, secretly, found it flattering and pleasant to have so many people be so congratulatory and protective over me, based on something I had absolutely nothing to do with, was merely born with.  As much as I may have disagreed or failed to understand why my fairness was such a big deal, I clearly understood that having skin like mine was considered favorable. That it gave me some sort of minor status over other darker black folks that they clearly coveted.  And, as shameful as it is to say, it made me feel good.

However, I soon learned firsthand that light skinnedness was both ranked and relative.  My father's second wife was a white woman.  They produced two daughters together who to this day can easily pass for white (although they are adamant about choosing not to do so) and are regularly taken for white (until they speak up!).  Next to them I am the dark one in the family.  And whereas my fellow black peeps were  curious about my racial admixture, I soon found they were downright starstruck as to my sisters' blond and redhaired (respectively) existence.  I had never experienced so many ooo's and aaaa's as when I was finally old enough to take the girls along with me to the grocery store (I am quite a bit older than my sisters).  People stopped and openly stared at us. Staring at the little white girls playing in my grocery cart and then at me, puzzling and pointing. White customers pretended not to notice the tall, skinny clearly black BOY pushing them around the store.  So much Side eye!!  (Alas Gender and Race and Cissexism all conspiring to ruin my day).  I mean I knew they looked white, and I had often marvelled myself that two such clearly white bodies could come from anything black like my family. But daaaamn. This was some intense scrutiny.  I could see the shock and alarm gears turning in the whitefolks minds... (What is this black boy to these little white girls? Should we be calling the police?) 

I began to feel really unsafe.  I tried not to make eye contact with anyone while also trying to stay aware of the number of people following us and where the exits were.   Black customers were a bit more demonstrative.  "Are they mixed?  Are they mixed??  No they've got to be white!"  Asking me but not really waiting for my answer so much as making an excuse to to touch their hair, perhaps to figure it out for themselves somehow.   "Excuse me, child. Are you babysitting or is these your cousins or somethin?" one older black woman said, reaching into the cart to touch/examine their long braids. Never looking at me nor asking permission to touch. "These my sisters," I explained meekly, intimidated by the growing crowd of onlookers and the brazenness of the touchy feely types.  I'd already had plenty of experience with harassment at this point, but this time, my gender presentation wasn't the star of the show. 

The lady snapped her focus to me, accusingly. "Your sisters?" She harrumphed, like I had told an obvious lie. " Then how do they got blonde hair?"  She demanded, still running her fingers over their long flaxen braids like an appraising jeweler.  The girls giggled and pushed each other and seemed not to notice the extra attention.  The strange woman's hostility emboldened me to take control over the growing spectacle.  "Because THEIR MAMA got blond hair, that's why! Excuse me."  I pushed the cart forward, forcing her to step aside.  I heard her mumble something under her breath about white women and "it figures" and whatnot but I was determined to book and run. I searched for a quieter corner of the store to get my bearings.

Every awkward creepy racial thing I'd ever thought I'd been thru with my cafe au lait complexion I had just seen multiplied tenfold with them.  Suddenly I understood that there was an inevitable difference between the space I occupied in the world and the space my sisters would occupy as they grew up.  For I had never felt so black as that day; the fanfare of their perceived littlewhitegirlness against the social "threat" of my perceived blackteenagedboyness had ripped open a new reality for me altogether.

Perhaps not surprisingly this particular incident increased my gender dysphoria astronomically (and I didn't even think it was possible to be more miserable than I was).  Usually when I was out alone in public the emphasis was always on my gender presentation. Look at that faggot! Is that a boy or a girl? I think it's a boy, but it walks like a girl...etc...  I refused to "butch" things up even for my own safety. I didn't wish to contribute to the mass delusion that I was willingly or naturally male whatsoever.  I was determined to be visible to be seen.  Up until that point I had mistakenly believed I had control over how I was seen to some extent, even tho I clearly lacked the power to be seen as a girl.  But I could least make them deal with the girl in me.  But for the first time that day I wasn't just some boy acting like a girl to people.  In truth, the way I acted didn't seem to factor in to the equation at all.  For once I was being seen as a potentially dangerous BLACK TEENAGED MALE who had no business hanging around two little white girls.  MAN did that hurt!  That I might be considered a danger to my own sisters??  That they couldn't possibly be my blood because look at me and look at them?  Because my race combined with my (assigned) gender somehow marked me as a threat to their innocence.. and that's ALL it took to transform me into a criminal!!??

Wow. I hadn't realized how deep the intersections of my race and gender status ran there til I wrote all this out.  But I'm in danger of digressing from my original point.

My point is and was:  colorism and light skinned privilege are REAL, folks.  And tho it may be relative to the social context,  and tho it may bring us just as many personal heartaches as it does professional hands up, even tho it does NOT spare us from the savageries of Racism, it is foolish not to acknowledge this dynamic in a society that blatantly values ever lighter skin.

 Now let me end this post and go back and reflect on everything I just said, because even still, I frequently forget my privilege and conveniently ignore my own advice.

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